Jamie Swinney: Stenhousemuir FC and supporting the local community

LIKE most clubs in Scotland, Stenhousemuir face a challenging period as they look to get through the season without fans at Ochilview, and to be able to restart the current campaign after its recent shutdown. However, the fight for the club to survive beyond the pandemic has not deterred themfrom a vital community initiative that has seen them earn recognition from the Scottish Government for the work they are doing.

At the forefront of the community drive is Chief Executive Jamie Swinney. He took time to speak to the Scottish Football Forums Podcast this week to chat about the work within the community that has attracted such positive attention to the club. In addition, he answered key questions on last season’s reconstruction fallout, the challenges of completing the season and aspirations for 1000 fans at home matches once restrictions are eventually lifted.

What does the role of Chief Executive entails at a club like Stenhousemuir? I’m guessing that it’s more than just a link between Ian McMenamy the Chairman and Davie Irons the manager, and there’s going to be a lot of community work in there?

If you’re at a bigger club, you’ll have a team of staff under you that’ll cover different departments at a football club. At Stenhousemuir, we clearly don’t have a massive team of staff. We’ve got some fantastic staff in our office and community department, and lots of great volunteers. My role at the football club is to manage the football department, just to be clear not picking or signing players, that’s the managers job, but to support the football management team and everything that goes with that. So everything that we can do to make sure that the football operations are as strong as we can, develop a football strategy to, hopefully, drive performance to support the manager, develop a proper recruitment and talent, develop our sports science and video analysis aspects at the club. 

At another club, you might have a Head of Commercial, a Commercial Director, that’s just part of my role, I just have to lead on the commercial aspects as well. At another club, you might have a Chief Executive of your charity – again, that’s up to myself, I manage the community programme, but a fantastic pool of people in there. Some clubs might have a facility manager, again that’s me so you can see the trend here. Some clubs have a media officer, again that’s me so effectively, as a Chief Executive at a smaller club, and I think this is where it’s very beneficial in a really strange way, is while I do a lot of hours, and a lot of unsocial hours, I do feel that I’m in a privileged position. I get to see all aspects of the club, I get to influence all aspects of the club and, from my own learning point of view, as someone who didn’t have a career path in mind other than wanting to be involved in football, to be able to influence all parts of a football club is fantastic and I’ve learned so much from being Chief Executive that I would never have got that from another role. From learning commercial aspects, the whole financial side and financial management of a business, you don’t get that in other roles in football, so I’ve been very fortunate to learn so much from the role, to pretty much summarise it’s everything.

Just when you thought you were starting to learn, along came Covid last year, which presented its own challenge.We’ll never forget Friday 13 March in a hurry because that’s when football got stopped, for you guys it went all the way to October. How challenging was that for you, from those early weeks in particular when it became clear that football wasn’t happening?

I think number one was fear of can the club survive? I’ll be honest, football actually went out the window, even for someone like myself where football was such a big part of my life, football just got absolutely put on the back burner. All we thought about initially was “can we make sure this club survives” because this was before we knew what level of support would be available, for example the furlough scheme, and we never knew when we’d get back to football. So, initially it was a fear of this club could go under, but I’m pretty sure that was the same fear at pretty much every boardroom in Scotland, I’m sure most clubs had that fear of wait a minute here, if this is six months, eight months without finance, this club might not survive! I would imagine that most clubs would only operate with a few months of cash reserves, but I wouldn’t expect many clubs would have a yearof cash reserves where they could just run with no income.We certainly didn’t, we had probably three or four months, so at first you’re saying we’ve got enough to run until the summer, but if there’s no financial support what happens?What we did as a club was, we knew that football wasn’t coming back for a long time, and we just focussed all our energy on our community help initiative on developing and supporting people within our community, carrying on with what we could do with our Warriors in the Community programme, and for three or four months football, and I mean this in the nicest possible way, was something we knew we’d get back to at some point, we weren’t able to influence it, we just focused on making sure we done everything we possibly could to help vulnerable people, and I’m really glad we did that.

