Stephen Cleeve: So what happened to my King's Lynn Town dream?

Stephen Cleeve is the new owner of King's Lynn Town Football Club. Picture: Ian Burt

Stephen Cleeve - back in 2016 when he took over King's Lynn Town - Credit: Ian Burt

Now that we are ending my sixth season as custodian of King’s Lynn Town I thought (after a helpful nudge from the head honcho at Archant, AKA Chris Lakey), that it was worth reflecting on my ambition of delivering the club into the promised land of league football.

Clearly, given our position, it will be a huge achievement if we retain our status in the National League this season, although we will give it our all, and stranger things have happened in the mad world of football. Behind the scenes we all believe that we have the players to keep us in the division.

When I took over before the start of the 2016/17 season there were 14 ex-league clubs in the National League (I am including those that have dissolved and reformed in that number) and today (if my calculations are correct) there are 13 ex-league teams. However, if Southend and Grimsby are not promoted this year, then the total rises to 15 next season, with the probable arrival of Scunthorpe United and either Oldham Athletic, Stevenage or Barrow. This season we are also playing with one less team than the 2016/17 season, so the numbers are broadly similar.

Using the 2016/17 season as a benchmark, two clubs - North Ferriby and Macclesfield (although both have reformed) - have disappeared, five clubs now play in the Football League, seven clubs have been relegated (eight if you include Dover’s relegation this season) and 10 are still there. Lincoln won the league that year with a whopping 99 points and even if Stockport, who will surely win the league this season, win their remaining 10 fixtures, they cannot match Lincoln’s points tally.

What has changed, though, is the size of the clubs now in the National League. I accept that Tranmere are a big club, but are they as big as Notts County, Chesterfield and Grimsby? If Oldham do plummet through the trap door this season, it is worth noting that they were in the Premier League in its inaugural season.

Meadow Lane, home of Notts County - Credit: Ian Burt

Meadow Lane, home of Notts County - too big for the National League? - Credit: Ian Burt

Putting the sizes of the clubs to one side, the biggest shift has been the money going into this level of the sport. In 2016, there were no Hollywood A listers that owned clubs. Chesterfield were delighted when two local businessmen donated a million pounds just this week and that is after a lucrative FA Cup run this season, including playing Chelsea, a huge insurance pay-out and massive gates for every home fixture.

Stockport’s owner Mark Stott is Pep Guardiola’s landlord, Solihull Moors main shareholder Darryl Eales used to own Oxford United, Barnet’s owner Tony Kleanthous often appears in published Rich lists with a local magazine estimating his net worth at around £130m and the Danish football brothers who own Notts County, Chris and Alexander Reetz, also own the data company Football Radar. I could go on, but I think that you get the point.

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This week a National League club loaned a player from another club in our league and paid a £60,000 loan fee (excluding wages) – I assume for just two months of football, so there is no question that it is a huge mountain that needs scaling for any club without deep pockets.

I have covered what went wrong this season in previous articles, but, to summarise, the recruitment was not good enough; crowds have been financially disastrous and Covid still has questions to answer for, as there are some fans who I rate in the dedicated category that I have not seen in the ground for many months. One I spoke with on the phone recently is concerned that if he gets the virus, he could give it to his wife who is not in the best of health. So, there are mitigating factors. When we were winning everyone came and sang and now life is not so good, we are left with the truest of fans to make twice the noise and raise the team - to these guys I raise my cap.

So, is the dream still achievable and it really is a big question to answer?

There is no doubt that doing it today is far harder than it would have been in 2016, but, having said that, if we recruited well and had all our ducks in a row then I do believe we could make the play-offs and then in a one-off game with the pressure that it brings to everyone, anything could happen. Last season Sutton United and Hartlepool were promoted, and I am certain that the budgets that they had at their disposal were dwarfed by many of the teams around them.

Whilst I accept the odds of us ever achieving promotion are very much in the bookies' favour (unless the Football League creates a fourth league or splits League Two into Northern and Southern leagues), if the miracle was to happen, then I could see us doing well in League Two and we could comfortably become a League One club with time. The problem is, of course, getting there in the first place.

There is only so much that I can do and for us to have a chance local businesses need to get behind the club. As an example, Tonbridge Angels raised £600,000 in non-securitised loans from local companies in a couple of weeks, mainly in £20,000 chunks, so that they can develop an income stream from a 3G pitch. One man gave the Kent-based team £250,000. It is a model that we are looking at to see if we can replicate the concept and Tonbridge have been very helpful in sharing their ideas and data with me, but would local companies be able to support us?

The fans that vote with their feet and are not there in our time of need make life even harder for the club. When budgets are discussed at the start of the season, I assumed that we would achieve crowds which were similar to our last season in the National League North for most fixtures, with some games boosted by large away followings. By missing these targets, it leaves the club in a worse state and brings questions as to what we should budget for next season? 

Those buying tickets on-line today generate themselves a free ticket if they have purchased a lottery ticket. It is the ideal time to use that ticket to bring along a friend who perhaps has never seen a live game at The Walks and introduce them to the world of non-league football against another ex-league club that we meet today in the shape of FC Halifax Town. I hope that those using the free tickets enter into the spirit of things rather than just doubling up with a friend which results in the club having even less revenue. I would be very grateful if everyone could bring along a new fan to the game today and with the ticket being free it would be a great time to do it.

In essence our chance of progression lies with the fans and local businesses; they have the power to decide our fate. If we all pull in the right direction then who knows where we end up? If the local support fails to materialise, the club simply will not be able to afford to compete against the big boys. If we all do our bit there is every chance that the dream could still be on, but sadly it will not be happening this season whatever we do!