Since his arrival as chairman back in 2015, Geoff Thompson has overseen South Shields' climb from Division 2 of the Ebac Northern League to the Evo-Stik Premier Division, with the 2017 FA Vase nestled in there along the way. As joint-managers Graham Fenton and Lee Picton bid this season to deliver what would be a fourth successive promotion, the Mariners are continuing to develop at a rapid rate off the pitch, too.
Below is the in-depth version of Geoff Thompson's interview for the November issue of FC Business magazine (you can read the digital issue here). Geoff spoke to Non-League Daily editor Chris Brookes and FC Business editor Aaron Gourley about three years of success, progress and no shortage of challenges, as well as much more on the ambitions at work for the South Tynesiders.
When did the thought of taking over the club first come into play? Was there a moment you can recall that triggered it, or was it something that gradually presented itself?
Well, I had no intention of doing it, which might surprise people. At the time I was the chief exec of a public company, I got a letter from one of the lads on our committee, one of our vice-presidents, and the letter was simply ‘do you want to be a sponsor?’ If I’m honest, I hadn’t realised the club had been basically kicked out of its ground and were then at that point playing down at Peterlee. I replied to the letter thinking ‘Bob and the lads might need £500 for a board’ or some other form of sponsorship, and as a local lad and at the time working full-time as the chief exec of a small-cap PLC, I thought ‘I’m sure I can help in some way.’ Gary Crutwell and Bob Wray came in to see me and I then heard the predicament the club were in. I used to watch South Shields when I was younger; I can’t pretend I was a regular visitor, but I’ve got some very clear memories of watching the team play at Simonside Hall with my dad and my late uncle. My business operated for a large part of its history from South Shields as well, so I employed a lot of people from the town etc. I was just trying to problem solve, but with no real intention of owning and running the club.
The club as we see it now, visually, and competing to get into the National League North, what were the biggest challenges from your side in progressing the club to this point?
My main driver was just helping the club get back into its home town. I’m a South Shields lad by birth and education, a lot of my family’s still living here, my friends, and it just felt at the time like it was the right thing to do. I didn’t have a long-term plan; it was just ‘how can we get the club home?’ I looked at various avenues with the council and none of them came through, so it was really left to going to the previous chairman who’d had a fall-out with the club and still owned this ground. This was probably the only option for us to get home. We got home, that’s just over three years ago, and even though our facilities are still modest by many standards, particularly at the higher levels of football, we have gone on and spent quite a bit of money in terms of capex and investment to get Mariners Park to a point where it’s credible. We’ve got a great playing surface, we’ve invested in the clubhouse and other facilities.
So the challenges were, probably at the beginning not having a detailed plan and only having this notion of getting the club home, and then it’s been quite an iterative process. I remember the first few games at home; me, my wife and my daughter, and Gary, vice-chairman, panicking about things like how many programmes to order, how many pies to order. At the very outset it was down to really little practical things like that. The issues have evolved from that to a whole host of multi-faceted issues of how do you get this club to continue to move forward and what investment decisions need to be made in order to realise our full potential?
We’ve spent a lot of money on infrastructure, I mentioned the pitch, we’ve invested in proper drainage, proper irrigation, and that doesn’t come cheap. We’ve improved the bar facilities and the whole idea is to make the matchday experience for the fans as good as it can be with our current limitations. We’ve got a 250-seat marquee now, which is also available for non-matchday events, and we’ve also added the stands. Equally as important to the main pitch, we’ve put the 3G pitch in, which was quite an important catalyst for other things to happen. That was again approaching a half-million-pound investment, just in the 3G pitch itself. Lee and Graham came on board full-time, and they did so because we were able to launch our full-time academy, so we’ve got 40+ young talented players from the age of 16 to 19, working closely with Sunderland College to deliver the curriculum. My point is, I didn’t think about, nor should I have thought about, those challenges on day one. Day one was about getting the club home, and how many pies to order.
We’ve had three years of success on the pitch, thankfully the fans have responded, we’ve had some strong followings; our gates are a little lower this year, but still exceptionally good. The idea is we’re going to develop our own talent, and we’ve already had some of those academy lads make appearances for the first team. We’ve also launched what we call our Futures Academy, with the local college, where we’re taking kids from the age of 11 through to 16, and we’ve also launched our own foundation, so we’ve got our own charitable arm and it’s doing a lot more in the community. We’ve got approaching 300 kids now doing activities associated with the club. We think the club’s got an important part to play in the community around health and wellbeing.
