Jamie Swinney: Stenhousemuir, Hibernian partnership and looking for the future

Photograph courtesy of Stenhousemuir Football Club

Written by Colin Byiers

Stenhousemuir CEO, Jamie Swinney, has been at the forefront of the new strategies that the League 2 side has put into place recently, and desire to improve, not just Stenhousemuir, but to help all of Scottish Football.

Jamie spoke with me recently about the partnership with Hibernian, why a League 2 side needs a Performance Analysis department and the plans for the future of the club.

Firstly Jamie, how has the club coped with football in the last 6 months without fans?

I think it’s a season we’d all happily like to see the back of and to never think about again. Whilst we’ve been able to play games, I don’t think anybody has enjoyed it. I’ve not enjoyed games, even games we’ve won, I haven’t enjoyed them in the same way as we would have if it had been a normal Ochilview with 500 people, with a full hospitality and the bar being busy. It’s not the same. First and foremost, we’ve got through it like most of the clubs, and we’ve done the best we can with the resources we have. We have tried to be on point with every Covid protocol, and I think credit to all the lower league clubs, who, in my opinion, have been great. There is no evidence to suggest that there is a spread on the park anyway, but I think the lower league clubs have done a really good job actually to stick to the Covid protocols with small groups of staff and volunteers who help the club. We, like everyone else, have done our absolute best and get the best out of a bad season. As quick as we can get this season finished and hopefully move on to the better one the better.

Have your fans embraced the streaming service available?

They have, we still have to be better at it. We were one of the first ones the embrace the Pixellot technology, which is very good, but there are clearly some issues with the tracking sometimes goes off and you miss big moments. Unfortunately, our fans have missed a couple of goals, which is inexcusable. We invested a good amount of money in this resource, and we were proactive to get it in early and have a really good product. What have is a fantastic commentary team, but we need to get the camera work sorted. Thankfully, we can now override the camera and use the joystick to make sure it’s tracking all the time. We’ll make sure that going forward that every fan, not just Stenhousemuir supporters, that is paying their £8 to watch the game, get the best possible product that we can offer.

If it was up to me, I would be trying to understand the 3pm blackout on a Saturday that normally exists. I would like to see if there is a way to remove that for the lower leagues. I understand that at the Premiership level and Championship level that you can’t have SKY are putting in millions of pounds over a season a club can just run it on their live stream for £10 or £12. The geography of some of the clubs means that some people just can’t get to games, so what’s stopping a club offering a streaming service to people in the UK? I think the option has to be offered to the lower league clubs. Some might not take it, but I know we as a club would. Hopefully, it’s a potential positive legacy of the Covid pandemic.

In December, you announced a new partnership with Hibernian Football Club. How is that going to work, and what are the benefits to you as a club?

“West stand, Easter Road Stadium” by Richard Webbis licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

This is quite an exciting and, hopefully, interesting development that can be replicated across Scottish football. Stenhousemuir used to have an academy, but due to financial constraints, it’s just not possible for a part-time team to have an academy. So, when I first took on the role, (of CEO), we needed to find a way of still working with young players but getting them in our first team. I think it’s been an opportunity missed by the bigger clubs also, because they need their young players to get game time. One thing they can not give these players through reserve matches or under 20’s matches, is competitive football against men.

We as lower league clubs, and I include all part time teams in this, have the opportunity to play a really important role in developing future Scotland players and improving our National game. The key thing for us was that we wanted to pair up with a club who were willing to look at us as an equal partner. We could have partnered with a bigger club but then the relationship is skewed and the bigger feel they are the bigger club, so they’ll tell you what to do and for me, it becomes a one-way street at that point. We had a couple of conversations with other clubs who were open to the idea but they maybe weren’t as forth coming as Hibs.

Once I spoke with Graeme Mathie, the Sporting Director, Hibs were interested in this from day one because they saw the value and didn’t see Stenhousemuir as a club they can use, they saw Stenhousemuir as a club that they could work with properly. After varies conversations, we arrived at this very exciting and progressive approach with two football clubs working together. Does it simply mean that Hibs give us loan players? It’s more technical than that, but yes Hibs will give Stenhousemuir loan players. We will also have a coach that will work between the two clubs.

As part of this partnership, we will know every single player from 16-18 at Hibs and we will know the players because we have a liaison coach, who this season is Graeme Smith, and he’ll work with the Hibs development squad, and help with the training, and he’ll be around our first team when the Hibs players come in. He will be constantly assessing but giving feedback to both clubs on how the players are getting on. If we work hand-in-hand with Hibs, these young players will come in a play bounce matches with us, play bounce matches against us.

