Transcript - 5 years a Spitfire | Stewart Donald - In conversation with Michael Kurn

5 years a Spitfire

Stewart Donald – In conversation with Michael Kurn

Stewart Donald - 5 years a Spitfire

MK= Michael Kurn
SD: Stewart Donald

{Transcript typed by Jamie Montigue}


MK: Let’s take you back to 2011. The Spitfires were in the Conference South,. Mid-table, a side pushing for the play-offs but not quite making it. Ian Baird was the manager and crowds averaged around 650 people.

Fast forward five years. The club is in the National League pushing for promotion to the Football League with former Brentford manager Martin Allen at the helm of the playing squad.

Attendances are growing year on year and recently the Spitfires took 1500 fans away in the FA Cup third round.

The club has certainly grown under the leadership of Stewart Donald and his team. What a five years it’s been for Eastleigh FC.

Lets now take a look back and cast an eye to the future with the chairman and owner Stewart Donald.

Stewart, five years. It’s flown by.


SD: Yes, it feels like about two days. We’ve crammed an awful lot in a short period of time but it literally feels like we’ve only been here five minutes.

I think it’s like all things in life. When you live and breathe it and you’re doing it everyday which is how it feels, before you know it you look up and the five-year plan that I mentioned – we’re five years in. It’s been a whirlwind to be fair.


MK: Taking it right back to the beginning, how did it all come about? How did Stewart Donald and his team find Eastleigh and find the Spitfires?

SD: Well it was through a connection at Oxford United where I was the shirt sponsor.

Glenn Hoddle phoned me thinking that I might buy Oxford. I was never going to do that.

I suppose I’ve told the story a couple of times but we then had a look at clubs and Eastleigh were on the radar.

For one reason or another Glenn didn’t then go through with it. I didn’t think I was going to go through with it, but the people who owned the club at the time asked me to go through with it, and I thought, yeah ok, let’s have a bit of fun.
I have to say I thought it would cost me £50,000-£100,000 a year and it would be a bit of fun, but as soon as I got in to it and I saw the passion it soon wet my whistle and I thought I’ve got to really commit to this.


MK: We see the team out on the pitch but there is a team of you that run this club and put this together. How has that developed and grown over these five years?


SD: Well it’s grown massively.

When we walked in the door I think there was Shauna here and Dave Malone and the coaching lads.

Tony Shiner was doing the pitch, there’s another lad that does the pitch with him in Luke. Kenny’s come in, Mark Jewell’s come in, Tom Coffey’s come in.

There’s a band of volunteers, Sharon’s in, I mean the team has just grown and I think it’s going to grow an awful lot more very quickly with the new building coming on.

The turnover’s gone up massively. It’s gone from what was not really if I’m honest much of a business and a club that was sort of steady doing what it was doing. It now feels like a business that needs an awful lot of people looking after it.

If we just stay at the level we are at and had no ambition we could probably get by on what we’ve got but we want to add to the facilities and we want to improve the team and we want to be successful.

As much as investing in the team on the field, we’ve got to do that off the field. It’s going to be a big six months for that.


MK: You mention the five year plan. We are five years in to that plan now. Heading in to this fifth year, are you where you wanted to be? Are you further forward than you expected to be?


SD: No, if I’m honest we’re not as far forward on the pitch as I wanted to be when I came in.

Every time a football club is bought people talk about five year plans. I genuinely had a view that in five years time we’d be watching League football which means that we’ve got to get promoted this year. That’s not out of the question where we’re nine points off I think tonight with a game in hand so it’s still possible.

But I would have hoped we’d be further up and more progressed than what we are. We’re not a million miles from where I wanted to be because we got out of the first league, we steadied the ship then we got out.

Now when people talk about Eastleigh a lot of people forget I think this is our third season (in the Vanarama National).

People talk about Eastleigh as if they are a long standing National League Premier team that have been around for years and that’s the way that everyone seems to see us. So that in itself is a big success. But for me, if we get promoted I’ll be on course. If we don’t, I’ll have to put that in to my next five year plan.


MK: You mentioned there people talk about Eastleigh as this club that seems to be long established. I’m going to ask you about the highs and lows and I’m guessing a lot of that understanding of who Eastleigh are and their image of Eastleigh is down to the FA Cup success. Two years on the bounce making it to the Third Round, that’s a remarkable achievement.


