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Who'd be a football club chairman, eh?

When you’re the chairman of a football club with such a long and proud history, you know you’ll always be under the microscope.

In the good times, you just hope that some praise and gratitude might come your way. In the bad times, though, you can be certain that the frustration and anger will.

Grahame Rowley has seen it all during his rollercoaster time with Altrincham FC, one of the most famous names in British non-league football.

In recent seasons, he’s faced the rough rather than the smooth – including a vitriolic ‘Rowley out’ campaign from a minority of supporters on the back of two successive relegations.

But now, after the club was promoted back to the second tier of non-league football in a victorious last season, he’s hoping that everyone will pull together to help the club back to its glory days.

And he’s certain of one thing – he’s going nowhere any time soon, while there’s still a job to be done.

Grahame is a lifelong Altrincham fan who has been a director since 2001. He was part of the new broom which swept in when the previous board resigned, and the club was on the verge of going out of business with debts of £650,000.

But his ties to the club go back many years further. He explains: “I was born in Altrincham, and I really do care about this club. My club. My dad first started bringing me here as a five-year-old, and when an advertisement was placed in the late 1990s for a part-time programme editor, I thought why not, and applied.

“They told me it would only take a couple of hours a week – but of course, it never works out that way, and you end up burning the midnight oil.”

At the time, Grahame was balancing his club programme commitments with a full-time job, running family pharmacy business G&K Rowley Limited, in Warrington. He sold it in 2002, shortly after joining the club’s board.

“Working only as a locum after that point did give me more flexibility, but I don’t think people realise just how much time and effort goes into the running of a club like this.

“Now I’m retired, I’m down here a minimum of four days a week – and during the season that goes up to five or six days. Like everyone here, apart from the players, manager and groundsman, we don’t get paid for the time we put in.

“Not that I’m complaining about that for a minute. We all do it because we love the club and want what’s best for the club and the fans. We are fans too, remember.”

For the first 10 years of his directorship, wanting what’s best for the club meant Grahame and his fellow board members, businessmen Geoff Goodwin and Andrew Shaw, had to tackle the debts.

It was the age of austerity, ensuring the club could live within its means, with Grahame serving as vice-chairman to Geoff Goodwin, of Go Goodwins coaches.

“Those early years, things were very difficult. We would have bailiffs on the doorstep and the Inland Revenue on the phone. But we were always open and honest with them, and I think they gave us the chance to put things right because they could see we had a plan to get the club back on a sound financial footing.

“Some clubs like Halifax and Chester took a different route and escaped their debts by going into administration. We didn’t want to do that with other people’s money – I want to be able to sleep at night with a clear conscience.”

Grahame, 56, took over the chairmanship in 2010 when Geoff Goodwin decided he’d done his time, and stepped down.

He recalled: “We were coming to the end of nearly 10 years of really hard fundraising work to pay off the debts at that time, and had got things back on a sound financial footing.

“But of course, when you are running a football club, the business side has to go hand-in-hand with success on the pitch. The more the team is winning, the higher the attendances will be, and the greater the chance of securing sponsorship.”

And the flipside, of course, is that when the team isn’t performing, gates go down, sponsors shy away, and relegation means a cut in funding from the league committee too.

Back-to-back relegations from the top two tiers of non-league football left Altrincham in the Evo-Stik League last season, with gates down below 1,000 and bosses forced to cut admission prices. It’s hard to budget for that.     

But promotion at the first time of asking has put them back into the Vanarama National League North for 2018/19, alongside other big non-league names such as Telford United, Stockport, Darlington, Kidderminster, and a local derby with FC United of Manchester – all of which will bring a significant following of travelling fans.

Grahame says: “Over the past three or four years, we have been taking a more strategic, longer-term view of our business planning. In February last year, we employed an external consultant to carry out a strategic review, and we have implemented many parts of this five-year plan.”

It included a freshening up of the board to bring in new expertise, including lifelong fan Bill Waterson, Robert Esteva, who is a data specialist and consultant with UEFA, and Isle of Man resident Lawrence Looney, an experienced and widely-respected finance expert.

“We had got a bit stale, and we needed new impetus on the board from people who could all bring something different to the table,” Grahame continues. “I believe that’s exactly what we have achieved. We have a much broader skill-set now and are much more dynamic.”

It costs between £500,000 and £600,000 a year to keep the current Altrincham FC on a level financial playing field, and that’s achieved through a combination of gate receipts, sponsorship, fundraising, and some cash from the Vanarama League.

A community sports hall, which cost £750,000 to build, opened in January 2015 and has become a successful, popular and important part of the club’s revenue stream too.

