If you have had a keen eye on non-league in recent times, you will have noticed Altrincham emerging as one of the most upwardly-mobile outfits outside the EFL. For the club with a famous FA Cup giant-killing heritage, it is all in stark contrast from where they were this time three years ago

With a clear grasp of what constitutes a progressive ethos – from playing style to finely-tuned club communications – the arrival of manager Phil Parkinson has seen Alty storm right back from successive relegations in 2016 and 2017. For the second season in a row, the Robins have been knocking on the door of the National League, and though a saddening halt has been put on the game, their ambitions continue to burn brightly.

Alongside fellow board member Bill Waterson, Lawrence Looney will step up to replace current chairman Grahame Rowley when next season finally comes around. Just over two years since his arrival, he speaks here about the club’s progression, given a further lift by their recently-announced stadium redevelopment and expansion plans (in partnership with Define Architects), to take place over the next ten years.

 

The club has made a great deal of headway in recent times and has also alluded to EFL ambitions. During this pandemic, though, how much is just about trying to protect the club? How ‘prepared’ were Altrincham for this most unexpected of situations?

I think the focus at the moment is nearly 100 percent on protecting the club and ensuring that we do get through this difficult time. Where we have an advantage is some of the work we’ve done over the last couple of years; we’ve nearly built up a ‘war chest’ for situations like this. Therefore, when this has arisen, which no one could foresee, we haven’t had the panic, because we know that we’ve got some funding available to support us through this crisis or any other that may have hit us. So, for the foreseeable future, we’re actually in a good position. Some of the funding that we’ve received from the very generous donations from our fans I think is one of the biggest at our level; we’ve just hit £22,000 in donations, and with other activity, we’re probably on around £28,000. That’s certainly made a huge difference in terms of getting through this difficult period, as well as some of the funding that we’ve been able to get from the government scheme, and a grant that we’ve been able to secure has put us in the best position we could possibly be in at this time, but obviously our focus is how long this goes on for. Therefore, we’re making sure that we’re in a good position to manage this if it goes on for three, six, nine months.

With regard to the stadium plans, firstly, what was the driver behind the club identifying that as an objective?

Our ambition is to get initially into the National League, and hopefully into the EFL. In order to do so, we need to go full-time at some point. When you look at the income that we bring in today, and the income that we would need to bring in to go full-time, there’s still quite a significant gap. So one of the areas we feel we need, from a long-term point of view, is to build a stadium which becomes a stadium for the community, and brings us in a number of different revenue streams. When they start coming in, that will give us a longer-term income, and therefore bridge that gap to getting us to full-time. It’s a longer-term plan than we wanted it to be, but we very much felt that we needed to improve the income streams, and the one that we felt would give us the biggest opportunity over the next five to ten years was to build a stadium that could be used for the community.

You have outlined smaller-scale refurbishments in the short-term (including the sponsors’ lounge and areas for players/officials), with the idea of these setting the tone for further renovation. Is it a case of ‘here is what we’d like to do over the next ten years, and how much of that we actually get to action depends on how the club is progressing overall’?

Yes, spot on really. The kind of key part that we’re focusing on now is actually starting to get an understanding of what that would cost. We did the small plan, so we’re doing some work on that, and hopefully the next few months we’ll be able to start bringing back an actual view of the total cost if we built it exactly as we’ve designed it. The next stage then would be to very much break those down into, year on year, the kind of income we’d need to be able to hit to reach part of the build that we want to achieve. The focus really is to start and build where we can see some clear revenue opportunities. Once they start delivering, that money will then be put back into the next part of the build. There are also a number of grants available to us over the next few years, so we’ll be using those as well. The momentum is to get it started. Once we actually start building it, in some ways, it potentially becomes easier, because the revenue streams that we get from the parts that we build will actually help fund the future parts.

Transforming the ground to a ‘new destination within the town’, what could that mean in practice?

We’ve still got ambition to do the first part of the build this summer, depending on the lockdown, and that’s going to come from investment in extra shares being purchased by the board, and we’ve got a couple of new investors coming on board. The first part of it will be the sponsors’ lounge, so we’re going to take that to a high-level function room. We see that being able to be used for a number of different events, from your high-end corporate events, to someone who’s maybe wanting a special birthday party, to how we use it on a Saturday. We see it being a destination definitely for functions, definitely for bringing children to the stadium, and potentially for the stadium to be used for other things, like concerts, once we start delivering on the phases. So, really a destination that can be used for multi-function events, outdoor events, and anything that the community really feel they could use it for. I think there’ll be many different types of events that will go on there in the coming years.

You had been chief executive at Lancaster City, but prior to joining the Altrincham board a couple of seasons ago, had you any previous link to the club, or were you coming in completely fresh?

Yeah, completely fresh. I did actually have a look at the charity part of the club, because we were looking to do something similar at Lancaster. When I left Lancaster, I came and spent some time at Altrincham. The club had two difficult seasons prior to me coming in, and they really wanted to build a strategy that would obviously get them back into the National League, but ultimately, give them a much longer-term focus around the stadium, getting towards full-time, and really getting into that ambition of reaching the EFL. So, no previous links, but from the commuting point of view from the Isle of Man – obviously not right now – the route into Manchester is a very easy one for me. I can be on the 10 past 7 plane out of the Isle of Man, and if everything goes my way I can be at the stadium around 20 past 8. So although it feels like ‘living in the Isle of Man, how do you manage with Altrincham?’, when I go across for the day, I get a very good day there. It works very well for me from a commuting point of view, which is one of the other reasons I thought I could make it work.

Although Grahame Rowley is to stay on during the current wider uncertainty, when you and Bill Waterson step up to take joint-chairmanship, what will that change about your current role?

