RAEBURN PLACE has been the home of Edinburgh Academicals FC – the oldest rugby club in Britain and second oldest in the world – since its inception back in 1857. It was also the venue of the first ever rugby international between Scotland and England in 1871. There are few, if any, rugby venues in the world with as significant a history as this patch of grass in the Stockbridge quarter of Edinburgh.
But the famous old ground has fallen on hard times in recent years, with the clubhouse being knocked down over a decade ago and nothing going up in its place. The rugby club has since been operating out of a smattering of portacabins and metal containers. An unworthy monument to a glorious past, and barely fit for purpose for the top flight of the Scottish club game.
Now, at last, after almost two decades of planning applications, fund raising and legal battles, work has finally begun on ambitious plans to regenerate this hallowed piece of turf into a first-class sports and recreational facility, including a museum of international rugby, which will – crucially – be “open and accessible to all and financially sustainable”.
Phase one of the development includes the building of nine retail units along the Comely Bank Road edge of the site, plus temporary changing and storage facilities for the rugby club. “This commercial element, with units let to quality tenants including Marks & Spencer Foodhall, Waterstones and Charlie Miller, has attracted funding from the Bank of Scotland,” explained the press release issued by the Raeburn Place Foundation – who are responsible for the programme of works – on Monday. It is anticipated that work on this part of the contract will be completed by the autumn of this year.
Subsequent stages will deal with permanent changing and storage facilities, function suites, kitchen area, restaurant, café, bar/lounge, corporate boxes, terraced seating for 2,500 sports spectators and the museum. Ultimately, the rugby ground will have the capacity to host 10,000 spectators via temporary seating.
“Fundraising will drive when the next phase begins, but the overarching aim is to have the whole project completed by March 2021, in time to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first ever rugby international,” explained Edinburgh Accies President Frank Spratt.
Getting to this point has been an epic journey. Back in 2000, a plan was hatched in conjunction with Festival Inns pub chain to knock-down the old clubhouse and incorporate new changing and social facilities within a hotel development along the eastern edge of the site. Planning permission was refused in 2003, then granted on appeal in 2005, but by then the economic climate had started to shift. The portacabins were installed to replace the decaying clubhouse in 2007, in time for the club’s 150th anniversary celebrations, and the following year the old building was demolished completely – just as the financial crash was hitting home.
The whole thing had to go back to planning in 2010 because five years had elapsed since the first application had been approved, but by then the writing was well and truly on the wall with Festival Inns having put their ‘non-core’ assets on the market the previous year. By early 2011, it was clear that a new plan for developing Raeburn Place was going to be required.
Adopting best practice
A fact-finding mission by Spratt south of the border in 2011 was a frightening but instructive experience.
“It was really eye-opening going to these clubs down south and seeing just how far behind we are up here, in terms of facilities and the way we were approaching things as a business,” he said. “You have to think of yourself as a business and operate as a business if you are going to survive.
“What we came up with is drawn from the best exemplars of down south. We went to see the likes of Exeter and the guys there were really open with us in explaining how they make their business work. One of the problems is when you’ve got rich benefactors running rugby clubs they are only really interested in what is happening on the field, whereas when you’ve got someone like Tony Rowe running a club he wants that business to work – that’s what is important to him.
“He [Rowe] said it took 20 years to change everything that needed to change at Exeter, and in the early days the big battle was changing the attitude of the supporters and the committee so that they saw it as a business.”
While Accies are clearly operating on a completely different bandwidth from Rowe’s Exeter Chiefs, Spratt believes they have been able to implement the lessons learned from the one club which has bucked the trend in England by being both successful on the pitch and profitable.
“We’ve split the rugby from the business side of things and got good people involved in both areas to drive us forward,” he said. “We are generating 150 per cent more turnover than we were six years ago, and that’s whilst operating out of portacabins.
“The 1st XV is back in the Premiership – which has been tough going this year largely due to extenuating circumstances – but more importantly we are healthy right through the club, fielding three XVs every Saturday, running the BATs programme in conjunction with [local regional clubs] Trinity Accies and Broughton which is growing the game amongst kids across north Edinburgh, and we have a thriving minis section.”
Adapting to a changing world
The ground is owned by The Academical Club (as in the former pupils of Edinburgh Academy school) who have agreed a 99-year lease with the Raeburn Place Foundation charity, which includes a stipulation that the rugby club has the right to play there. The development work is being carried out by Raeburn Place Development Limited, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Foundation.
“The money generated through the shop units and so on will go towards the maintenance of the ground, the upkeep of the museum once that is in place, and also towards BATs,” says Spratt. “We’re talking about a six-figure sum going into BATs, which will make a huge difference to developing rugby in north Edinburgh.
“The rugby club will have to pay a rental fee for any facilities we use, such as the clubhouse, but that’s fine because that’s how we will generate money as a club,” he adds.
There is obviously still a long way to go, and during these turbulent times – both inside Scottish rugby and at a global level – a successful outcome is not a foregone conclusion, but after years of stalling there is clearly a huge amount of relief that the diggers have finally started rolling.
“You need a business that is going to work 365 days of the year and that’s what we are looking to build here,” says Spratt. “There is a lot of hard work still to be done. We know that. We’ve still got money to raise and a business to establish, but it is great to be moving forward on the development at last.”
Life on the outside of Super 6
You would think that this is just the sort of thing which might have got the SRU’s privately appointed selection panel excited when they considered the 12 applications for the new Super 6 league being launched at the top of the club game next season – but they didn’t fancy it.
Spratt says that the club will not allow that decision to curb their ambition.
“Our vision for the future was never dependent on being part of Super 6,” he concluded. “What we are trying to do is far wider reaching than that. We’ve got a plan of what we want to do, we know how we are going to do it, and we are going to do it.”