EXCLUSIVE: Part three of our interview with St Neots Town owner and chairman Mike Kearns

LOOKING FORWARD: St Neots Town chairman Mike Kearns at the Cozy Stadium home of the Southern League

LOOKING FORWARD: St Neots Town chairman Mike Kearns at the Cozy Stadium home of the Southern League club. Picture: Helen Drake. - Credit: Archant

HUNTS Post sports reporter Richard Hughes sat down with St Neots Town chairman Mike Kearns, as the club prepares for its second season in the Premier Division of the Southern League, and here is ‘part twothree’ of what he had to say...

MIKE Kearns has admitted he ‘threw money’ at St Neots Town to win those back-to-back titles – but now things have changed at The Cozy Stadium and the focus is on good housekeeping rather than splashing the cash.

And the owner and chairman says he has learned a lot from taking a good look at rival clubs and assessing how they are run, with the Saints now stable in the Premier Division of the Southern League, just thee promotions from the Football League.

“I’ve done an analysis both on the football side and on the business side of every club in the region,” Kearns said. “I did it because I wanted to know how they are funded, how they are run, what their financial strengths are, what their playing strengths are, what is possible in the future – because we are focussing on being more local.

“And if you take in every other club in our vicinity – no matter what league they are in – every one of them is in a very unhealthy state. Biggglewade Town may be the exception at the moment, and they have just got promoted, but financially it is very hard, virtually impossible.

“There will be a lot of casualties and people will have to see that you can’t just throw money at a club, you can’t pay big wages all the time, you have got to build from the bottom.”

Kearns purchased St Neots Town when they were in the United Counties League. Steve Lomas, now the manager of St Johnstone in the Scottish Premier League, began the process that culminated to those two promotions under Dennis Greene, who was Lomas’s assistant when the Irishman left the club to further his prospects of bagging a bigger club.

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Kearns said: “Basically, when I purchased the club, I had a think about where we would like to be to entice good players to give us a real chance – and we decided Step 3 was the target.

“You are in real football when you are in Step 3. You are only two off the Conference and with a bit of luck you can get there.

“Most clubs would be happy with two promotions in five, six or seven years – and we could have done that, I could have financed the club to achieve that.

“But I discussed things with Lee [Kearns, the club’s managing director and Mike’s son] and we decided that the family would finance the football club to enable us to get to Step 3 in two seasons.

“We did that and we spent a lot of money to get here. Yes, we threw money at it. Unfortunately, in the first year we had King’s Lynn Town come into the UCL otherwise I think we would have probably walked it and it wouldn’t have cost us as much money – and in the second season [in Division One Central of the Southern League] we had a very determined Slough Town who pushed us all the way. Again, if they hadn’t been the other outstanding team in the league, it wouldn’t have cost us so much.

“I always knew that our first season at Step 3 would be one of consolidation. So we are where we want to be.”

With Greene’s departure in the summer, quickened by the purse strings being tightened after Step 3 football had been achieved, Kearns appointed Iain Parr and the new manager only had a couple of weeks to prepare for the new season. So Kearns says he re-evaluated the plans and kept some of the players on the bigger wages until he felt they were safe. It was then that the budget was brought back into line with original plans and Stefan Moore, Dan Jacob and Ben Mackey all moved on.

The club is still talking to players about joining the club for coming season. Experience is being sought but there will be an emphasis on more locally based players. There will also be chances given to younger players, and indeed, 18-year-old Ryan Sharman actually captained the side for a short spell in the last game of season.

Links with Norwich City and the new United Counties League Division One side St Neots Town Saints, who will groundshare at The Cozy Stadium, will be utilised.

And if things go well and the club is in a good position coming into the last third of the season, a promotion push may even kick in.

“This is one of the best set-ups in non-league football,” said Kearns. And he really believes that. “You won’t find many more better run clubs,” he added.

PART TWO: Saturday, May 25, 2013

MIIKE Kearns is ready for St Neots Town to build on their 12th place finish from their first season in the Premier Division of the Southern League.

The chairman and owner is working hard with manager Iain Parr to bring some experience back to the club after the loss of Stefan Moore, Ben Mackey and Dan Jacob during the summer – and he is prepared to go for promotion should the opportunity arise. But not at all costs.

“We know what we need to add,” he said. “We’re going to be a little bit wiser next season. We will be able to focus on what’s needed in this league.

“We scored 77 goals last season, that was the fifth highest, and we conceded 77, that was the fourth highest – but when you look at the other most attacking team in the league, that’s Hemel Hempstead [who, incidentally have just signed Mackey and another former Saint Ollie Thorne], they play football, and their goal difference isn’t far off ours. They let a lot in and scored a lot.

“So we know pretty simply we need to tighten up at the back – we know how we are conceding goals because every game is videoed and watched by myself and the management, and we are going to introduce more technology into the club with someone coming in to do statistics for us.