Not an awful lot. We’ve got a very strong board, and my role on the board has very much been around the strategy and vision, and giving us something to build towards, as well as bringing our fans with us on that journey as well. I think it will just be more that, to be honest. One of the other areas I’m keen to look at is when there’s opportunities to bring investment into the club. If we could get more investment, we could increase the focus especially on the stadium build, and potentially bring it in earlier. I think with what we’ve done with the stadium plan, with the academy, how Phil’s driving the club forward on the pitch, I think it’s a good time to invest in us. That’s definitely something I’ll be out pushing and marketing.

Altrincham are obviously a reputable and historic name in non-league football. What have you learned about the people since you got involved with the club? What matters to them, and what is unique even about the club and the area?

I think the key one for me has been the fans. They’re very passionate about the football club but they really enjoy seeing good, exciting football being played. They’re very passionate about making sure the club go forward, so I’ve spent a lot of time with the fans the last couple of years and they’ve been exceptionally good to me. They’ve helped me with feedback and really getting an understanding of the history of the club, and really giving me a clear kind of steer on where they feel it should go. Then I think just a little bit wider of that, it’s such a nice community. We do have a lot of dedicated fans but we also have a number of people who come and support when they can. The other bit I think I’ve learned very recently is how supported they are, and if you look at the donations, as I said before, £22,000 in donations in a very difficult time really has surprised me. We didn’t think we’d get near that figure, but it’s really let us understand even more about how important this football club is to the fans and the community.

There’s so many neighbouring clubs competing for that support and interest. How much of a challenge is it to compete in that sense, and what can you offer people that can set you apart?

Yeah, I think it’s a lot more difficult in the area that we’re in, and the same for the other clubs. I think the kind of selling point for us is we really want to offer a matchday experience, so part of the ground changes is very much to offer a full-day experience, and an experience for all. If you’re a child and you come along, you have a good day out, or if you’ve been a fan for 40 years; our strategy for the stadium is all built around accommodating for many in the community. We did have someone who’s looking at some branding for us, who came along to what was I think the last game we played, I spent some time with him this week and he gave me such good feedback. He came early, he spent the whole day there, he watched the rugby afterwards, and he just couldn’t believe the difference compared to going to his Championship club in terms of day out. The matchday experience is absolutely what we want to give our fans.

In terms of moving towards being full-time, how much can you plan something like that out? Is it ‘we get back into the National League and we can go full-time’, or does the revenue need to reach a specific target before it can be done?

It’s the revenue, without doubt. Getting into the National League brings a little bit more central funding, but what comes with it is a lot more travel, and our gates wouldn’t go up too much from away fans, potentially. So the driver has to be to hit the revenue target. We kind of understand the number we feel we need to be bringing in on an annual basis to go full-time. We understand where we are now and we’ve got clear steps that get us to that figure, but we would not go full-time until we can make sure we can achieve that, and not just in terms of someone coming along and funding that for one year. That’s not our strategy. Our strategy is very much to bring in revenue that will come year in, year out, and therefore, when we make the move, we do it in a fashion that doesn’t mean in two years we need to go back to part-time. Phil is eager to go full-time, and I absolutely love his ambition. I think that we’ve got the best management team in the league, but he also is aware that we need to do it in the right way, and he’s fully behind that.

Being in the Northern Premier two years ago, to almost going straight back into the National League last May, as great as that would have been, did having another season in the National League North this time around help the club to just keep progressing steadily? Could there have been more of a struggle had you gone up in 2019?

Yeah, it’s a difficult one, because at the end of the day, we’re all fans, and we’d love to be in the National League. Personally, I think it would have come maybe a little bit too soon last year. I think it’s enabled us to continue to build our strategy, whilst also doing very well on the pitch. This league enabled us in some ways to build up our revenues, and I think our fans have enjoyed a couple of years of playing exceptionally good football, winning the majority of our games. If you look at our crowds from two years ago to now, it’s gone up significantly, and that’s because people are coming along, enjoying the football, enjoying the day out. I think if you’re winning and enjoying good football, I don’t think the fans are as concerned what league they’re in, but we all want to get back to that National League. I think an extra season, in hindsight, has probably been good for us, but our ambition is to get out of this league as quick as possible and get ultimately back to where we feel we belong.

Finally, reflecting on these two years since you came in, how much of what you wanted to implement has been possible so far? Satisfactions and frustrations, if you like.

I think the first thing that’s important is you respect the people and the culture that the football club’s got, so from that point of view, my plan was always for the first 6-9 months to kind of learn and listen, get to know the club, get to know the people. So that’s gone extremely well. The second part was very much building a strategy and an exciting one for the future of the club. If you’ve seen the reaction to the recent stadium plans, people think it’s very ambitious, and so do we, but we’re giving the club a vision. Our aim now is to go after that vision and achieve it. I think from all of that, everything has gone to plan, and in some ways, we’ve probably moved a bit quicker than I thought we would. From a revenue point of view, we’re doing exceptionally well. I suppose the biggest frustration is the situation we’re in right now, but it clearly can’t be helped. Our ambition was very much to win the league, but also to do well in the cups with regard to revenue, and get back into the play-offs, so this situation is very frustrating, and that first couple of weeks when we realised we weren’t probably gonna play again this season was a very tough time. I think when you balance that off against people being ill, and if you look at the NHS right now, they’re clearly the heroes, and we need to do what’s right for the country and just make sure that when we’re ready to go back to football we give our fans the same type of football we’ve been giving them the last couple of years, but we’ll take our time. Hopefully we’ll all enjoy football again quite soon.

Interview by @chris_brookes

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