Best Betting Sites UK / Non League Manager and Player Interviews / 'It’s been a long three years' - Stephen Cleeve reflects as King’s Lynn Town reach Step 2

'It’s been a long three years' - Stephen Cleeve reflects as King’s Lynn Town reach Step 2

King's Lynn Town

King’s Lynn Town are now officially a Step 2 club. Following the demise of the old King’s Lynn FC, the Linnets have risen from the United Counties League Premier Division to the National League’s regional section in their first nine years.

All the suggestions are that the club will compete in the North division next season – a quirky detail, to put it mildly, for a Norfolk side. Official confirmation on that is still to come, but what is assured is that the Linnets will be in the sixth tier of English football when 2019/20 gets underway, after a dramatic 3-2 Super Play-off win over Warrington Town in extra-time.

Upon taking over in 2016, chairman Stephen Cleeve spoke of the club’s EFL ambitions, and they begin next season two promotions away from that ‘promised land’ so many non-league sides quest after. Last Saturday’s pivotal win was such a feat that it even had a seasoned football man like Ian Culverhouse – he of the Bayern Munich-slaying Norwich City – quite literally floored by sheer emotion in the dugout.

Speaking this Monday (13th May) with Non-League Daily, Cleeve recounted in detail the groundwork and obstacles the club has faced to date, the emotions of this season, and reflections on his own decisions during his tenure.


A couple of days on from winning the final, what are your feelings as we speak now? Euphoria? Relief?

All of the above really. Certainly the mood changed in the game from one of real hope in the first half, to one of resignation in the second half that we weren’t going to go up. The sudden change to euphoria when the penalty went in. In extra-time, I felt we were by far the better team, and I was delighted. It’s also a real sense of relief because it’s been three years for me in the making, to get this promotion. We’ve worked very hard on and off the pitch to do it and it’s been a long road, so to finally get there, relief was the overriding emotion at the end of it, I think.

It has been said that the club will be playing in the National League North next season, what is the current state of play with that, as you understand it?

Well I’ve got no idea, to be honest with you, because no one’s told me. I just assumed that it would be North, because four teams have been relegated from the National League who’ve got to go to the South. I think there are going to be shorter teams in the North and therefore we’re a likely candidate. I’m not too bothered where we go, to be honest. Everyone tells me it’s the North, and that’s what I’m led to believe, but officially, we haven’t heard anything. I think there’s an allocation meeting soon; we’ll probably find out then, I guess.

With that in mind, but also just in general for the club moving up another level, what kind of plans have been and will be put into motion?

Well, we haven’t had a lot, because we didn’t want to until after the result of the game, but we’re having a meeting tomorrow, myself, the manager and the director of football. The players themselves are off on Thursday on a break to Portugal, and I think the manager will chat to them when they come back. So in the short-term, the playing side, we’ll find that out tomorrow, and we’ll try and give Ian Culverhouse the tools that he needs to take the team further still. Off the pitch, it’s a case of doing more of what we did last season. We’ve got a few things in mind, which we’re working on, but it’s all a bit too new at the moment. I’ve got a step plan of what I need to do, but until I know what league we’re in and all the other bits, it’s very hard to start the process. The key thing at the end of the season is to get the players who are out of contract new deals to ensure that everyone’s happy going forward and then see what positions we need to look at in terms of recruiting players, which I’m sure we’ll need to do. We’ve got one or two targets already in mind.

Promotion is down to the work of various players and staff at the club, but if we specifically mention Ian (Culverhouse), coming back as manager (having initially left in May 2018) and having this achievement to savour, how delighted are you for him?

Oh Ian was as emotional as anyone on Saturday. There’s a cracking photograph. I’m not being rude to Ian but I’ve never seen that before with him; it was such a relief for him. He was delighted, euphoric, exhausted by the end of it all, like we all were. He’s been fantastic for the football club. He’s a great coach, he understands the players, he knows their mentality, he sets things out in his own way, so he’s very thorough, he doesn’t leave things to chance. We speak regularly so that off the pitch, we can help him as much as we can. For example, we weren’t allowed a hotel under the expenses, which I think is a bit wrong for a play-off final, but we weren’t allowed it. We’d probably be allowed it if we played in the FA Trophy final; that’d be a lot nearer than going to Warrington. We weren’t allowed it so I said to Ian ‘don’t worry, I’ll pay for it if you think we need it,’ and he said he thought it was the best preparation for the team, so we did it. We put all that together, so Tuesday, everything was booked. That’s the bit where we can help him, so we can make sure that he has the tools that he needs. He’s a great organiser, and he just enjoys football; he’s a football man, it’s what he likes doing. We’re setting up a BTEC course and he’s going to run the course for us, because he just likes football, he likes training the kids and bringing them through and taking them to the next level. He likes the passing game as well and we try and play the game the way it should be played, so I’m pleased for him.