What are the latest developments in the works here at Mariners Park and how does that link in with where the club is in terms of league standing?
I see myself as a custodian of the club, if you like, and therefore what I’m trying to do is build the club to a point where it’s got a commercial model and an infrastructure that will allow it to survive. It’s not about me; I don’t want it to be about me at all. I’ve just acted as a bit of a catalyst, and that’s not me being overly modest, I genuinely mean that. So my drivers are a little bit different to what you might expect. I want to get the club to that position; I think we’re kind of half-way there. The club’s not making money, we are a loss-making club, and that’s not a shock. We have a three-year plan, we know what we’re doing, and it requires investment to get it to a certain point before the PnL will follow.
Of course all that’s predicated on our fans continuing to turn up in number, growing the fanbase, getting more footfall on match day, growing our other revenue streams; food and beverage takings are important on match day, but also sponsorship, non-matchday events, merchandising. I would say there are times when it’s extremely challenging, to be honest, but we’ve got a clear plan and I believe the club will prosper. We’ve recently purchased some land, you can see the roof of the warehouse there, we’ve just purchased that land and that warehouse, we’ve put a pre-planning application in with South Tyneside council that’s been quite positively received. We’ve still got a lot of work to do to get through the approval but the intention is to build a new stand and a new community building. The new stand will give us a ground grading for Football League. We bought the warehouse for £1.2million and the plan is to knock it down and build a stand. I’m pleased we’ve got quite a lot of support from South Tyneside Council, and as long as we put the business case forward, I’m confident we’ll get planning permission for that new stand. I’m still very much enjoying it, and if there’s a but, if we get approval for the stand, we’ve got to have an infrastructure here that can support 3, 4, maybe 5,000 fans, and I think we can build that.
This is never going to be St. James’ or Stadium of Light, but there’s a potential to build quite a nice, tidy League ground, with that kind of capacity, say 5,000, and if people turn up and enjoy watching good football and have a great experience, that means we will get those sort of gates and that supports our aspirations to get to the Football League.
The community aspect is central to what you do as a club, which is what you said from the outset. In which ways can that presence and recognition of the club be seen in South Shields, away from Mariners Park? Does it feel like the club really has that within the town? Or is that something you’re really pushing for with Project EFL?
There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest we’ve got greater identity. The last time we were a Football League club was 1930; I like to quote the example of South Shields beating Chelsea 5-1. There is this deep-rooted history and identity the club has, and whilst clearly we’ve lost our way over many decades, I think we can harness some of that and get the club back some of that success. Certainly in my lifetime we’ll never be a Premier League club, but there is a great path that we can follow to get some of that success and some of those good old days back. If you walk round South Shields now you’ll see lots of kids and parents wandering round in South Shields tops. The town are beginning to get behind it. People I’m sure are talking about their hometown football club in the pub or at work more than they did three or four years ago.
With Project EFL, we wanted to give the club’s aspirations some proper identity, and to come up with some labelling to it. We came up with Project EFL, I’m not suggesting it’s that innovative, but we’re going to try and focus everybody’s attention, so that’s people living and working in South Shields and South Tyneside, on that. That not only includes our fans but reaching out to the business community and getting them to embrace what we’re trying to achieve. We’ve invested heavily in systems and we’ve just installed a new ticketing system, and the idea is not just allowing people to buy online and come down with an e-ticket, but it’s about collecting data. Who are our fans? Where do they live? What do we know about them? The same is true for our sponsors; we’re trying to understand intelligently who’s out there. So if you take all the businesses in South Tyneside, how many are there? We think we know. Who are they? We think we know that as well. How can we get them to support what we’re trying to achieve? It’s not a case of knocking on their door and asking for a cheque, it’s just making them aware of Project EFL, encouraging them or their employees to come down and watch a match.
With the ticketing system, our idea is understanding our fans, because without that, you open up the turnstiles and people come in, you hope, but you know nothing about them and you can’t market to them, send them some offers, promote the club directly to them. We’re also relaunching the website, and linked to the website is what will basically be a fan and sponsors forum, and the idea is we’re going to encourage our sponsors to use that forum to promote their products and services to other sponsors, and equally, to promote that to our fans. Again, you might think that’s obvious, but as a non-league club and until three years ago operating in Northern League Division 2, with an average crowd of 70, you wouldn’t have expected us to be thinking about online ticketing services when previously we were down at Peterlee just trying to sell a few cans of lager to keep the lights on and pay the ref.
