Stephen Cleeve: Feeling of relief, sadness and pride before Linnets’ big kick-off

Lynn's chairman Stephen Cleeve. Picture: Ian Burt

Lynn's chairman Stephen Cleeve. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Archant

Welcome to our new columnist! Stephen Cleeve, owner of King’s Lynn Town, will write for us ahead of every weekend home game. His debut appearance comes on the eve of a momentous day

It was back in 2016 that I bought King’s Lynn Town Football Club – in some ways it feels like I have been here for decades!

But now, as the season begins, I guess I am 90pc relieved that we got there and I am over the moon for the fans and the town that we have actually achieved something that has been elusive for the club for so many years.

It is a great honour to be playing at the highest level of non-league football. It is great we have managed to put the club on the map again, where it deserves to be, and I am just pleased for everyone concerned – the players, the manager and all his staff. It is not the end of the journey, but hopefully it is the start of a new journey that we want to continue.

Of course, there are not going to be fans in the ground, but there will be a presence. A fan contacted me and asked if he could put his flag up inside the ground and I thought, yes, let’s open up the ground and let them in, so that is what we did and it means at least a part of our support will be there in spirit with us.

Whenever I think about the fans not being here, it upsets me, it doesn’t get any better. One of the reasons Chris Henderson gave when he left was that he wanted to play in front of 6,000 fans at Notts County and big crowds at The Walks, but that has been taken away from him. That is the draw to be part of it. Players get a lot of encouragement off the fans and it moves them on, especially at times in a game when they perhaps start to lose a bit of energy and sag a little bit – you play two games in a week and you have a few games on the trot etc, you need the fans to help you out and that is not going to happen.

And also there is the historic side of it – we want the fans to be there as part of it. We have done all we can do. We want people to still be part of the club and we need to engage with them as much as we can. That is why we have produced a programme. It isn’t so much a money-making exercise, but we have also done it to engage with the fans so they can get as much of the match experience as we can give them.

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Really, you just feel so helpless – and people know how ridiculous the situation is. Next Tuesday night we are allowed 600 fans in for the FA Youth Cup game but we are not allowed anyone for the opening game of our National League season. It doesn’t make any sense, there is no logic to it and that makes it harder to swallow.

But it is what it is and there is nothing we can do about it – we just have to get through it and lobby for the return of fans as soon as is humanly possible.

I would happily have accepted being allowed 1,000 fans inside the ground. We would have had to put prices up, but not massively. We would have let season tickets holders in for what they paid for, and we would just have increased it a little bit for the rest with a one-price ticket to get in, although it wouldn’t have been as good financially, of course. I think we would have had a crowd of 3,000 for this game against Yeovil – they would have brought 300 and King’s Lynn fans would have put 2,700 on the gate. So, clearly you would have had one third of the attendance and you couldn’t charge triple the price. But it would have been a help had we got them in, not just financially, but to be part of it and have a little bit of noise about the place. As I was saying to someone the other day, the fans make it - the smell of the burgers and the onions, it is all part of the theatre of football, the experience of it, watching things happen, laughing - it has been taken away from us and it has become soulless. It is a fan-driven game at this level and we want it to remain that way and it is just wrong they are not allowed to take part.

Fortunately, we are live on BT Sport and national exposure for King’s Lynn doesn’t come around very often. I don’t know of a league game that was televised live from here. In the nicest possible way I am tired of hearing about the FA Cup game against Oldham 14 years ago – we have got to create history, we can’t just have old history all the time. We can’t just look back and remember that 14 years ago we were on TV. To have our little old ground, our lovely old stadium pictured across people’s living rooms on a Saturday evening has got that bit of romance to it.

I am so pleased that is happening, but I am probably not as motivated as I should be because of the absence of fans. But I am pleased we are creating our own history, that we are putting ourselves on the map and obviously if we do well this season we will hopefully appear more than once and it will be nice if we get another chance down the road – with fans in the ground with us.

It seems a long time ago, when we kicked off last season at Guiseley. Who would have thought that we’d be here now, waiting to go live on TV?

We look over our shoulders and see some of the clubs now below us – the likes of Kettering, Hereford, York – and it shows you how far we have come as a football club. There are a lot of York Citys ahead of us this year again – so who knows where we will end up?

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