At the end of season and reconstruction talks last year, there was a chance for clubs to properly come together, instead they were pulling each other apart, and self interest really came out. From you and Stenhousemuir’s point of view when entering those discussions, knowing that you weren’t going to get relegated and you weren’t going to get promoted either, what viewpoint did you think was best at that point?

We were a club that wasn’t going to be overly affected by the decision, so right away we need to make that point clear. There were clubs that were significantly affected by the decision, so we were in a fortunate position that it didn’t make a massive difference to us there and then. So from that point of view, we need to distinguish the difference between us and Hearts, Stranraer, Partick because these clubs all had reasons to object and so on. What I would’ve liked to have seen would’ve been a decision that had the least harm to Scottish Football as a whole. The decision to call the season was 100% the right decision, there was no chance that we were going to get back to playing football and carry on the season, categorically that was the right decision. However, the part for me that was not got right what was least damaging for Scottish Football, so no club, in my opinion, should’ve been relegated. If we were allowed to vote for this as a singular option, you end the season and I would’ve personally added the two clubs in, Brora and Kelty, and, therefore, the Premiership would’ve been a 14 team league, and every other league would’ve been the same. The only thing that would’ve needed tweaking the Premiership fixtures to suit a 14 team league, but you would’ve had no club significantly affected by the pandemic even more so than they were already going to be affected by a pandemic. From a Scottish Football viewpoint, I would’ve liked to have seen a decision that combined the two if possible that said we end the season and we slightly reconstruct the leagues to make sure that nobody is relegated, and we didn’t achieve that, and what ensued after that was a pretty dark period in Scottish Football where not many people could come away with their head held high from that period. 

I understand that it’s a three week shutdown, but have they (the SFA and SPFL) said it’s three weeks and review and we should hopefully be back playing? What update have you had?

The update is the same as the press got really in that we are shutdown until 1 February and, as far as we’re aware, hopefully we start football again in 1 February, I am worried that won’t happen, I fear that won’t happen. The Scottish Government made the difficult decision to extend the schools online learning until the middle of February, therefore I can’t see, and would understand, how you could allow part time football clubs to return when the schools aren’t able to return. If we knew why they cancelled or suspended football in the lower leagues in the first place, that would help. If we thenhad a plan on how to get a return to the lower leagues, that would also help. When neither of those two things exist, you don’t really understand the rationale for the decisions. I don’t know when we’re going to get back to playing football, and I don’t think anybody in League One, Two or below knows the answer to that question.

What are the highlights of the clubs involvement in the community over the past year?

Probably getting recognition from the Scottish Government. The Scottish Government recognised it as a community anchor organisation, and that’s something I never expected, a football club to ever be seen by the government in that light. That was testament to the incredible work of 220 people, it was an unbelievable community effort, so this was not a one man, two man, five man operation, this was a full community out in force. So that recognition was what everybody deserved, every volunteer and every member of staff, every supporter who helped us. Whether it was giving up their time, giving a donation to the football club, volunteering to do shopping trips, all the many things they came up with, that was recognition for everybody, so I think that would be our highlight.

Whilst it’s fantastic the work that you’re doing, keeping the name out there, the ultimate goal is, when fans are allowed back, that local community can thank you further by coming to Ochilview on a Saturday and try to boost your attendances a bit.

It would be fantastic. As a club, our average crowd is about 500. If we could ever get that to 700-800, you start to become a club that can compete at the next level in Scottish Football. Myself and the Vice-Chairman David Reid, people might think it’s a bit pie in the sky, but we’ve got an ambition to get to 1000 home supporters. People might think that’s ridiculousbecause we’re only sitting at 500, so how can you double you’re home support? However, we’re ambitious, we’re going to try it, we’ve got a reward scheme where young people come along and get their card stamped that builds up towards merchandise that is free of charge to encourage young people to come. We’ve got discounted season tickets for community members, we’ve got ticket for school programmes, we literally do everything that we possibly can to get people into the ground. Through time, sticking to a long term plan and a vision, you might just find some time in the future that we’ll get a higher number of people coming to the games.

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