Has this step up to the Evo-Stik Premier this season brought unexpected or surprising challenges, maybe even in very small ways, or is it more or less what you anticipated?
I think generally, as we expected. I think if Lee and Graham were sat in the room, they might give you a slightly different answer. I think it’s fair to say the standard of opposition is generally higher. Lee and Graham have signed five-year contracts; they’re here for the duration. I look at the playing budget and I think it’s generous. There’s no financial constraint; there was no point coming into this league and trying to compete with an inappropriate budget, so we’re trying to be sensible. We’ve given the lads what I consider a generous budget, and so there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to compete successfully this year; it’s not always about money of course, clearly. From a personal point of view, I see this season as an important sort of watershed. If we can get into Conference North, then you look at the company we might be keeping – Blyth Spartans, Spennymoor, Darlington, York, Stockport – there’s some big clubs and also some good local derbies in there. If we can get through this year, and I hope and believe we can, two steps then away from the Football League. Hypothetically, that’s four successive promotions, and there’s probably a period of consolidation needed. The ground will have to catch up; we’ve got a timeline of around 2021 before that infrastructure will be ready. At Conference North, we’ll have a couple of years to get the ground grading right. That doesn’t mean we’ll be lacking ambition, it’s just the practicalities of it.
I’ve always said I’m not going to personally write cheques to fund players’ wages unless the fans are behind it and turning up en masse to support what we’re trying to do. 80,000 people live in South Shields and about 160,000 in South Tyneside, so we’ve got quite a big conurbation. There’s every potential to support those kinds of numbers, because you can quote other examples where clubs have spent money and got to Conference level, and the town can’t support it. If South Shields had a population of 24,000 and was out in the sticks somewhere I wouldn’t be doing this.
The North East’s football heritage within this country speaks for itself, but with the progress and largely positive feel that’s gone with Shields in recent seasons, do you think the club can offer something different to people? A fresh alternative experience perhaps for fans who may have become disillusioned elsewhere?
Yeah, I do. There’s a lot of people who’ve got a bit disillusioned with top-tier football, in the sense that one could argue money at that level has almost spoiled the game, and I don’t mean to be outspoken, but you’ve got millionaire footballers whose life is very different to the average fan. If you come down to Mariners Park, yes I’m biased, but we play good quality football, fans are nearer to the action, you can have a beer, and food, that’s fairly priced. We do our own hospitality as well, so it’s not just about being cheaper, it’s about delivering a great service for fans and sponsors off the field, and allowing everyone to enjoy good football. It’s a more familiar experience; you can meet the players after the game, we’re a semi-professional club and the players live the same kind of life as the fans.
Newcastle and Sunderland fans have maybe become a bit disillusioned with what’s gone on at those higher levels. Our offering has to be different to what they’d get at those clubs. We now know that a big proportion of our fans get here 15 minutes before kick-off, so we’re trying to get fans down here from around half 1, because that money they spend here gets reinvested in the club. I look at it in almost non-footballing terms: what kind of day out is a South Shields fan going to have?
Julio Arca was a big part of the recent successes before his retirement in the summer. Although he was a unique case in many ways, is a similar big name, providing they fit the ideals of the team, something you’d love to see at Shields in the future?
Julio deciding to retire was a huge blow. He’s got an incredible work ethic, incredible professional, he’s got all that career history, and just his presence in the dressing room and on the pitch was massive. Within all that he has also got that Premier League reputation, so to lose him was a blow, without a doubt. It would be great to find another iconic signing like him, and I would never discount doing so, but we haven’t got this sort of shopping list of people we’d want to go and approach; we’d be opportunistic about it. I think that was quite a unique set of circumstances; all credit to Jon King, our previous manager who knew Julio and managed to convince him to come down and play for us.
You often like to be amongst the fans in the bar after the game and share that time with them. Have you thought about if there comes a time when the team struggles in a division, will it become more difficult to be as accessible as you are?
