Image Credit: Dom Smith
York City Football Club were due to move into their wonderful new stadium last May. But as is often the case with these things, that never happened.
In the light of their pending move away from creaking Bootham Crescent, I took the short FA Cup-style stroll through terraced housing from the station to the old ground.
There I met Commercial Manager Chris Pegg, and the club manager Steve Watson a Premier League player with Newcastle United, Aston Villa and Everton back in the day. I wanted to find out how the city’s biggest football club is run, its impact on the community, and what its plans are going forward. Some of the things I found out were astonishing.
“York City is a club that’s quite small, compared to your Arsenals or your Manchester Citys,” admitted Pegg. “We have four or six fulltime members of staff that are here on a working day.
“My role covers all the money-generating sides of the club. We’ve got a few different streams. There’s the club shop – a tiny little club shop in the corner of York, where you can buy merchandise from the club. When I first came in, it was a case of having to come to Bootham Crescent to buy anything for York City. So, we set up an E-commerce site, and part of my job is managing that. Everyone shops online these days, so why shouldn’t York City? We ordered the same number of shirts this year as we did last year, and we sold out in three months. We have volunteers in the club shop who run it on a daily basis.
“Another part of the role is hospitality. It’s not the nicest place in the world – I’ll be quite honest, I’m not proud of it. But Bootham Crescent was built [in] 1932 – you can’t do much about it! We get a few comments saying it’s got that feel to it of an old club, but the ones at the new stadium are much nicer – they’ll definitely attract a better calibre of client. Moving to the new stadium is a whole new kettle of fish. We can fit 45 [into hospitality] here; we can fit 450 in the new place – [we’re] timesing the capacity by ten.
On the other side of the building, we have the Brew York Lounge. We’ve got a great partnership with Brew York, the brewers in the city, and they sponsor the lounge. It’s full every week. It’s cheap and cheerful – you pay a fiver to get in, you get a [matchday] programme. It’s fan-orientated, you get to meet the man of the match, and if York City win you get a free beer. It is really good fan engagement; where we can, we get ex-players to go in and say hello. At the new stadium, we’ve got a lounge for 250 people, so it was a case of how ‘can we put something in place that we can then upscale to 250?’
“The other side is sponsorship. If you go to any football club, you’ll see the [advertising] boards around the ground. You get a programme on the day with adverts inside them, we do website advertising, we do all sorts of commercial and corporate opportunities for the city of York and its businesses to get involved in. You can be a match sponsor, at the new stadium [there’ll be] executive boxes, and we do shirt sponsorship. We’ve been on TV three times this season so how can we give them exposure in the York market and beyond? We have academy sponsors. York St John [University] sponsor our academy. We know the guys at the University of York quite well, so hopefully there is scope to work with them.
“There is a fantastic company called Make It York, a branch of York Council. They do amazing stuff to promote the city of York. We have a good partnership with them to maximise how we can be forward-facing as a community club, adding value to the community. We had players gardening and getting their hands dirty just last week. You want to put 110% into everything, but it can be so different. You have to put in those extra hours because it is bloody interesting. I definitely don’t regret joining the club.
“We work quite closely with Dan (Simmonite), our media man. Dan coming into the club has been fantastic. Before he joined, we didn’t have the skill set that he has – doing engaging, personality-driven social media. In the age of social media, if you’re not using media you’re screwed. He’s got retweets off Conor McGregor and BBC Football. That’s a great selling point. We’ve got young fans that ‘like’ York City on Facebook and on Twitter, and the older fans pick up the paper. That’s how we communicate with our fans.
“We have a fantastic club secretary, Lisa [Charlton]. She looks after the players and the managers. There’s a fantastic management team with Steve and Mickey [Cummins]. They’re very engaging, I couldn’t ask for more. We have so many volunteers at the club, everyone pulls together on a matchday.
“York City should be a league club. We get higher attendances than a lot of [EFL] League Two teams [two divisions higher]. The board of directors want to get there, they’ve got a plan to get there both on and off the pitch… but a huge part of that is the new stadium.
“I think they’ll go up. The directors were quite adamant that Steve and Mickey can get us promoted and sustain it at the next level. [Steve] was given a mandate to build a team that can do that. We went on a fantastic run at the beginning of the season, I think we went 22 games unbeaten. I went to a couple of events in the city, and it [creates] lots of positivity around the city.
“The main hinderance has been the stadium. When I had my interviews [for this role] last February, it was ‘we’re going to be in the new stadium in May. We’ll be in sooner rather than later – start planning for it now.’ It’s just been a case of waiting the whole time. You’re trying to get stuff done but it’s just a case of dragging it out. We’re still waiting, which is quite annoying, but you’ve got to take these things as they come.
“Coming into the role, you see football from a different angle; you see it means so much more. When you speak to the fans here, you see it’s so much more than just coming to the football on a Saturday. They have a real affiliation for the club.
“We had a fan recently with quite serious mental health problems. They’ve been getting lots of support from fellow fans and saying how football has helped them. He says how he was literally going to commit suicide one day. Someone who sat next to him at the match had noticed something was wrong, went to see him on the day and talked him out of it. He’s got some help because of it, and it’s all done through football. Mickey, the assistant manager, wants to get involved so much. He went to the fan to speak to him.
“We have a great foundation who do loads for dementia. Sport is a great vehicle for social change. The more we can do for the community, the better the community will be.
On the stadium’s pending completion, Pegg offered an optimistic response. “Progress is underway. It is going to be finished. It’s all out of the club’s hands. We can’t wait to get in there; it’s going to be fantastic for the city. There will be a leisure centre, a library, York Against Cancer will have a shop there, more restaurants, a bowling alley, cinema, minigolf, and apparently there is a laser quest! [People] can spend money in the city and use the facilities that this fantastic stadium is going to offer.”
I waited around in the hospitality box, which looked more like a Sunday School room, before Steve Watson joined us at what was frankly a kitchen table to give the week’s press conference. “There’s always lots to work on,” he stated, honestly. “With the squad that we’ve got, I’d back them against anybody in the league. They’ve [performed] time and time again, certainly more times than not. They’ve done a hell of a lot more good than bad this season.
Boldly, I asked him if his side will get promoted. “I hope we get promoted. That’s what I want to do, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. We’re as strong as anybody.”
As I clambered back up the city towards more familiar territory, a line that Chris Pegg had said about the club’s community work still resonated with me.
“We want people to support York City, but we want York City to support people.”