“We are very professional as it is but it is going to be much improved again this season.

So will there be a target for the season? “No,” Kearns replied straight away. “There won’t be any targets. Next season there will be no pressure and the management team can work without pressure because we know what we are trying to do.

“Promotion might happen next year, it might not. If we are doing very well and we get to the last third of the season and we feel we are in with a shout then we will look at the situation and if anything is needed to be done, we will do it; If anything is not needed, we won’t. That’s how the budget will be worked.”

“A certain part of the budget will be kept back and be used if we get to that situation.”

Ah, the dreaded B word. The word that most managers feel restricted by and most chairmen try to restrict.

In part three of the interview, which will go live on the website next Saturday, Kearns talks about the budget under former manager Dennis Greene, the budget under Iain Parr in the current set-up – and what the budget may be in the future.

St Neots Town is a club being grown slowly and carefully. Last week, links with the new United Counties Division One team St Neots Town Saints (a progression for St Neots Town Youth Football Club – an entirely different entity from St Neots Town FC), were announced.

The new team will groundshare at The Cozy Stadium and will work closely with their landlord. Lots of ground work is being put in by the manager and the chairman – and the future looks particularly bright.

“People can moan and demand results,” said Kearns. “But it has got to be done right – and we have got where we are and we have given the supporters a lot of success in the last three years – and they have to understand this is a business project.

“When I started it out, this is where I wanted to be,” he added.

PART ONE: Saturday, May 18, 2013

MIKE Kearns likes to talk about St Neots Town. That’s not surprising of course because he owns the club, but it is with a controlled passion that he enthuses ... about the team, the manager, the coaches, the ground, the pitch, and the future. Once he gets going, there’s really not much stopping him.

I met Kearns at the club last week and the first thing he wanted to do was show me the work that is being done on the pitch: it is called ‘hollow coring’ and he is fascinated by the process – fascinated but, he admitted, a little bit scared to see the pitch with holes all over it and covered in sand.

“We have bored out these little holes – thousands and thousands of them,” he said. “Then we have seeded the pitch and then we put just over 100 tons of sand on it, top dressed it, and run a scraper across it.

“So what happens is the pitch is levelled and the sand is smoothed over and goes into the holes … We are going to do it again next season and pretty soon that pitch is going to be as good as any in the Premier League.”

He means this. It is a boast he has used before about other aspects of the club, such is Kearns’ conviction that St Neots Town can be a truly successful venture.

Kearns is striving for perfection. He admits he has learned big lessons from his first three seasons as chairman – but his ambitions remain unaltered: Kearns says he wants St Neots Town to be a Football League club – but not at any cost.

After calling Mark Silk from Working Turf, the company responsible for the process on the pitch, just so he could get the technical details of hollow coring right, I finally managed to steer the conversation away from pitch maintenance to team maintenance.

After two successive promotions – and the United Counties League Premier Division and Southern League Division One Central titles – there has been a shift in priorities under new manager Iain Parr, who replaced Dennis Greene, a man of very different ideas, during the summer.

Gone are the big wages and the big wage earners, and the emphasis is on youth development and sensible housekeeping; literally, as it turns out: “Iain is working on my house at the moment so we get to talk all day – so he doesn’t get much done,” Kearns joked, though probably only half kidding.

“When we knew we couldn’t get relegated and we were comfortable we began to look at players and we gave players opportunities, knowing that some would make it and some would not.

“We know what we need to add for next season and there is a certain player at Norwich, who we now have links with, who we hope will be with us next year – the agreement is nearly there; and there are two more players who are very interested in signing for us. We are also meeting a few more this week. They are all young lads who live locally and within travelling distance.”

That is one of the big changes since the departure of Greene, who often looked to London or the Midlands for his footballers – the club even used to send a car to the train station before each game to ferry some of them that last half mile.

Under the new regime, players are expected to attend training twice a week, without fail, and this clampdown on absence quickened the exits of the Midlands-based pair Stefan Moore and Ben Mackey, and Dan Jacob.

Those players might not be replaced like for like – both Moore and Mackey scored hat-tricks for their new teams [Leamington and Stourbridge] on their debuts – but new bodies will come in and Kearns hopes they will be held in a similar standing by the supporters.

“We know the players we want, we know our long-term targets, if they come or not it’s a different matter – and if we don’t get them then we will go onto our second choices.”

This will come as a bit of a relief to some of the fans - there have been rumbles of criticism on the forum on the club’s website - but experience is being sought out to help balance the youthfulness that was so prevalent at the end of the last campaign.

Kearns said: “Having lost Stefan Moore, Ben Mackey and Dan Jacob, for various reasons we released them because we knew they wouldn’t be with us next season, we are looking for experience up front and we are talking to two players about that.

“We are also looking to add some experience through the spine of the team,” he quickly added.

“We finished 12th in the Southern League Premier Division – that’s the highest position we have ever finished as a club. So we are moving forward – and all is good.”