I have thought about it, because I’m not daft enough to think we’re always going to have great times and people will want to come up and shake my hand and pat me on the back. I’m not deserving of that anyway, I’ve just been a bit of a catalyst to what’s happened here, but there’s no doubt there’ll be a time in the future where people will want to throw rotten fruit at me! All I can say is I’ll always endeavour to do the best thing for the club. I’ve never taken a penny out of the club and that will continue. I’m not saying that for some sort of effect; I started something and I want to get it to a certain stage. There might be a time when I’m not here but that will only happen when the club’s got to a stage where it’s sustainable.
There will undoubtedly be times when I’m less popular. I wouldn’t want to be less visible; I enjoy coming down to the games and having a couple of beers, or having some lunch, and everything I enjoy myself is the same as the average fan. I still want to be able to do that. I think Shields fans recognise the journey we’re on. It’s not just about arriving in the Football League, if we ever get there, which I believe we can, it’s about enjoying it, including how we deal with some difficult times. If we’re worth anything as a club, we’ve got to be able to get through things like that, and the fans have to keep backing the club and the team, even when it might be more difficult to do so.
Are there any myths or misconceptions about you, or what the club is doing? Anything you’ve heard and would like to set the record straight about?
Well you hear the odd chatter on social media, that I’m just throwing money at it and that we’ve bought our success. Looking from the outside in, it would be very easy to believe that, but I genuinely believe in what I was trying to say earlier; this is a long-term plan. The club come home to South Shields, the first problem is how many pies to order and how many programmes to print. If I’d just said ‘I’ve done my bit, you’re back, get on with it,’ what would be the point of that? Maybe it’s something in my make-up where if I’m going to do something I want to do it properly. Therefore, what follows is the investment in the team and the infrastructure, then perhaps people from the outside think we’re throwing money at something. I don’t deny we’ve probably got a higher budget than most clubs, or historically over the last three years we’ve had a higher budget, but we needed something to kickstart our revival as a club and the creation of this community football club. We needed a catalyst, and unfortunately, some of that is about money. That’s not to be brash, or flash about it, and as I keep saying, there’s a point at which the club has to be self-sustaining. I’ve said I see myself as a custodian of the club. Could we become a fan-owned club? That’s certainly one option. It’d be difficult, though, because if we were a fan-owned club today, the fans would have to start writing cheques.
You get past this tipping point where, all the infrastructure I’ve talked about, all the things we’re trying to invest in, all of that momentum builds to a point where the club commercially is stable. At that point, you look at what we can do. I’m not implying I’m running out of enthusiasm for it, but I am also a realist; I’m 56 years old. I’d like to get the club to a point where it does have a different ownership structure, but only at the right time, and with people who have the same ideals as I have. There’s a time for that and it’s not quite yet. I’d love to know those people that criticise it, the way that they would do it. If I could find a way to do what we have in the three years without spending money then I would have done it.
Football’s arguably a very unique business, and certainly an all-consuming one. Are you good at giving yourself time away from it all and switching off to spend time with the family etc.?
I had my daughter involved here for a long time, and we’re fans of the club, if you like. I do think about it 24/7. It’s interesting because having retired from my full-time, ‘proper’ job – I stepped away from my exec role a couple of years ago now – and I never really intended to have a full-time exec job. It was about making an investment and trying to support something and act as the catalyst, and it has become more of a full-time job than I first imagined. I’m lucky to have a great team around me. I am conscious of not being a full-time exec at the club, and whilst I am here to help and assist, I don’t want to be at the centre of every single decision.
Looking back over the past three-and-a-half years, what are the biggest lessons you’ve learned? Has being here changed you in any way?
Well I never imagined we’d get to this point, and I didn’t have a plan, so there’s a lesson in that. Of course what’s happened is, because of the relative success we’ve had and the momentum we’ve now got, I feel a much greater responsibility than I ever imagined I would have. If you’d asked me this question three and a bit years ago, I wouldn’t have answered this the same way. I’m wired in a way that if I do something I want to do it properly, so I have a deep sense of responsibility to finish the job I’ve started, but when I started, I didn’t imagine the job would be this big and this complex. I don’t want that to come across negatively, because it’s been a great journey and I’ve really thoroughly enjoyed it, but I repeat that it can’t be about Geoff Thompson. This has got to be about a sustainable club, with a sustainable business model. We’re almost there, we’re in touching distance, but we’ve probably got another three or four years of work to do before all of that’s in place. It’ll be great to see where we’ll be in three to five years; will I have achieved my part in this? It’ll be no lack of effort, we’ll give it our best shot.