SD: Yeah, and to be fair the FA Cup success has really helped us with regard to attracting new fans and raising the profile.

The FA Cup for Non-League teams is massive and we haven’t had an awful lot of success at the club prior to me coming. To get in the Second Round for the first time and then two Third Round matches in the last two seasons is a big achievement and it’s helped the profile of the club massively.

It obviously gives that feeling to people outside the club that now, if you talk to a lot of just general football fans there’ll have heard of Eastleigh. Whereas five years ago, I think they’d probably have to look at what league we were in.


MK: One of the big days in this five year history so far was obviously promotion from the Conference South, that was a memorable day for you.


SD: What a wonderful day. Yes, it will live with me forever as hopefully it will for all the people that were here.

It’s always a massive achievement to get promotion but when it’s one up, as it is in this league, to actually finish top and the way we came on the charge and the togetherness of everybody and to see the efforts that you put in actually get rewarded is a wonderful feeling.

Then to see the people that were here when you wandered in and you say yes we’re going to do this and this is our plan and everything else, to actually then be able to deliver it for everybody, it was a very special day.


MK: One of the pictures that stand out from that day is one of yourself and Derik Brooks, who set this club up as Swaythling Athletic many years ago.

It seems as though there is a real essence of not forgetting that past as well.

We’re sat in the Derik Brooks room as we do this, respecting where the club has come from is something that you’ve also done.


SD: Yeah I hope so and I think there’s more for us to do to show how proud we are of the history of the club. But that was a special day for Derek.

I would be surprised if five years ago when he was in the board meetings with a club in the condition that it was in when I wandered in, whether he genuinely thought that he would see that day. So for him to see that day – I think the first season we came in we won the Hampshire Senior Cup. We got promoted, then to see him on TV when we got promoted on BT Sport, then for him to be at the live games and the FA Cup etc. (he’s missed one or two of those which I know will disappoint him). But to be able to play your part in delivering that to someone who has been at the club for sixty-odd years, well seventy years now, it is great to see.

But also for all the fans that have been here. When we wandered in, 300 or 400 of them and I hope that they sit there and think blimey, I can’t believe this has happened to our club. Hopefully they sit there and are very proud of what we are doing.


MK: You mentioned the fans, they are a big part of this club. Something you’ve been very supportive of as well is subsidising tickets and transport as well. Why was that such a big focus to do those things?


SD: Well, it boils back down to my Oxford days.

Oxford is a different club now to the one a few years ago, but at the time I felt like a lot of football fans. A little bit disconnected with my home town club. I made a lot of effort, financial effort as well to help them, and you just feel that you are like lots of fans pushed to one side not really part of the club and that’s not how I remember football being when my dad took me to football.

Or when I was a teenager growing up on the terraces, that wasn’t how I remember football to be. I always felt far more connected to my club than I did with Oxford at the time.

So I thought, as part of this project, if I could get fans to feel a real connection with the club and feel that they have a real involvement in it, that they’re involved in the direction of it, what they actually think matters so we take their views on board and all that goes with that, that they would actually buy into that and it would be refreshing for them.

Also of course lots of people can’t afford to go to football that would love to go to football and you see lots of kids I think that follow Premiership teams, nothing wrong with that at all, but their families sometimes can’t afford to take them to games.

There’s nothing like a cold Tuesday night and a burger and the smell of the clubs. I thought if I make that as I experienced it, I felt that the town would get behind it and to be fair at the moment that looks right.


MK: And they are rewarding you with their support as well. 1500 away at Brentford in the FA Cup.


SD: Yes, unbelievable, unbelievable. We sit and talk about that and I talk to Mark Jewell going up, we went up to the game obviously and I said to him and Kenny (Amor), this could be emotional because when you wander in here and I think there were 212 fans at my first game and you see 1600 people, most of whom you don’t recognise going to an away game, you think this is working so it’s fantastic.


MK: Seeing you with the fans, you engage with the fans. You make time for them.

Is that the secret to it? The fact that they feel like they have a connection to you and if they’ve got a problem or if they’ve got an idea they feel like they can come to you.

You’re not distancing yourself, which then brings that appeal that they want to come and support and be a part of this journey with you.


