My time at Swindon Town was sadly all too short. The Club’s perilous finances meant that I could not contemplate moving from Kent to Wiltshire when the Club’s future at that time was so uncertain.
Whilst I was effectively only at The County Ground for one season (98/99), I am proud of what I achieved during that year including bringing in Lotto as our new kit suppliers, revamping the way we sold match programmes, negotiating a new Club sponsorship deal with Nationwide Building Society and claiming back control of the main lounge at the County Ground; which for years had been operated as a pseudo private members lounge by the supporters club.
The ‘Winners Lounge’
One of the first things I wanted to do when I arrived at the Club in June 1998 was create a new matchday lounge that all season ticket holders could use before and after matches. As money was so tight, I ‘challenged’ Ron Topp, the Club’s Maintenance Manager and his team to totally renovate the dismal former supporters club lounge and to turn it into a modern, bright venue that fans would be proud of and that clients would be pleased to hire for private functions.
Ron and his brilliant team worked wonders and after weeks of hard work we were all looking forward to the formal opening of the brand new ‘Winners Lounge’ at The County Ground, which was scheduled for Friday 20th November 1998. However, it was a race against the clock to get the lounge ready by that day. So much so that Ron and his team were supervising the laying of the new carpet for the ‘Winners Lounge’ just two days before.
Before leaving for the evening, I called into the lounge to have a chat with Ron to check all was well and that we were still on course for Friday’s formal opening. Ron was his usual positive, enthusiastic self and he assured me I had nothing to worry about as it was all under control. I was literally on my way out of the lounge and feeling very pleased and proud at just what a brilliant job Ron and his staff had done when two young fans appeared at the door of the lounge to see what was going on. I heard Ron shout at the boys and then the drama started. Ron fell, knocked himself unconscious and got stuck in the strong carpet glue!
Here’s my diary entry for that day:
Wednesday 18th November 1998
‘’Ron was rushed off to hospital in an ambulance and he looked in a bad way. I felt awful because I had pushed and pushed Ron and the guys to get everything ready for Friday’s opening and Ron had worked tirelessly on the project. It was therefore a great relief to me when I heard later that evening from Steve Jones that Ron was OK, just bruised…but very high from the glue! In fact, Ron was back at work the next day, although somewhat sore and stiff! Clearly, there was nothing that was going to stop Ron from completing the Winners Lounge and having it ready for Friday.’’
After the drama of closing down the private members lounge – I still remember how angry I was with the article in the Daily Express which accused me of ‘kicking out’ the fans, when the true story was I was creating a facility for all Swindon supporters, not just for a selfish few who were running their own private bar – and after the challenges faced by Ron and his team to totally transform the lounge into the brand new ‘Winners Lounge’; we were ready to open.
Here’s my diary entry for that day:
Friday 20th November 1998
‘’The big day. The new lounge is being opened by Swindon legend Don Rogers this evening and everyone is working hard to ensure the ‘Winners’ looks fabulous for all the guests when they come through the doors at 6.30pm.
Our Commercial Manager Mark Hillier came up trumps by arranging for local furniture company Spillers to loan, in lieu of sponsorship, four sofas and these arrived at midday. Immediately the whole look of the lounge changed. It was just as I imagined it would look in my own mind. I was just sad that we wouldn’t be keeping the furniture beyond tonight. As for the rest of the tables and chairs, we literally made do. Stadium Manager Mike Hughes and Maintenance Manager Ron Topp and their staff were working wonders. The pictures on all the walls in the lounge depicted ‘winners’ from all sports as well as key moments in Swindon Town’s history, which of course included images from the iconic League Cup Final win in 1969.
Looking at everyone taking so much obvious pride in getting the lounge ready for this evening made me so pleased and so very proud of each-and-every-one of them. Whatever happens in my future career, I know that we have left Swindon Town with an excellent facility that the fans will enjoy and which will generate important commercial income for the Club for years to come.
By early evening things were starting to happen. The jazz band that our Communications Manager Richard Mackey had booked, arrived nice and early and when they started to play the place really did start to look and feel ‘the business’.
As Chairman Rikki Hunt is away climbing a mountain somewhere (!) – the task of formally welcoming the invited guests fell to Vice-Chairman Cliff Puffett. Cliff is a really nice man who I like a lot, but he can be prone to pessimism. He upset Mike Hughes in the week by not praising anyone or saying anything nice about the work that had been done in the new lounge and right up until people started arriving, he kept asking me whether I thought anyone would turn up!
All of our guests were genuinely impressed with what we had achieved and I felt as good about this as I have about almost anything else I have achieved in the game.
When the time came, I introduced Cliff to say a few words, and I really wish I hadn’t! Cliff isn’t really a public speaker and he kept saying how tough the Club’s finances were and how poor the Club was, which was just what a room full of sponsors and media people wanted to hear! After attempting and failing to tell a joke, Cliff then introduced his ‘latest signing’, the Club Chaplain to ‘bless the lounge’! Talk about destroying the mood – the Chaplain even talked about someone’s ashes that he scattered at the ground that day and got us all to say the Lord’s Prayer! The lounge fell awkwardly silent!
I knew I had to do something to restore the mood so when I took the mic I said, ‘Cliff Puffett is appearing in pantomime at the Wyvern Theatre this Christmas’! Fortunately, this lightened the mood somewhat and I then introduced our Chief Guest, Swindon legend Don Rogers and invited Don to formally open the ‘Winners Lounge’ by cutting the ribbon on the bar.
Apart from the, I’m sure, well-meant efforts of Cliff and the Vicar; the evening was a great success and towards the end of the night I joined Ron Topp and Mike Hughes and their wives for a nice relaxing drink and a chat on one of our hired sofas! I enjoyed my chat with Ron, Mike and their wives who were clearly very proud of what the guys and their staff had achieved, as was I.
I obviously couldn’t have driven home to Bexley after such a long day and night – and with it being matchday as well tomorrow – so I practically collapsed into my hotel room at the Marriott, but I felt very pleased with what I and all the staff had achieved against all the odds.’’
In memory of Ron Topp, former Maintenance Manager and then Stadium Manager of Swindon Town FC, who passed away on 18th November 2013.