In terms of the challenges of this season, has any of it been particularly draining for you? (King's Lynn's semi-final had originally been set to take place on an earlier date than Stourbridge v Alvechurch's semi, leaving less recovery time for the final than their opponents.)

Drained was actually how I felt before the first play-off took place. The whole thing I think, if Harvard were doing a class on mismanagement, this would be a classic case. It’s just wrong, we’re not talking Sunday league football, we’re talking some teams with big budgets. I just feel that the systems need to be joined up together more; why it takes three months for it to come out and not tell us is beyond me. No one’s given me a good explanation yet; I understand the Southern League do know but they don’t want to tell me, which is fine, it’s their prerogative, but that’s not fair, I don’t think. I understand the problems, that they’ve got four different clubs involved, but my stance was always that I felt everyone should play on the same day and kick off at the same time. They wanted originally for Alvechurch against Stourbridge to occur on Wednesday, and ours to occur on Saturday, then the winners to meet on the Monday. Well, how can that be fair?

Then they allowed them to change it to Thursday; it still doesn’t give us much time and still gives them an extra 48 hours. If you’ve got two or three days’ extra rest, it’s a massive advantage for that team, so I just said ‘it should be fair for both teams; if you want to play on the Friday night, we’ll play on the Friday night.’ It just seemed to be common sense and I had a good chat with Alvechurch about it and they agreed, Stratford agreed, Stourbridge for whatever reason didn’t agree. I know they had problems with the stadium and their lease and a children’s cricket tournament, which was cancelled anyway due to the weather. I felt it was ridiculous for a 30th birthday party, which was another problem they had, and a children’s cricket tournament, to be ahead of a play-off game. Surely the football should come first; the end of the season’s what you’ve been waiting for. When you change the date, what people don’t realise is it’s not just ‘oh the date’s changed,’ the manager can’t train the players as he needs, most of the players have got other jobs, the bar staff have got to be moved around, the security have got to be changed every time, and so on. This would never happen with any of the teams in the Football League, so I don’t know why it has to happen at our level. That was the frustration of it all and I couldn’t wait for the first game to begin so we could get on with it.

When you took over in 2016, you outlined reaching the EFL as the long-term objective. Two more promotions is the short answer, but what will it take for the club to have a genuine chance from here of achieving that?

One of my pet hates is that young kids we bring through, we can’t put them on contracts until 18. We bring a lad in - we have done this before, via third parties we work with – they go along and then a Premier League team grabs them and we get no compensation. For a rich club, which all Premier League clubs are, why would they not give you a few grand for it, or a sell-on? That to me needs to change. It needs to change so that as a football club, we know that we can put an awful lot of hard work into recruiting players and training those players. Don’t get me wrong, we don’t want to stand in a lad’s way; if he’s good enough to go and play in the Premier League, fantastic. He’ll go with our blessing, but that club also need to look after us and be fair to us. There isn’t that will there a lot of the time, and that seems a bit strange to me, because the other way around, often we take players from clubs smaller than ourselves and we give them a little fee; they don’t always want it, but most of the time they do and we give them something. Even if it’s a sell-on and a small fee, I don’t want them feeling bitter towards us. For example, last season, our player Cameron Norman went to Oxford (United), they wouldn’t even give us a pre-season friendly, and yet they sold him to Walsall for an undisclosed figure soon after. I have brought it up with The FA and they agree something should be done, but I’m sure it’s quite complicated to make it happen. As a football club, our BTEC programme is starting in September, and we need to bring a lot of kids through. Our main aim was to get kids we really believe we can train and properly get them into the first team. That is really important for us because of where we’re based; if you draw a circle around where we are, half of it is in the sea, and there’s not many good players you get out there! Therefore, we’ve got to look much stronger around our home town.