SD: I don’t know, it’s obviously something because I liken ourselves to Dover quite regularly, I mean that they went up with us and they’ve had a similar amount of success to us in this league. One play-off, one not quite, their fan base was bigger than ours when we came up yet ours is approaching double theirs now. I think they’re getting 1000-1300, we are regularly now getting over 2000 so it isn’t just the amount of money you spend and it isn’t just the success on the pitch. Those things will ebb and flow.

The trick is I think to try and make the whole experience as enjoyable as possible and to make people feel they’re part of a day.

The football is going to go up and down and to be fair, at the moment, the football is a little bit up and down but the fans have stuck with us.

We’ve had over 2000 home fans I think for the last four home games and that’s a massive achievement for us. And quite what makes them do that, hopefully it’s a number of things. It’s the affordability of it, it’s how they feel when they come down here. I think you have to bring a certain amount of people so that it gives you that atmosphere. I think the other thing that I’m a big fan of is if you’ve got a 5000 capacity stadium and you only get 1000, how much does it actually cost you to open the doors and let 2000 or 3000 people come in for free and see if they like it? And if some of them like it and realise then it’s cheap to come back, then it’s the way that we’ve advertised ourselves.

Every time that we have done a free game, as we will be doing in a couple of weeks, that free game has got higher and higher and higher and the season tickets have got larger and larger and larger and while people go “how can you afford it?”. Well, that’s why our season tickets have gone from 30-odd to 1300.

It’s the cheapest way for us to market ourselves really.


MK: To keep fans coming back you need the performances on the pitch as well so let’s turn our attention to that aspect of the club.

Over the course of five years there’s been some change in playing personnel. There’s still a few players here that we’re playing right at the very beginning of your journey.

We’re obviously in the January transfer window now. Do you imagine much comings and goings in that period?


SD: Possibly. It’s been a tough season. There’s no two ways about it.

I changed the manager early on. I felt that was the right thing to do. I thought we had the right man in Ronnie (Ronnie Moore) and we may well have done, there were just a couple of things there that weren’t working for both of us and I was loathed to change again so of course what you’ve had is a massive amount of upheaval.

Of course Martin (Martin Allen) has then inherited basically a squad created by Chris (Chris Todd), altered by Ronnie at quite a lot of expense and now he’s got a squad that wasn’t his that he’s evaluating. And in that, it’s one of those dilemmas to the chairman. There not quite close enough to the play-offs to have a real go but there not quite far away enough to give up. So, Martin being Martin, he wants to win every game and feels that if he is fully backed we’ve got a chance. And me being me is thinking blimey I expected to spend x on this team and it’s loads more than that and do I want to compound that by adding even more to it and possibly not getting there?

But to be fair, you want to back your manager but it’s just got to be sensible. And to be fair the nucleus of the squad is here. So hopefully a tinkering of one or two if a couple of results come our way in the next week or two I think.


MK: You mentioned managers there. There’s been three this season and over the years you’ve had Richard Hill, and Ian Baird was here to start off with.

When you’ve been in charge of this club and you’re running this club, how difficult is it for you as a chairman? Because I think every decision you’ve made has not come across as a rash decision. It’s come across as a decision that’s actually taken the club forward every time. But how difficult for you is that decision as a chairman to make that call and make that judgement?


SD: I think if I’m honest I made a couple of bad calls and possibly/hopefully a couple of good ones.

They’re the hardest thing in the world to do because I get quite close to the managers but the reality of it is, you need to to understand how your money is being spent and what’s going on.

At the end of the day they are here to do a job and they’re here to progress the whole club, so it’s never easy to change them but I also can’t get away from my gut instinct.
I don’t want to be a chairman that changes my managers regularly and obviously I have done that this season. You know when I wandered in with Ian (Ian Baird) there was a lot of clamours to change. He had been here a long time.

I didn’t feel that was fair bearing in mind the circumstances, so I backed him and then just the same as Chris Todd really I gave him the start of the season.

I didn’t see an improvement from the finish of the previous season so they’re probably two mistakes because I probably should have changed them at the end of the season and given the new man the season.

I think they were mistakes but they are two people I was extremely fond of and really hoped that they would deliver and I’m sure they would say given more time that they would have done. I went with that and they were both very respectful of the decisions.

When I look at Richard (Richard Hill), Richard did amazing for us. A superb win ratio and I can’t believe really that the first time he lost two leagues games on the bounce he thought enough was enough and the club needed freshening up.

