……….ColU are atrocious. Ok, so it's been done before. But a win for the smallest club left in the F.A. Cup might send the Sunday newspaper headline writers into a similar frenzy this weekend.
Swindon Supermarine F.C. is a community, fan run club, still in its infancy, yet it nearly didn’t start this season. Established in 1992 following a merger between two local clubs, Supermarine F.C. and Swindon Athletic F.C., both of which were struggling financially, they took Athletic's place in the Hellenic League Premier Division. After winning the Hellenic League championship in 1996-97, they missed out on promotion due to ground requirements. Although a second championship success in 2000–01 saw them accepted into the Southern League.
The step up was tough and it was a difficult first few seasons, but reaching 2 successive play offs culminated in promotion to the Southern League Premier Division in 2006–07, which is where they find themselves now. In a season of firsts they have reached the first round of the FA Cup for the first time, setting a new record attendance en route, and on Saturday they travel to the Weston Homes Community Stadium for a Second Round tie against Colchester United.
Leigh Moore and his family have been involved with the club for all of his 23 years. His parents took over the running of the club in 1987, until his father stood down in the summer.
“The club has been run by a small group of supporters for 20 years and that is continuing again now with additional new faces and whilst there continues to be a reliance on such a small number of people the club future is always very uncertain. Actually the way the club is run hasn’t changed, it has always been run by fans and not ‘owned’ by anyone. It is a membership based organisation and all of the previous members are still involved, it just has different people around the committee table. The ground is owned by a limited company made up of the local business men and previous committee members.
The difference now is that the supporters on the committee now are linked to the club through family connections, with sons and grandsons playing in the team which I’m sure will have its own challenges and benefits.”
Despite establishing themselves in the Zamaretto (Southern) Premier League, things were tough and over the Summer a cash injection was required to keep the club going and there was a clear requirement to be vocal about the need for support.
“When you look at some other non-league clubs they are operating with huge debts. The club were just not prepared to go into another season without the assurances that at least a proportion of the money needed to run the team would be there.”
“This cup run has meant that the immediate need to go and find that extra income has been eased but the club are still working hard to secure sponsorship which will help with long term financial sustainability.”
“The new committee members worked very hard over the summer to bring in a few new sponsors, including the naming of the webs Wood Stadium, and this coupled with the cup run means they all have smiles on their faces and quite rightly so.”
With £6,750 of TV money and half the gate receipts from Saturday's game added to the increased attendances in earlier rounds there has been a significant financial boost to the club. A club record 1,159 saw the first round tie against Eastwood Town. Unfortunately, the cup run support hasn’t yet been converted into an increase in league attendance figures, with average attendances down from 181 last year to 146 this is the bread and butter of financial survival.
With a league fixture backlog before the winter there is a danger that clubs find themselves 6 or 7 games behind which results on 2/3 games a week, which is a tough ask for any club at any level. It also impacts on crowd levels which hits even harder in non-league as Leigh explains; "Last season we lost 9 Saturday games to bad weather all of which got rearranged to midweek’s, which represented a huge loss of revenue yet the costs and wages still have to be paid." The loss to Lowestoft in the F.A. Trophy last week, however disappointing, may ease that burden.
With such low crowds, the committee has to be innovative in how they market the club, both to local business and the potential fan base. Being close to the M4 Swindon is an easy commute to many towns and cities with Championship or Premier league clubs that makes attracting support difficult. Notwithstanding the fact that the area is also a hot bed of Rugby.
Initiatives have included a £5 ticket offer for season ticket holders of Premier League of League clubs and working up a close relationship with their football league neighbours. That means it's a relationship built on respect, more than a rivalry with Swindon Town F.C. and that first round record crowd was almost certainly boosted by a number of Town fans.
“In the past the club has benefited from some major sponsorship deals from one or two individuals who have been friends of the club and have wanted to help out. Due to the place we as a country find ourselves economically, these type of sponsorship deals at this level will probably never be replicated.”
“What it has meant is that the club has had to look for as many sponsors as possible but in much smaller amounts. We have to look at the ground and the club as a formula one car, if there is a space it can be sponsored.” A visit to the club website confirms this is the case with a wall of sponsors’ ads greeting you, prior to entering the club site.
“The small hardcore of supporters have also been great with things such as pound a point, sponsor a seat, weekly match predictor and all these little things add up.”
As do the numbers travelling to Colchester, expected to be more than double their league average gate. “When we got through people were talking about 500+ but I think for a club of our size 250+ would be a fantastic achievement. However many we take I’m sure we will make lots of noise and enjoy the day.”
Leigh is the man behind the SupermarineFC twitter account of which I am now one of 395 followers. He describes social media as "ideal for getting people to talk about the club even if they don’t pay to walk through the gate. Creating an awareness of the club both in and outside of Swindon is important and it is definitely putting us on the map more nationally." This has included getting good luck messages retweeted by both TV presenter Gabby Logan and Bolton's Kevin Davies.
With main match highlights on ITV on Saturday night that exposure will continue to reach a much wider audience and an upset might even put them in the running for the F.A.'s new Ronnie Radford trophy. If however Colchester succeed, as most would expect, this cup run will have left Swindon Supermarine with a much stronger base to move forward, both financially and in terms of big match experience. Hopefully, this will help them grow and progress up the non-league pyramid.
As Leigh says; “From a fan’s perspective our objective over the next 5 years must be to continue to strive for financial sustainability and improve the support base. The club has grown rapidly in the last 15 years and has reached a level now where there is a need for it to become more and more professional. A big part of that will be having a fan base that truly warrants a club at this level of football”.
I for one wish them all the best in achieving it. If hard work, endeavour and initiative are rewarded they surely will.