A stand to deliver

The other day I was flicking through a couple of older books about Somerset CCC. I do that now and again. One book, published way back in 1984 called “Somerset County Cricket Club Scrapbook”, was written by former player and current authority on the game Vic Marks, a spinning all-rounder who I saw play for Somerset many times in my childhood. On page 80 of this publication there is a black & white aerial shot of the County Ground from 1980. The ground and surrounding areas all looked totally different to the landscape now of course, thirty-five years later.

Nice view, shame about the pitch!

This all got me reminiscing about watching Somerset in a time gone by. A more innocent age. When the crowd was the boundary. Sitting in various stands and areas that have since been removed and showing no loyalty to any one place, moving as the mood took me. Watching Richards in his glory, Botham in his majestic pomp and the fire of Garner in full flight. Cheering on local boys made good: Dredge, Denning, Burgess, Popplewell, Jennings, Breakwell to name just a few – all built of Somerset stock. Watching the club win trophies for the first time in their history. An illicit sip of cider when my uncle wasn’t watching. Later, when I was older and braver, an illicit sip of cider when he was. Autograph books. Dreaming that one day the tanoy would be announcing my name as the incoming batsman for Somerset to the roar of the always passionate crowd.

Great memories. Sentimental stuff. Big dreams.

A few days before a Southampton FC supporting mate talked to me about his life watching his beloved Saints and how, he felt anyway, that something had been missing since his club moved from the rickety old Dell to St Mary’s, a modern stadium and leisure facility that has been home to the club since 2001. He talked of being closer to the action back then, more noise, more passion, local players and working class heroes. He was also reflecting on a time now lost. Rosettes and silk scarves. Watching Channon and Osgood up front, Ball and Williams driving forward in midfield and Wright and Nicol in defence. Catching the bus with his Dad. Buying horrible cups of tea and inedible pasties at the ground but thinking they were quality. Smiling when they won. Crying when they lost. Being chased by Pompey fans. Chasing Pompey fans for that matter.

He yearned for a return to the old days. The good old days he called them.

But time waits for no-one and moves on regardless. History, at the end of the day, is in the past.

I was at Taunton when the club bade farewell to the famous old pavilion back in September 2014. Whilst that ceremony evoked many memories – great games, great players – that particular facility had become old and dated and the club’s management made the right decision to continue their ground improvement programme.

Somerset County Cricket Club has been a developing club for some time now. The ground has seen some big structural changes including the stand in front of the Pegasus, the Caddick, the Atkinson and the Sir Ian Botham Stand development projects being the main highlights. On Friday 20th November 2015 I was honoured to be invited to be one of the privileged first to see the latest development with the opening of the much awaited new pavilion.

A room with a view!

This facility is an investment of nearly £4 million by the club and has been largely well received by Somerset fans, although there has been some resistance in some quarters. A few regulars on Twitter often claimed throughout the summer that the club should invest in the team first and not “glossy stands”. I have to say though that this tended to coincide with another dreadful and inexplicable batting collapse by the team.

And I can understand this to a degree. A club’s fans tend to only care about what happens on the pitch because that is why they pay their money. But the priority for any committee running a sports club is to work towards a perfect scenario – well placed investment in a successful team to the background of a sustainable business because sport clubs – like it or not – are businesses and to be successful on the field the club has to be well run and financially astute off it. I am a Leeds United supporter so believe I am well qualified to comment on this.

Club chairman Andy Nash addressed the posse of press prior to the short tour, saying: “This finally achieves and delivers the facilities to concrete our category B status. So what does that mean? It means international cricket coming down to Taunton and it won’t be long before we are saying next season England will be playing here. And, as you all know, in June ‘17 England will be playing South Africa in a T20 International.

“We hope to be able to confirm plans around the men’s World Cup in 2019, and we anticipate having a number of Premier fixtures, but also the women’s world cup in 2017.  There will be news on that we hope very shortly.

“The facilities, I hope you agree, are superb in this new pavilion in terms of capacity, hospitality, entertainment and, in your case, for the media. You are going to see a huge step change.

A very big day for Somerset County Cricket Club!”

I have to say the short tour did not disappoint and the new facility is magnificent. The views from the new stands are breath-taking – not just the playing areas but the surrounding hills and countryside. The facilities are top class and will offer fabulous value for all those who use them.

This investment will indeed elevate Somerset County Cricket Club to a whole new level of supporter comfort and hospitality, press coverage and – for the business heads – substantial increases in income. The ground’s capacity will increase to 7,800 (as things stand) and the club’s officials will spend the winter exploring other areas of the ground which can be improved with even more seating so that the ultimate goal of a 15,000 seater stadia can be achieved to host international cricket.

And if any supporters thought this investment placed the club in potential financial peril then the announcement this week that the club has once again reported strong financial results will be a relief. In all Somerset showed a pre-tax surplus of £330,389 and an EBITDA of £411,681 and continue to be regarded as one of the most financially astute clubs in county cricket, if not all sports.

And the club continue to invest in the playing squad. Players like Gayle, Pollard, Morkel, Arafat and Ronchi come at a premium and the club has invested wisely in the Academy which will continue to produce the next Jos Buttler’s and James Hildreth’s of this world.

The club is heading in the right direction – no doubt about that in my mind – even if performances on the field have been disappointing in the last 2-3 seasons. And the new stand and recent financial results show that Somerset County Cricket Club is able to balance the demands of a large and passionate supporter base by investing in a team but not to the detriment of comfort and safety.

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