I have been a member of Woodrush Rugby Football Club in North Worcestershire (South Birmingham) for over thirty years, and have been involved in committee work covering most aspects of running the club over most of that time, culminating in five years as Chairman.
Whilst I played the game to a very modest level for a number of years, I have never been involved in coaching or team selection etc., and will not therefore cover this aspect here - it would not be relevant in any event.
My whole driving force on the committee has been to run the club as a business, to increase turnover from all income streams and to keep a tight rein on overheads. Only by doing that can you provide funds for those involved at the sharp end, the rugby end, to purchase equipment, improve the training and playing areas and improve the quality of coaching, which all help to better the playing standard and attract new players. And it is only by doing that that you can ensure the future well being of the club.
Why would anybody want to ensure the future of the club after they have finished playing? Well, quite simply, to keep in contact with like minded individuals with whom they have played the game and socialised with over the years, and who also want somewhere they can meet up and chat about old times. For it is not just a sports club or a business, but also a social meeting point, and it has to be to be successful.
An attractive, comfortable, clean clubhouse and well run bar, with efficient staff and good quality, reasonably priced drinks, creates an environment in which the players want to socialise, and their relatives, friends and members of the local community also want to come and relax. Run properly, with accompanying social events, this will produce continual profit to be reinvested into the playing side of the club. Team performances will improve, more players and supporters will be attracted to the club and they, in turn, will spend money over the bar which increases profit levels and, so, the whole thing evolves.
The old fashioned image of rugby being played by overweight thugs on muddy pitches has, hopefully, gone. Today's amateur players are fitter and more athletic than they ever were. They have to be coaxed to play for 'your' club by good quality, well drained playing surfaces, modern training equipment, qualified coaches, clean and up to date changing facilities and a comfortable environment to socialise after the game, enjoying their favourite drink at a cheaper price than the pub down the road. Get all of that right and you're on to a winner.
My own club's pitches were notoriously bad during the worst months of the winter, with thick clay just beneath the surface making natural drainage almost impossible. Tens of thousands of pounds have been spent over the years on improvements and these continue.
Regular cutting of grass during the growing season has been one of the simplest and cheapest ways of improving the quality of the grass, and appears to have asisted with drainage.
Similarly, an all-weather training area. covered in a deep layer of bark chippings has given the coaches and players an area that is usable in most conditions, although, as I write this, it is under six inches of snow! Players that are able and willing to train and be coached regularly will improve without exception, so these aspects are paramount in running a successful club.
Another rugby image that has gone over the years is that of beer swilling players guzzling twenty-four pints of flat beer, before having a curry and going home to the wife sometime the next day. Wives, girlfriends and children are very much a part of rugby, as they will be with most sports clubs, and the social environment during and after the game has to reflect that.
If the toilets are not clean and presentable, the ladies go home with husbands in tow and bar takings drop. Put that right and families will be happy to stay around and spend their money across the bar. And the products on sale have to cater for all tastes. The old days of a barrel of mild, take it or leave it, have also gone.
We have to cater for the ladies as well, and even the kids have their own choice of pops and sweets. And the players are also more discerning. It is no good trying to sell an unpolular brand of lager for £3.00 a pint when the pub down the road sells the players' preferred brand at £2.50. Loyalty has a price when young players have a budget to spend.
The old brewery funded loans, popular years ago when they charged their money out at around 2% per annum, and the bank base rate hovered around the 10% mark have also gone. Clubs can now borrow money from their own bank at a very cheap rate of interest, and free of brewery ties. This opens up the possibility of competitive negotiation with suppliers and a stronger bargaining position. This, in turn, reduces purchase prices at source and increases profit margins whilst, at the same time, keeping prices charged to the members affordable.
Presented and run properly, sports clubs can also offer a competitive alternative to competing establishments. More and more people are choosing to stay at home rather than go to their local pub, not just because of price, but because they find that the standard of the local has dropped, the atmosphere has become hostile or it has been turned into a restaurant. It may even have closed down!
With most major sporting events having been lost to terrestrial television, and many pubs unable to afford spiralling charges, we also took the decison to install satellite television. We now have the facility, not just to show the top rugby matches each week, but also football, cricket and golf as well. This has also boosted membership.
We have found that many people are looking for a local establishment where they can relax, have a couple of drinks in a friendly, safe, clean and comfortable environment with a good range of products on offer at reasonable prices, and our membership has increased accordingly.
Other sports clubs, without their own base, have even started to hire the facilities on a regular basis as a meeting point for their members. People have started hiring the clubhouse for their family party or birthday celebration.
Our weaknesses are our pitches. Whilst there has been a vast improvement they will require continual expenditure over the coming years to keep them playable. In addition, our drive and car park require proper surfacing if we really want to create a good first impression.
All of this, of course, costs money and the playing side has to come first.The growing number of postponed matches, due to frozen and snow covered pitches, will also pose a problem for administrators as these not only have to be rescheduled but lost revenue will affect the club's finances.
The improvements we have carried out to date, and those planned for the future, all generate money for one purpose - to ensure the future of Woodrush Rugby Football Club.
We don't pretend to know everything, and we are still a bunch of unpaid amateurs doing all this in our spare time. But, we have learned a lot over the years, mainly by our mistakes, and we must ensure that future generations are shown the way, and do not make the same mistakes as we did, if we want to continue to enjoy the facilities for years to come.
The trials and tribulations of running a sports club, as outlined in Simon Peace's article, are typical of clubs up and down the country. The amount of time and effort put in by unpaid volunteers is usually way beyond the call of duty.
I can well remember turning up at my local cricket club because I had been asked, over a pint, to 'make up the numbers' as they were two players short for a weekend league game. My wife became the eleventh player!
At the time, I hadn't played much cricket - some might say I continued to "not play much cricket" - but, on that first day, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and became a regular in the side. And that's when it grabs you.
Your soul is taken over by a strange force that almost demands that you work for your club, because that is what it becomes - 'your' club.
Many will know the route to being 'captured' - player, fixtures secretary, secretary, chairman, cutter of the outfield, fund raiser, social secretary, taxi driver etc. etc.
Our groundsman was the head greenkeeper at the local golf club. He was also our captain and opening batsman. And he had the organisational skills of Frank Spencer! So, I even ended up picking a side just so that he had eleven players to captain! And I'd collect half the team from their homes just to ensure they remembered they were playing.
Evenings were spent writing newsletters to the vice presidents and players, and printing out fixture cards to save the club £100 in print costs. My time and printer cartidge use must have cost in excess of £400 a season!
Do I regret any of it? Not a jot. I loved every minute of it and would still be helping out if other, more pressing, matters hadn't taken priority.
So, to all the volunteers out there, many of whom frequent our message board for advice, keep up the good work. Without you, grassroots sport in the UK would be non-existent.