NEW YEAR UPDATE FROM THE CEO
At the beginning of this brand new year, this is an opportune time for me to present to Swinton Lions supporters what will hopefully be received as a comprehensive update on club matters.
The Board is very conscious of the fact that probably the most common criticism thrown our way is the infrequency of club updates, and going into 2024 this is something we will rectify. All I can say is thank you for your patience and continued support so far, and we now believe that recently added extra resource will enable us to deliver more frequent updates in line with the rightful expectations of the fans.
The club relies heavily on volunteer support, and whilst this is greatly valued and imperative to our overall operation, we have to be respectful of the fact that these volunteers have day jobs and families. However, taking our social media output as a prime example, we hope that you’ve already seen a dramatic increase in quality output, and a willingness in particular by our new Head Coach Alan Kilshaw and the players to be really proactive in engaging with our media team.
Some of you may have met Mark Robinson who has been employed part-time as an integral member of our Foundation team. Mark is clearly very knowledgeable about the sport, but we also realised recently that he is very skilled in social media matters, and you will have seen some of his graphic designs already without perhaps realising who has created them. I’m now pleased to report that Mark has now formally joined our media team as well, which gives us greatly increased capacity to produce much more professional looking and more frequent content. Mark will be working alongside Steve Johnson and Terry Gorman to produce structured and regular content, which will also see the imminent return of our popular newsletter, The Lions’ Roar, as well utilisation of other platforms such as Tiktok and Instagram. Director Barry McGuinness will oversee our social media operations and Riggy will continue to look after match days, whilst I’ll also be involved in preparing some of the written output.
We are also conscious that we haven’t yet reported back on the Fan Survey which went out at the end of the 2023 season. The response was superb, with over 300 fans taking part – which is clearly a significant percentage of our core support, giving us confidence that the sample is truly representative of your views. We will be presenting a summary of the findings at our official 2024 Season Launch which will take place from 7pm on Friday 26 January at Heywood Road, followed by a written summary the week after on our social media platforms. Incidentally the Season Launch will include confirmation of our Squad Numbers, and fingers crossed we will have 2024 replica shirts available that night.
Speaking of replica shirts this deserves some explanation. As you’ll be aware we now have a new teamwear partner in Patrick, with whom we have agreed a four-year deal. If you’ve managed to purchase any Patrick branded team wear, we hope you’ll agree that the quality is excellent. Whilst we did have to go through careful commercial negotiations with Patrick which delayed matters slightly, we have to confess that the pre-Christmas unavailability of replica shirts was mainly down to Swinton Lions. But the reason for this is very important and we hope you understand. In these days of rising costs, including the recruitment of what for us is a very expensive squad, coupled with the near disintegration of central funding, we simply had to vastly increase playing shirt sponsorship deals – which of course involves the application of logos to the shirt. This process took time, but it was an absolute financial necessity. Thankfully however we have managed to nearly double our 2023 income. We therefore wish to thank all of our sponsors for their understanding of our position and working with us for the good of the Lions. Glossop Caravans and our other primary pre-existing sponsors Daisymill Technologies, Camway Installations, Seed Architects, Primus Traffic Management, Roodsafe, Roadflash and Harrison Drury have been extremely supportive and generous, as have new high profile sponsors Vesta Care (UK) Ltd, Regin Group and Heyrod Construction. We also increased the value of our player sponsorship packages for 2024, and again we thank all of the renewing sponsors and fresh sponsors, who you’ll now see listed alongside their respective players on our website. In fact, we still have the odd gap for fans’ player kit sponsorship at just £75, and so if you can help, please email [email protected]
It’s important that we acknowledge and look after our sponsors, and to this end we recently appointed director Andy Unwin as our Partnerships Director. Part of Andy’s remit as a director is to maintain regular contact with our sponsors, ensuring that we are delivering on our side of the commercial agreements in place, and ensuring that they feel valued members of the Lions family.
An exciting initiative has been the launch of our Lions’ Business Club, which meets monthly at various venues in rotation across Manchester. It’s free to get involved, and is a great chance for networking as well as for learning more about the Lions and hopefully getting involved as part of our family. We have already engaged almost 50 businesses in this way, as well as a number of charities. The next meeting is scheduled for early February at a venue in central Manchester, so keep an eye on our social media platforms for more information.
It’s often forgotten that at the root of all of our operations, be it with players, staff, sponsors, other clubs etc we have had to work hard to create personal relationships based on trust and respect – these things rarely just fall into your lap. Examples are our superb working relationship with Sale FC, and also our brilliant friendship with St Helens, which will surely reap dividends on the pitch in 2024.
Speaking of Sale FC, we have agreed in principle an extension to our lease at Heywood Road until the end of the 2025 season, with an option to extend further into 2026. This gives a level of continuity and security that we’ve not seen since our Station Road days and we are very grateful to our friends at Sale for their willingness to work with us on a collaborative basis, which far exceeds that of a normal landlord-tenant relationship.
Another initiative that we are about to launch is the “19 Club”. The concept is that our fans are our 19th Lion, and squad number 19 will be reserved for this purpose (and the shirt itself will be raffled amongst members at the season end). However, I want to emphasise that the 19 Club is intended to give something back to fans via incentives and discounts. There is a cost to join – £19 in fact! – but this is easily recoverable if advantage is taken of the various benefits of membership. Finer detail will be released tomorrow.
