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Mark Darbon: A Letter to Saints Supporters

Now that the 2019/20 campaign has ended, I wanted to write to you all to share some thoughts after what has certainly been an unprecedented and challenging season.

In particular, I wanted to update you on the significant operational and financial challenges the Club is currently facing, and summarise the work we are carrying out to ensure we successfully navigate our way through this time of crisis. 

To begin with though, on behalf of everyone at Northampton Saints, I want to offer my sincere condolences to those supporters who may have lost loved ones during the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. I would also like to acknowledge and thank once again the incredible work which continues to be carried out by NHS staff, key workers and carers, at this difficult time.

The decision to forfeit our final game against Gloucester on Sunday was incredibly frustrating and not the way we wanted the season to end. But, with only two front row players available for selection, owing to a long injury list and the need for a number of members of the squad to self-isolate as a result of the risk of COVID-19 infection following our fixture against Sale, we were left no viable alternative. I am proud of the work our medical and operational teams have done to ensure a safe and secure environment here at Franklin’s Gardens, plus the responsibility our players and staff have demonstrated to maintain the integrity of our ‘bubble’. So, to lose our final fixture as a result of an outbreak at another club is extremely disappointing.

It’s been particularly hard to take because we were determined to end the season on a high. The recent run of poor results on the pitch has been incredibly frustrating for us all. After plenty of optimism during the lockdown period, when the playing group put in so much hard work to try to hit the ground running again after the hiatus, the remainder of the season has not played out the way we hoped. However, there are plenty of reasons to remain optimistic and our Director of Rugby, Chris Boyd, is typically calm and bullish about what the future holds. As we look ahead, it’s worth noting that this season our matchday squads had the youngest average age of all of the Clubs which finished above us. As such, experience may not be on our side – and perhaps that has shown at times over the last few weeks – but I have every confidence in our coaches, our staff and the players themselves to turn things around.

We don’t have much time to do so. The squad has a short break now, before returning for an intense pre-season ahead of the start of the 2020/21 season. As you will have seen, we start up at the AJ Bell stadium, against Sale Sharks, on 20 November.

Turning to matters off the pitch, as you will be aware the sudden loss of income caused by the Coronavirus pandemic has left the Club under severe financial pressure, meaning that as well as fighting to improve our fortunes on the field, we are also fighting to secure the long-term sustainability of the Club off the pitch. I am not overstating things when I say this is, in all likelihood, the most significant challenge the Club has had to navigate – certainly in the professional era.

Many of you will have seen the government’s recent decision that spectators may not be able to return to watching live sporting events until the end of March 2021. Clearly this is a huge setback to the Club, as well as sport in general. While we appreciate the very difficult challenge the government faces in controlling the spread of the virus while enabling parts of society and the economy to remain open, the prospect of no crowds for the next six months adds to the pressure that we are under. 

In partnership with the other clubs, Premiership Rugby, the RFU and other governing bodies, we are lobbying hard to try to influence the government’s approach. This is an area where you can add your voice too, so I would urge you to write to your Parliamentary representative (which can be found here: members.parliament.uk/members/Commons) to show your support for the Club’s plight. We are proud that Northampton Saints provides so much more than just top-class rugby. The work our Community and Foundation teams do across Northamptonshire, the East Midlands and beyond is wide ranging and impactful. The implications of being unable to continue to create such strong sporting, social and educational legacies through this outreach are unthinkable.

Despite the challenges we face, I remain confident that we will get through them. We feel confident that we have the right strategy in place, with a very strong group of staff to deliver it; we were in a strong position before this crisis – with limited debt, a supportive group of shareholders, and 18 months of really promising commercial growth; we have wonderful support from our loyal commercial partners, our box holders and seasonal members and, of course, our fervent supporter base; and we have taken sensible, albeit extremely difficult, decisions over the past few months to streamline the organisation and lower our cost base. In short, we believe we can navigate the difficult period in front of us and come out stronger on the other side.

Of course, It will not be easy. So to help us in the short term we are also working to secure an emergency financial support package from government, and we are actively seeking to identify any innovative approaches that may accelerate the return to crowds. We believe very strongly that we can operate a safe, socially-distanced crowd at Franklin’s Gardens and will continue to push for that to be the case from as early as possible in the 2020/21 season. Please be assured that we are going to welcome you back to Franklin’s Gardens as soon as it is safe to do so. Your contribution to the matchday experience should never be underestimated and has been sorely missed by the team of late.

In all honesty though, as of today the point at which you will be able to attend games again, and what that looks like, remains unclear. In this context, we have also now published details of our updated plan for 2020/21 season tickets. You can find that information available HERE.

We are very grateful to all of our supporters who have stuck with us through the crisis. It has been humbling to see such a significant proportion of 2019/20 Members donate the remaining balance of their tickets back to the Club, or take credits rather than asking for a refund, while thousands more have renewed their tickets for next term or bought new ones. Indeed, it’s incredible that almost 5,000 of you have already committed to next season despite the uncertainty we are all wrestling with. Clearly, this pandemic is creating financial pressures for many people and we completely understand that not everyone has been able to donate or renew their tickets – but the messages of support continue to flood in from across Northampton and beyond, and mean just as much to our staff and players.

I thank you again for your incredible support and the patience you have demonstrated through the pandemic. But I must also ask you for more of the same; this is an evolving situation with lots of uncertainty, and one which requires informed and considered decisions. Hopefully, the next few weeks will bring more clarity when it comes to our operational plans for next season and, as always, we’ll look to maintain regular communication.

WE MARCH TOGETHER.

Yours sincerely,

Mark Darbon signature

Mark Darbon
Chief Executive – Northampton Saints