Online Sport Editor Harry Scott-Munro takes a look at the successes and pitfalls of amateur clubs attempting to rise up the league pyramid.
For many sports fans, the dream of their local team one day playing in the top leagues of their respective sport remains a distant dream. It is that dream though, that can entice more well-off fans of these teams to attempt to play real life Football Manager, guiding their sides up the leagues to the promised land of professional top tier sport. But how successful has this venture proven to be?
The archetypal model for sustainable growth from amateur sport to the pinnacle of the professional leagues remains Exeter Chiefs. The newly crowned European and Premiership champions rise has been nothing short of phenomenal, built upon a positive club spirit and growing as a club within their means.
Exeter’s slow and steady ascent started in the 1995/1996 season, where they secured promotion from the fourth tier of English rugby, the Courage League Division 4, securing back-to-back promotions the following season as they secured the Courage League Division 2 title, to secure their place in the Allied Dunbar Premiership 2, the second division of English rugby. Their debut season at that level saw them just secure survival at the expense of Fylde, as they finished in 11th place. What followed was 12 seasons of rugby in the second division, as Chiefs fluctuated between 2nd and 6th place in the league table. Chiefs would often play bridesmaid to the established top-level sides that were relegated from the Premiership, falling just short of promotion to these established sides.
The 2006 season saw the club show their desire to compete at England’s top level, with the completion of a new premiership standard stadium in Sandy Park, moving away from their County Ground home. Their dream was realised in the 2009/2010 season as, under the tutelage of former player Rob Baxter as Chiefs squad of Championship stalwarts and players discarded by top tier clubs upset the apple cart, as they defeated Bristol over two legs to secure promotion to the Premiership for the first time in their history. They confounded expectations that they would go straight back down with an 8th place finish and from there, haven’t looked back.
The 2015/16 season saw the club qualify for the play-offs for the first time, starting a sequence of five consecutive Premiership final appearances, winning the title in 2016/2017 and 2019/20. For the last three seasons, they have also finished top of the regular season standings.
The success of Exeter Chiefs has been built on slow and continued growth, operating within their means and trusting in the squad they have. Players such as Gareth Steenson and Phil Dollman both became club legends after humble beginnings, with Championship winning players Ben Moon and Tom Johnson both winning England caps in the years after promotion.
The Chiefs remain the only professional club in England to make a profit each season and their recent success means they are continuing to look to expand, a new hotel at Sandy Park currently being built and plans being made to continue to expand the stadium.
For Exeter Chiefs, the sky really was the limit, building slowly and securely over an extended period of time. Sometimes though, clubs look to achieve too much too soon, hitting a ceiling that they struggle to break.
Take for example, Old Elthamians. The club currently finds itself in National Division 1 after a series of quick promotions up the English rugby pyramid. 2010-2011 saw Old Elthamians secure promotion from London Division 2 East, level 7 of the English rugby pyramid, before securing back-to-back promotions via the play-offs a year later, rising from London 1 to National Division 3 South East and then to National Division 2 South in 2013/2014. This saw an influx of new players into the side, with many signings players who had played at a substantially higher level than the club found itself at. At the conclusion of 2015 World Cup, they signed then first choice Samoan fly-half Mike Stanley. Other signings in recent seasons included Dom Lespierre, a player who had experience at National 1 level with Coventry. Such was his pedigree that he scored 36 tries in 31 games as Old Elthamians secured promotion to National Division 1 via the play-offs in 2016/2017. That squad also included the likes of Mike Denbee, the former London Welsh flanker, who had Premiership and Championship experience before signing.
Ahead of their debut National 1 campaign, Old Elthamians continued their pattern of signing experience from higher leagues; Joe Carlisle, Nathan Morris, Will Robinson and Sam Egerton among those to sign on with Premiership and Championship experience. Old Elthamians would finish that season in 6th, before just missing out on promotion to the Championship the following season, finishing in second place, just behind Ampthill. This near miss saw a host of those big-name signings leave, as their backer Kobus Paulsen withdrew some of the funding, before tragically passing away midway through the 2019/2020 season. Rumours began to swirl of players match fees/expenses not being paid, with the club having to turn back to its grassroots academy and senior teams to replenish the first team.
Their financial plight continued, with the club sitting in 8th place when the league was cancelled due to Covid-19. Whilst Old Elthamians weren’t exactly cannon-fodder to relegation with their financial plight, they fell away substantially compared to previous seasons. It served to highlight the pitfalls that exist of relying on a wealthy fan to bankroll your progression and the precarious financial position it can leave your club in if that backer withdraws.
Comparing the two models of both Exeter Chiefs and Old Elthamians in the rugby world, a sport where finances are notoriously tight, the process of slow growth, relying on the talent at your disposal, allowing them to flourish at higher levels has reaped its reward for the Chiefs, whereas Old Elthamians seem to have reached an impasse, desperately in need of restructuring their current setup in order to survive, whilst still trying to compete at the sharp end of National Division 1 and potentially beyond.
Whilst Chiefs are a rare and unique success story in the growth from amateur to top level, clubs such as Ampthill and Richmond have proven that the community club approach can still reap its rewards, both of those sides competing in the Championship for the forthcoming season. However, they still maintain the link between their amateur and semi-professional players, all whilst functioning within their financial means. With the recent financial plight of the likes of London Welsh, Rotherham Titans and the newly rebranded Leeds Tykes (returning to their old name after being known as Yorkshire Carnegie,) rugby in the lower leagues stands in a precarious position. Clubs must always strive to achieve the greatest success they can but also maintain a sense of realism, building within their means as they progress.