My Football League dream: New owner Stephen Cleeve is thinking big after buying King’s Lynn Town
New owner Stephen Cleeve insists he is the man to help catapult King's Lynn Town into the big time.
The businessman became the second owner of the reformed semi-professional Linnets after finally tempting speedway chief Buster Chapman into selling up. And Cleeve didn't hold back when he mapped out his vision for Norfolk's second biggest club on an historic day at The Walks.
'I think the club should be playing League football,' said the man whose Southern League Premier Division club will need three promotions to reach League Two.
'It's not going to be easy to get there. But that's the ambition, you've got to have an ambition and a plan, and that's what we'd like to do. People might say 'why would you get involved with a club that's three steps below the Football League?' But that's the whole point.
'You can fashion it the way you want to fashion it, bring it up into the League, and there would be a sense of real achievement from my perspective if I could be part of a team that brings the club into the League. It would be a great feeling to be a part of that.
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'I haven't set a timespan because I think when you do that you can get shot down in flames, like AC/DC once sang, so I'm not going to do that. My aim is step by step. Let's get into the play-offs next season.
'That would be my main aim. If we can do that let's see where we go from there.'
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The Linnets have achieved two promotions since Chapman was awarded the 25-year lease on the council-owned Walks stadium to reform the Linnets in January 2010.
Huge improvements were immediately made to the ground and Lynn soon matched that progress on the pitch by moving up to Step Three of the non-league ladder.
That rise has slowed slightly as Gary Setchell's side prepare for a fourth season at that level but Cleeve is determined to get things moving again.
'I wouldn't say it's my era. I can't influence what happens on the pitch I can only help to influence what happens off it,' said the owner of The George Hotel in Cley and football memorabilia website Collect Soccer.Com.
'But it's exciting. I wouldn't be here if there wasn't any potential and I think there's a lot of interest in King's Lynn. I think there's a lot of people that would like to see this team do well. My aim is to put a loving arm around them and entice them back into the stadium.'
Chapman is in no doubt that his replacement can take the Linnets to new heights.
The outgoing owner said: 'I believe he can take the club into League football. I never had the drive, passion or commitment to do that.
'I always said my commitment was to put the club on an even keel and in my view we've done a good job of that. I'm sure Steve will continue that.'
Man with the smile who is looking to rebuild bridges
'I've been hassling Buster most weeks,' grinned Stephen Cleeve – who is perhaps still smiling this morning.
It's no surprise given that yesterday he was announced as the second owner in the six-year history of reformed non-league club King's Lynn Town. For the past 36 months he's been desperately trying to convince Buster Chapman to sell the Linnets. And now that patience has finally paid off.
It is believed to have cost him £250,000 to buy Town. But even that huge figure failed to wipe the smile off the new owner's face as he was presented to the waiting media.
'He's been a hard guy to convince to sell the club but finally he's relented,' said Cleeve.
'He came into the club when it was on its knees. I know he's had some stick – and probably unfairly in some ways – but I've always said people shouldn't buy their own football clubs. The fact he hasn't got a football passion may have been a good thing. He could look at things without too much emotion and has been able to put the club on an even keel. That is testament to what he's done.
'Football is my passion. I can't hide that I'm a Chelsea fan. I went to my first game in 1977 and I've been hooked ever since. I've found that the Premier League has lost its soul recently. I love watching it but I want to get more involved with grassroots football, the community and youth teams. I get great pleasure in seeing youth players coming through the ranks and going somewhere.'
He takes over a Southern League Premier Division semi-professional operation that sits three promotions outside of the Football League. Their stadium is as good as any at their level of the English pyramid so the biggest problem is now trying to fill more of it. Dwindling gates have made Chapman's desire for financial stability more challenging in the past 12 months and Cleeve is hopeful he won't have the same problem.
'We've got to get more people into the stadium,' said the new man – who was involved in an unsuccessful bid to purchase Wrexham in 2011 – at the helm.
'It holds thousands and it would be nice for the place to be full. I know that's going to be a big ask but let's try and get them in. I can't comment on whether people stayed away because of Buster – I hope that's not the case because if it is that's a shame – but if there are bridges out there that need mending, let's mend them. Let's talk to everyone, make the club the centre of the community, and try and get people back into the stadium. We seem to have the makings of a very good team so why not come and watch football here? It's a good day out, it's not too expensive, under-11s are free and we'll continue that as it's a good idea.'
The first port of call may be a meeting with the Blue & Gold Trust – a supporters' group who lost out to Chapman during the bidding process to take over the running of Town when it rose from Lynn's ashes in 2010.
Cleeve added: 'I don't know much about these trusts, but I know of the Blue & Gold. I know there's two supporters' groups at Lynn and frankly that seems a bit funny. Why not have one official supporters' club? Whether that consists of both that's maybe an interesting question to be asked. I need to sit down with them, I want to sit down with them, and I want to find out what their problems are, their issues are, and how we can resolve them.'