They will then come into train with us at 16–17-year-old and we’ll know them very well, so our manager Davie Irons will be able to say, “that player is good enough to play in our first team”. Graeme Smith then goes back to Hibs and says, “here’s what this player is good at, and here’s how he’s getting on, but here’s the things, we as clubs, need to work on with him to improve”. That hopefully explains that it’s more than just a loan deal, it’s about a proper partnership on how to take a young player, and somewhere on his journey from 16 to the Hibs first team, he’ll come into the Stenhousemuir pathway at the right time, and we’ll support his development and move him on.

If you are a 17-year-old and you can get 25-30 appearances under your belt at Stenhousemuir, or Peterhead, or any of the part time clubs, you will go back to your parent club a better player. For any of the other clubs, we are not a closed book, if we can help in any way, by sharing ideas and practices we’ve put in place with Hibs, then we are happy to share with other clubs. This is about helping the National game and not just about Stenhousemuir and Hibs.

The club has recently brought in 12 new members of staff to be part of the new Performance Analysis Team. What will that entail and does a part-time League 2 side need such roles?

Analysis in common in academies, but when you come to part time football, they are run in a different way. Some clubs don’t embrace the science or new ideas, but on the continent, Sport Scientists were on the go 20 years before we embraced it.

We are always behind the curve in Scotland, so what I’m trying to do at Stenhousemuir is to give us an environment and structure that is as good as a full-time team but with part time resources. All our analysists are volunteers, which is the big difference between our analysis department and Rangers and Celtic, for example. What’s stopping us from having the best analysis team?

If we focused on the lack of resources, then we would never progress as a football club. When we first advertised for some analysists, I was blown away by the standard of applicant, by the enthusiasm, by the desire for these guys to get involved with the club. We have two teams; one is a Performance team, which looks at performances, individual performances, and the opposition. Then we have a recruitment analysis team which looks at potential targets for Stenhousemuir.

Those 12 guys have all got different skill sets, they all bring something different to the table. More often, when they bring something forward, it has gone beyond what I was expecting. One of our analysists recently took all the centre midfielders in League 2 and analysed them in every single stat that you could imagine. Then they came up with a scoring system where you score them on their key attributes and KPI’s and put it all into a document. What an incredible piece of work it was!

All we are doing is trying to use some technology and advancements for the benefit to Stenhousemuir Football Club. Davie Irons will still sign whatever player Davie Irons wants to sign for the club, it’s not us saying that this player has the best stats, go sign him. It’s not like that. However, if Davie is looking for a centre midfielder for next season, we can give him as much information and video clips, both good and bad about any player, and compare them to what we currently have so that Davie can come to a better decision.

Our department, outside the top few teams, I believe can delivery the same quality and key attributes that you would at a Celtic or a Rangers, but doing it in a more creative way. I do believe that Scottish football lags behind in some areas and it’s up to everybody to make things better. It’sup to me to do what’s best for Stenhousemuir. We are about to recruit 7 new media officers to create a proper media team. There is nothing stopping other clubs from doing it, it’s just about them embracing the change and moving out of their comfort zone.

What’s your focus then, footballing wise? What would you see as being successful?

Success for a part-time club would be top end of League 1. East Fife, for example, have been up there for a number of years now and they are a good team. Our aspiration, long term, would be top end of League 1, and if we get to experience the Championship, that would be great. It would be tough to sustain a challenge as a part-time team in the Championship, but it would be great to get there.

We need to rely on organic growth. We never rely on investors, we never have. Over the last 2 or 3 years, we have manged to grow different aspects of the football club. Our community programme, I believe, is one of the best in the country. Our commercial department is at a level where I am really happy with. That’s how a club like Stenhousemuir gets up the leagues, because we will never be a club with the biggest budget. Realistically, we have to get the club up the leagues ourselves, and that has to be done with a strategy, with a plan, and a long-term vision.

Finally, you have done all this during, what is a difficult period for business, not just football, so why do it now and not during a stable period?

I’d argue that this is the best time. When I came in 3 years ago, we’ve always been so busy growing aspects of the club and spending so much time in other areas of the club. That took a lot of time to get it to a stage where I was comfortable with it.

When football stopped, there was this extra time, where you would normally be at the training or at the matches and you got that time back. Instead of doing nothing, I decided to do two things; how do I do things for the football club that will make us better long-term.

The other thing was some independent research of what’s out there, what works, what are other clubs in other countries doing, what are other clubs in Scotland doing? While it’s been a really horrible year, it’s given me an opportunity, and it’s given Stenhousemuir an opportunity to look to the future and to put in proper building blocks for the future of this club, and I genuinely believe it’s been the right time to do it.

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