Moving to matters on the field, which of course is at the core of everything we do. It’s old news that Allan Coleman, Tom Wood and Connor Farrell have moved on to pastures new, but as a club we thank them for all their efforts for the Lions and they will always remain personal friends as well as friends of the club. This thanks is of course also extended to our outgoing players, particularly Rhodri, Butty, Nick, Joey, Louis and Kenny and others, who put in so much effort in a Swinton shirt. We have of course since recruited Alan Kilshaw as Head Coach, and he has brought with him an exceptionally strong back-room team including Darren Abram, Paul Anderson and Miles Greenwood.
On recruitment we are all feeling very excited, and if the likes of Rhys Williams, Declan Patton and George Roby can produce their best form then we are in for a treat. Then we have Dan Spencer-Tonks, Mikey Wood and Jack Houghton adding some real steel to our forward line. Matty Chrimes and Matty Fletcher are also great additions, and certainly not forgetting some highly promising younger players in the shape of Jack Stevens, Cole Oakley and Joe Purcell. We were also delighted to retain 13 of our best players from 2023, whilst Sasha, Rachael, Dougie, Norman, Chesney and doctors Joe and Ben provide stability and continuity amongst our medical and backroom staff.
As a Board we have been very impressed by the way our new Head Coach Alan Kilshaw immediately settled into the role and began to implement his own ideas and style. We will certainly go into the 2024 season as a very fit and organised team, and I definitely don’t see us taking a backward step regardless of the prevailing scoreline! Obviously the usual doubters in the RL media will write us off before a ball is kicked, but I’m more than confident that we will prove a handful for every opposition we come across.
I can’t let this opportunity pass without paying tribute to the work of the Lions’ Foundation, which is making giant strides and is far outstripping anything we have ever done in the history of the club in terms of community development. Our Development Director Damian Ridpath is doing a magnificent job, ably assisted by outstanding coaches Gareth Pratt, Dougie Owen and Mark Robinson. We are now viewed as market leaders in several areas by the RFL, and if for example you managed to get to Leigh East last weekend you cannot fail to have been impressed by the way our new community Swinton Lions under 16s team defeated their Leigh Leopards counterparts. RFL rules currently dictate that we aren’t permitted to run an Academy, but it hasn’t prevented us from planting the seeds of our own player talent pathway. As well as an under 16s outfit we also have an under 18s team under our umbrella, with plans fully underway to launch younger age groups as well. I emphasise also that this programme is all about player development, and is undertaken in close collaboration with local community clubs, and not at their expense in terms of player recruitment.
Our women’s team, the Lionesses, is another fantastic success story having been launched by Zoom in the middle of the Covid crisis. The Lionesses will find themselves in a re-structured League 1 in 2024, and once their fixtures are confirmed we intend to organise some double-headers at Heywood Road. Head Coach Steve Thirkell has assembled a top rate coaching and backroom staff, and the Lionesses are sure to be strong contenders for the league 1 title in 2024.
We are also implementing a host of other community projects across Swinton, Salford, Manchester, Trafford and Bolton, all of which deserves a special report of its own, and we’ll produce a summary at some point over the next couple of weeks.
The challenges of running a semi-professional Rugby League club at Championship level in this day and age are immense. I’ve already touched on the dramatic reduction in central funding, which leaves us £150,000 short of what we received in 2021. In the meantime, we have not only won promotion from League 1, but followed this up with a tenth place finish in the Championship in 2023. In the same period costs have risen sharply, particularly player costs, and it is a constant daily challenge for the Board to meet this significant financial challenge. It will probably surprise you to learn that on average, over the course of a full year, it costs in excess of £10,000 PER WEEK to meet our obligations and maintain our current status. We aren’t just a Rugby League club, we are decent sized business in every respect, playing in a highly regulated sport, with all the challenges of a regular business aside from our Rugby League playing activities. With such eye-watering numbers to contend with you’ll fully understand why we value our Supporters Trust, the Pridebuilder scheme, our season ticket holders and our regular supporters. But if only we could double our gates we would be in an entirely different place!
This brings me briefly to the fresh challenges brought about by the IMG grading system, which recently saw us narrowly miss out on being graded as a “B” club rather than a “C”. We recognise that the grading system is designed to improve standards and in that respect we are happy to meet the challenges ahead. Certainly, one area which represents a relatively easy hit is to improve our social media presence, which brings me back to the comments I made earlier. But I’ll deal with IMG and the grading system in more detail at a future date.
Finally, in the humble opinions of Stuart our chairman, and myself personally, our Board is doing an utterly outstanding job in maintaining semi-professional Championship Rugby League at Swinton Lions, so we do find it a little disheartening to read some of the personal and shared criticism thrown our way (the unconstructive type). If you do have any concerns please contact the club directly, as we will always engage with individual fans, in private if preferred.
Hopefully there will be something of interest in this update, but if you want clarification on any other matters then the [email protected] email address will enable us to direct you to the best person to deal with your enquiry.
Thank you as always for your continued Support. Come on you Lions!