There was no pressure from me to change it. It was working well. He got us in the play-offs but you just felt that in his heart of hearts he had changed so that was easier in the sense that Richard felt that, but disappointing in the sense that I felt had he given us a bit longer, he would have finished the journey.

Chris then did well. As I say I probably got that one wrong and then I brought Ronnie in. I think really, the geography in that, Ronnie hadn’t managed down south. He was very experienced. I thought we need an experienced manager so we went for that and I think the actual mechanics of the situation with regards to having a family and the commute and the other pressures behind the scenes meant that really, probably in hindsight, I got that slightly wrong.

But is Ronnie Moore a good manager? I think he probably is a very good manager to be fair and given time he may well have done it. But the personal circumstance may have made that not doable..

So we then move on to Martin and Martin’s got to deliver. He knows that, he hasn’t got to deliver next week, six weeks, he’s just got to deliver the dream of League football for us. And he knows that. He’s committed to it. He’s done it before. He’s been there and got the t-shirt. He’ll need me to back him, to be patient with him and he fits all the boxes that I think the club need. So it’ll need a bit of patience, no knee-jerk reactions so hopefully Martin is here for the long-term.


MK: Let’s look long-term then, where is the club heading in the next five years? We’ve talked about five years gone. Where can we see Eastleigh in the next five years?


SD: On the pitch it’s all about getting out of this league. If we can get out of this league, I think a lot of teams bounce from League Two to League One.

I’ve got quite a lot of connections in League One. I know Chris (Chris Wilder) at Sheffield United and my involvement at Oxford United and I know Kelvin (Kelvin Thomas) at Northampton so I’ve got a pretty good spread on league budgets there and they do get published so I feel that if we could get to League One, we could certainly have a budget well in to the top half of that league which means we should be aiming for the top half of League One.

I think if we were in League Two at this moment in time, I say to you we’ll be near the top of League One in five years but getting out of this league with one up that’s the challenge.

Luton took five years, Oxford couldn’t win it and went up in the play-offs. Other teams haven’t been successful coming back.

I would like to think in five years we can get ourselves comfortably established as a League One team and that’s the aim on the pitch. We’ve just got to get out of this league.


MK: Off the pitch the stadium has developed in the previous five years.

When you first walked through this door there was just the main stand and trees all around the outside.

You’ve now got a fantastic Mackoy stand at the far end, a community stand and you’ve got this wonderful development happening here right now and you’re investing off the pitch as well.

What’s your plan with the stadium for the next few years?


SD: I think the stadium will change probably as much in the next five years, subject to the council letting us, it will change as much as it has changed in the previous five years.

We’ve got to get this building done. It’s still not designed well enough for families. Segregation needs looking at, the floodlights aren’t quite right, there’s an awful lot to do to actually improve the experience for the fans and that’s what it’s all about.

This facility will help. It’s behind the goal, not at the side unfortunately. It was easier to do it that way for the mechanics of the car park at this stage.

So that will give us a much nicer facility and it will give us an additional revenue stream, which is vital for the club, which was the idea behind it. But I would like to see down the side a really nice family stand where corporate guests, box holders, people that currently come feel more able to bring their wives and their children in a nice environment where they don’t have to go out in the rain to queue for a burger and go out in the rain to go to the toilet. So there’s an awful lot to do to actually improve that experience and I believe if we do that, the crowds will swell even further.

So you can expect those types of developments over the next five years subject to the council saying yes which I think they will. I think if you take a picture of it now and in five years time, and just like it would have five years ago, it will look like a different ground and a different club.


MK: So for you, you want to establish this club as part of the community that everyone at Eastleigh and the surrounding area is really proud of.

SD: One hundred per cent and this new facility up here I think will cater for 250 sit-down guests or whatever it is and a nice restaurant downstairs. So hopefully people from the town and Southampton and Winchester and the larger area will then feel it’s a place to visit and spend their money. Not just on a match day but on other days and we’ll do it gradually and we’ll try to balance the book on each one.

If we can get the facility open seven days a week generating income that can all be fed back in to the club, and the reality of that is that will either mean we spend even more money on the team and the facilities or I don’t have to spend quite as much, which will be quite nice.


MK: From what it sounds like Stewart Donald and the team are here to stay.


SD: Absolutely, yes.


MK: Stewart thanks very much. Congratulations on the previous five years and best of luck for the next.


SD: Thank you


You can listen to the interview here:


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