So the first thing has got to be about recruitment and how we attain and retain players, and the second part is we’ve got to get the fanbase. King’s Lynn is a well-supported club, but it used to have gates ten years ago of 1400 as an average and we need to get back to those. We can still pull them in for big games; we’ve just got to get them to come to all the games, or lots more games. That’s something we’re looking at, and you do that by putting the club in the middle of the community. The charitable arm of the club is something we’re looking to do a lot more with. We’re just trying to find diligent people who can give the hours and commit to doing it for the season. Then we need to have a plan to increase sponsorship revenues so that the manager can have a budget where a lot of it comes from the club itself, because otherwise, you’re relying on one or two people and that’s not right for the football club. Equally, to get to where we are, someone needs to put money in to start the process, so I felt as a genuine business decision for the football club, it was okay to kick-start the process to get us into it, and then it starts to gather momentum. You look at the papers today, not just the local paper but the regional paper, The EDP (Eastern Daily Press), we’re on the front page of it and the back page, and we were on it last season two or three times, so that’s great. That shows you what the club can generate in terms of sponsorship and recognition. The stadium’s got a proper feel to it, it’s a proper ground; obviously we have to do a bit of work with it as we go. One of the things we’re doing this season is putting in a sprinkler system; unfortunately we can’t put a borehole in because we’re too near saltwater and it’s too risky they said. At least the sprinkler system will help the grass, we’ll get a better surface and we can play better football.

Finally, as you reflect on these last three years, have you changed your outlook in any way, and have there been any regrets or lessons learned?

It’s been a long three years. I’ve got an announcement which hopefully I can make soon, and that’s one I think can really put King’s Lynn on the map. But going through, my first season was really about finding my feet and understanding things, and then I brought in Ian Culverhouse at the end of that season. The club’s played great football and last season we were very unlucky, when you think about it, not to go up; 100 points and 99 goals and came second and lost in the play-off final to Slough in the 87th minute.

I don’t know if I would have done a huge amount differently. I think we’ve done things professionally as a football club. We’ve obviously got a new badge, which we introduced two years ago, and that allows us to trademark it; before, we had the town badge. So we’ve done things in a professional way and put a structure in so that if we ever do get promoted to any level then we just need to expand each department. It’s all a balancing act, obviously we’d like more money to come down to our levels, I think anyone would, but what you get is what you get, so you have to work around it. Could I have done things differently? Well I suppose we wouldn’t have spent as much money in year two if we’d known we weren’t going to go up! We had an interesting tournament pre-season, which was fantastic on the pitch, but it didn’t generate the support that I thought it would do. There’s things like that where you think ‘okay, I won’t do that again,’ but if you don’t try these things then you don’t know. As long as it’s a risk where you know the outcome doesn’t break the club if it goes wrong. Obviously, Grant Holt didn’t stay for very long, not that I have any objections to it, he got a much better deal higher up the food chain, so off he went to Barrow and that was that. For the three weeks that he was here, it generated a lot of interest, we sold tickets, so we didn’t lose anything as a football club.

I just always feel that we are where we are, we’re in the right place for us, and I think we’ve done as much as we can, if I think about who we’ve brought into the club, having a manager like we have, and a director of football (Robbie Back) who puts a lot of hours in free of charge. (Assistant manager) Paul Bastock joining as well this time, which Ian didn’t have in his first time around, that’s a great help to have, someone of Paul’s experience and energy and enthusiasm. Our burgers I think won Burger of the Year for non-league grounds; we look at everything off the pitch as well. We don’t just buy cheap burgers from a cash and carry, they’re handmade in a butcher’s and they’re a lot more expensive, but what we’re trying to do there is make the overall experience better. One of my proudest things we’ve done is that if you can’t afford to buy a ticket, we’ll buy one for you. We let kids in for free up to 16; it was 11 when I turned up. When I first came to the club, we had 13 or 14 kids coming in, and I think the last game we had over 200; even non-play-off games we get 180-200. That’s the next chairman’s job solved of 'where’s the next generation of supporters coming from?' They’re in for nothing and hopefully a few of them will stick around. So those are the things I like to do and I think that’s what separates non-league from the big leagues. The fans are the most important thing so let’s do what we can to make them enjoy their afternoons here, and that’s what we try and do.

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