Whenever we reach the end of another Gallagher Premiership campaign, we aim to reflect and also react before the next begins. But as the Club enters the off season after probably the most turbulent 18 months in our history, it’s even more important than ever to take a step back and reflect on what we have been through.
First of all, I can’t really express how wonderful it was to have thousands of you back at Franklin’s Gardens for our last two home matches of the season against Wasps and Exeter in Rounds 20 and 21. When you work in elite sport, the element of the job you cherish the most is the rush you get from playing in big matches, or hosting major events. I have said this a few times since we had to close our gates to supporters for the first time last year, but quite simply it has not been the same without you, and we were so very glad to have you back together inside the ground with us.
On the pitch, we began the 2020/21 campaign with a very short preseason, and on the back of a poor run through much of the calendar year 2020. So, I am extremely proud of the way the playing group, Chris Boyd and the coaches, and the entire support staff turned things around – putting in some sparkling performance at times, and ultimately securing a fifth-place finish in the Premiership.
Clearly finishing outside of the play-offs is not in line with our ambitions. But after a slow start to the season, it represents a solid outcome and gives us a strong platform from which to grow and develop for next season. It’s worth pausing on the fact that we currently have the youngest senior squad in the Premiership, and the highest proportion of home-grown players compared to the other clubs in our league. An incredible 63% of players in our squad have come through the Club’s Academy system (and that number is set to rise next year!), with an average squad age of just 25.
At times, the lack of experience and depth of leadership has maybe shown, but we firmly believe that there are reasons to be hugely optimistic about the future. If we can keep this group of players together, if they can learn from everything we have faced this season, and keep developing at the rate they have been, then we will be a strong force at the top of the Premiership and Europe for years to come. I would also expect a number of our players to be gaining international honours along the way – starting this summer.
On this front, Mark Hopley and the Academy team should be commended for the work they are doing to ensure the pipeline of talent at the Club remains strong, as well as Paul Shields for his efforts on the recruitment and retention front across the squad more broadly. Our strategic partnership with Bedford Blues has been a real success story also, and the envy of many other Premiership clubs, given the amount of quality game time our up-and-coming players have got under their belts. Without a Premiership Rugby Cup competition this year, in which we would usually take the opportunity to blood our youngsters, this Championship experience will prove invaluable for them.
I must thank the entire playing group and our full rugby staff for their commitment and resolve this year. They have been operating under the strictest of conditions brought about by the pandemic; testing multiple times a week, playing in empty stadiums across the land, operating in a bubble which has kept them away from friends and family, continually adjusting plans and preparations as the regulations evolve whilst, as ever, consistently putting their bodies on the line for this great Club. Our attention now turns to preparing diligently to ensure a fast start when we resume in September.
Off the pitch it has also been a rollercoaster year as the commercial arm of the Club has wrestled with a set of unprecedented challenges brought about by the pandemic. Back in February 2020 we were making excellent progress, ahead of our five-year plan and on track to return the Club to profitability. Of course, that all changed when we went into lockdown and the vast majority of our income streams ground to halt.
We had to make some tough decisions, with everyone at the Club – all players and staff – asked to take significant pay reductions for what will end up being almost 18 months. I could not have been more proud of the way in which our staff at Saints understood the challenge and were prepared to make personal sacrifices to help navigate the choppy waters we were facing.
The Club has also benefitted from a number of government support schemes. The furlough scheme was important for the long periods of time when our regular operating activities were forced to pause, and the Sports Winter Surivival Package has provided some valuable loan financing to support our cash flows.
Of course, the other thing that has helped us no end has been the remarkable backing from our supporters, hospitality clients and commercial partners. I already knew we were blessed with our large and completely dedicated supporter base, but the pandemic highlighted how deep the attachment with Saints runs for so many. We received countless donations which helped preserve our cash reserves, and in the face of their own challenges, the majority of our sponsors stood by us wholeheartedly. I speak confidently for everyone associated with the Club when I pass on my most sincere thanks for that ongoing commitment.
We have had to be creative and adaptable with the goalposts constantly moving, but we have continued to use our fantastic Franklin’s Gardens facility in every way we have been able. We hosted Northampton General’s NHS Midwives for almost 12 months inside the stadium, presented socially-distanced car park concerts, comedy shows, theatre performances, and pantomimes, launched pop-up restaurants in our Executive Boxes, and provided an express Covid-19 testing facility all on site. And while we don’t quite have usual large-scale events in the diary this summer, with our Pete Tong concert postponed until 2022, we do still have a packed schedule for the months ahead with popular food pop-up Bite Street NN taking over our Supporter Village until August.
Despite the uncertainty we have all been wrestling with, I am delighted that our Season Ticket sales are so strong for next season, with many of our Members also rolling over their tickets from this term. With almost 8,000 Season Tickets sold already, we are optimistic about achieving an even higher number of Members in 2021/22 than we had in 2019/20. As we look ahead, I am excited to reveal that we will be launching a new memberships and rewards programme in the coming weeks which we hope will make becoming a Season Ticket Holder more meaningful than ever before and also provide opportunities for non Season Ticket Holders to strengthen their attachment with the Club.
At this time, all that is left for me to do is to say thank you once again for your amazing support of the Club. Your presence was still felt around the ground even while our gates were locked, and with a return to capacity crowds now firmly on the horizon, everything seems a little brighter around the Gardens. We can’t wait to see you all here again in September.
Come on you Saints.
Chief Executive Officer