The Blog

Building a Football Club the Right Way

I lose count of the times I hear friends of mine complain that football has lost touch with the fans, that it's all about the money these days and that the game as we know it is lost forever, replaced by an imposter who only cares about commercial return...

I lose count of the times I hear friends of mine complain that football has lost touch with the fans, that it's all about the money these days and that the game as we know it is lost forever, replaced by an imposter who only cares about commercial return.

Resistant to change? Maybe. Nostalgic about the good old days? Absolutely.

But you know what they mean - there is a lot of truth in there.

Almost every club below the very elite clubs at the top of the Premier League is struggling to find a sustainable way to run a football club. There are exceptions however.

Tadcaster is a small town in North Yorkshire more famous for beer production than football. The town's football club, Tadcaster Albion, were until recently perennial strugglers in English football's 10th tier, attracting crowds of less than 50 to most home games. When the previous owner of the football club decided to pursue other interests, the club approached a local company whose directors - brothers Matthew and Jimmy Gore along with their brother in law Kent Mayall - were already involved in running the club's reserve team.

Their company Inspire 2 Independence (i2i) was set up about 10 years ago with the aim of finding a different way to bring people back into paid employment. Keen footballers - Matthew has run York City's schoolboy programme for some time whilst Jimmy played non league football for the likes of Harrogate Railway and Goole - they set about using football as a means to help people find work. Partnerships with professional clubs like Manchester United, Manchester City, Blackburn, Sunderland and Wolves soon developed. The business has grown quickly in it's relatively short existence but has remained true to the directors' values. By using principles of hard work and focussing on the benefits of team dynamics, they have used football as a way to educate and develop individuals' confidence and skill sets, and they now employ over 400 staff around the country.

Having done their due diligence on the opportunity, i2i became owners of Tadcaster Albion early in 2014, and the subsequent development of the football club to this point has occurred at breakneck speed, with the directors' business acumen and focus ensuring every change has been carefully planned and then swiftly executed.

The fundamental pillars of their vision for the club were simple - whilst acknowledging the club's position in the football pyramid, run the club with the standards as close to professional football as possible. Secondly, provide an exciting and friendly matchday experience for families to enjoy and the local community to get involved with. Thirdly, ensure that the playing surface is outstanding. And linked to that point, fourthly, have a football philosophy based on playing attractive football that fans will enjoy coming to watch.

Some of those aspirations may sound a little familiar - we've heard other clubs use sound bites with a similar theme, but how many clubs actually deliver on such aspirations? Despite the success of their business, i2i are not throwing money at the football club in an attempt to rise quickly through the leagues. Whilst the financial commitment is still considerable - the key to the club's development on and off the pitch has largely been down to having "bums on seats". Whether it be a small army of volunteers who are highly valued if not necessarily rewarded financially, employees of i2i who now, as part of their day job work on improving the club's social media profile and links with local businesses or some of those local businesses who have helped to turn the i2i Stadium into a very smart arena using various tradesman's skills, there are a lot of hands on deck.

The football agenda is led by the club's manager, Paul Marshall. As a successful non league manager at clubs like Harrogate Railway, Goole and Bridlington Town who is used to developing success on small budgets, he has worked with a team of talented coaching staff and the i2i directors to ensure the experience as a player at the club is an enjoyable and rewarding one. Whilst working with a competitive budget, Marshall attracts players to the club on the strength of the overall package, not just the size of a brown paper wage packet. The recent signing of Jonathan Greening who was playing Championship football only last year and has a Champions' League winner's medal, is testament to the power of the "Taddy" story. Players who go there get well looked after - remember the aspiration to replicate the feel of a professional football club - and become part of the club rather than just a passenger on his way to the next stop on his footballing journey, mainly because of the family feel shared by the club's staff, its fans and the local community. As I write this Marshall's men have just won their 8th straight game and sit proudly at the top of the Toolstation Northern Counties East Premier division.

But that's not all - i2i recently launched their own football agency, based on the i2i values and designed to give players representation that dispels some of the public perception of football agents. Having already placed one player in the pro game (Nicky Deverdics who played for Tadcaster's first team last season and is now at Dover in the Conference National), and in the knowledge that i2i have the benefit of longstanding partnerships with many professional clubs, they appear well placed to develop another successful string to their bow.

Yet another complementary interest is about to come to fruition. i2i Academy will continue the good work of the York based UST Academy, providing both football and academic pathways as a result of partnerships with York College and York St John's University. The unique mix of interests will ensure that young players - whether that's a 16 year old school leaver, an 18 year old just released from a pro club or a much younger player being targeted by pro clubs - will have opportunities to develop in a balanced environment that will see them receive high quality support with football, academic and vocational development.

The football club will ultimately benefit from this unique structure and the foundations for progression as a club compare favourably with other clubs both at this level and significantly further up the football pyramid. The directors' aim in terms of progression on the pitch is to get to the Conference North - 3 promotions from their current position. There is no time scale attached to that target - developing the club in a sustainable fashion is not something i2i want to rush. That said, if the progress so far is anything to go by, you get the feeling this family firm will not hang about admiring their progress to date.

I recently took my 6 year old son and 2 year old daughter along with my father to watch a game at the i2i Stadium and I can safely say the signs of progression could not have been clearer. From the warm welcome at the turnstile, to the many Tadcaster juniors all proudly wearing their club kit, to the club mascot Taddy Bear who kept the younger kids entertained, to the clubs' supporters who sang with all their might from the clubhouse terrace....the matchday experience was excellent. The standard of play on a beautiful surface was excellent, with the home team winning an entertaining game 3-2 against last years' league runners up, Barton Town Old Boys.

Two recent events typify the spirit in the Taddy camp. The players were taken to a recording studio last week to record a new club song before heading out for a meal with all of the club's staff and directors - I doubt the song will be making the top 10 in the charts but the exercise was as much about team bonding as it was producing a club song. The directors also recently took their small army of volunteers out for a meal to say thank you for their hard work and to simply enjoy an evening chatting about their shared love for the game and for the club. There is no sense of them and us when it comes to the relationship between players and administration - you get the sense it is as strong between the players and the directors as any tight knit dressing room. I've never come across anything like that at any club I've been involved with.

I'm all too familiar with clubs that have risen through the football pyramid swiftly but ultimately faltered - often the result of a single source of income funding a playing budget designed to achieve success swiftly without building the foundations of a football club to support the team. When things eventually go belly up, those responsible for the short term plan disappear and leave the hardy souls behind to pick up the pieces.

I'm also familiar with clubs that live a very hand to mouth existence and struggle to simply exist, relying on the same model and methods that were employed 20 years ago or more. I'm a big admirer of the hardy souls who sacrifice so much to keep these clubs going but I also feel such clubs need to think harder about what they want to achieve and how to go about doing it.

I couldn't accuse those behind the scenes at Tadcaster Albion of doing things the way they've always been done - there are lessons there for other clubs to consider.

It might all be somewhat idealistic, and I appreciate that there's not a big queue of companies or individuals just waiting to give their time and money to turn around the fortunes of their struggling local football club, but the Tadcaster approach feels right to me. I don't see any egos, greed or lust for celebrity status driving the decision making process.

By investing money prudently, involving the local community, bartering for services with local businesses, providing players with the best treatment off the pitch possible so that they give of their best on it, developing the next generation of elite footballers, investing time in social media and most of all, doing it in a fair, ethical and honest way, Tadcaster Albion look like they might have developed a blueprint for building a football club in this day and age.

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