So, the future’s looking bright then, with money troubles ironed out, and current manager Phil Parkinson building a promising team on the pitch?

Grahame says: “I can certainly see a bright future, and I know we’re all committed here to achieving it.”

So why, then, the continued ‘Rowley out’ campaign, which has included the issuing of hoax news releases announcing his departure, and the placing of advertisements encouraging other people to snap up club shares?

“It does disappoint me, to be honest. It all goes back to the time when we had enjoyed four good seasons in the Conference and had a good FA Cup run, but in March 2016, we found ourselves in danger of relegation.

“Our manager at the time, Lee Sinnott, wanted to leave. He felt he’d gone as far as he could and couldn’t carry on. I didn’t sack him. In fact, I spent a lot of time trying to persuade him to stay, but his mind was made up.

“We appointed the assistant manager but ended up being relegated, and then the following season, we brought in ex-Chester man Neil Young, but after six games and some heavy defeats, he quit.

“That season became another disaster. The next one we tried was Jim Harvey, who had just won the FA Trophy – everybody was happy and it looked like the dream person. But, again, it just didn’t work.

“For whatever reason, it’s me rather than the whole club board who has since become the target of some fans’ protests.

“I can understand people being unhappy – I’m unhappy, because this is my club. I’m a fan too, and I’m not trying to damage the club I love. I’m the world’s worst whenever we lose, as my family will confirm.

“I’m not sure the chairman should be singled out and held solely responsible when things go wrong on the pitch, just as I wouldn’t dream of claiming the credit when they go right.

“I’ve held my hand up for mistakes that have been made, but equally, as a board, we have done our utmost to provide Phil with the framework for maintaining a successful squad by arranging an upgraded training venue, a deal with Catapult for 20 GPS vests, use of The Gym’s facilities in Broadheath, a scouting infrastructure unparalleled at this level and not only retaining as many players as Phil wanted from last season, but tying them up early as a sign of commitment.”

Without any coercion from or consultation with the board whatsoever, Phil Parkinson sprang to Grahame's defence in a personal pre-season message to supporters on the club’s website.

Reflecting on the relegation turmoil that preceded him, he wrote: “The fall from grace can’t be put solely at the chairman’s door. He obviously accepted a certain amount of the responsibility, but he can’t surely be to blame for performances and results . . . that’s the manager’s job. All I ask now is we draw a line in the sand and move forward as one.”

Grahame admits that he has ‘had some ups and downs’ during the current protests, provoking him to question whether he should just give up and walk away. That’s been made worst by the fact that his wife and children have stopped travelling with him to away matches because of the vitriol.

“I have loved having my family by my side, but this has not been having a good effect on them. Even so, why should I step down and let just a few people tarnish my view of the whole club, when 99% of the time I still love what I’m doing?”

As we sit in the boardroom at The J Davidson Stadium on Moss Lane to chew it all over, it’s crystal clear Grahame Rowley isn’t going anywhere in a hurry.

He still fondly remembers days like in 1978 when, as a fan, he was at Wembley to see the club lift the FA Trophy with a 3-1 victory over Leatherhead, as well as last season’s promotion celebrations.

He says: “This is a club which had never been relegated in its history until 1997 and was one of the most successful teams in non-league football, enjoying great FA Cup runs, playing the likes of Liverpool and Spurs, so fans simply weren’t used to failure.

“If I didn’t think I was the man who could bring back those great days, I wouldn’t be in the job. But we are so much stronger if everyone is pulling in the same direction.”

And does that direction mean contemplating upgrading to a full-time playing squad for the first time? “I wouldn’t rule it out, and we are planning to launch a research project to understand fully what is required to sustain full-time football.

“That said, it would be too much of a leap right now, as we simply don’t have the level of financial backing that’s needed. I know this places us at a disadvantage, as even in the Conference North there are several full-time clubs, but we have to face facts.

“I’ll never say never, but I hope people are realistic about what we can achieve within our means. We do run this club as a business, unlike some others who spend money that they can’t afford, which means taking smaller steps at a time.

“Using the skills I developed in business does come into play in this job, but most important of all is the experience of knowing when to say yes and when to say no. It’s a very fine line. You have to invest to progress, but you don’t want to over-stretch yourselves.

“People don’t always stop to think what it takes to run a football club like this. For every single match day, the stands and terraces have to be cleaned, programmes written, printed and offered for sale, the pitch prepared and refreshments made available – there are so many little things.

“There are some people who think there is going to be a millionaire waiting in the wings to simply walk in and take a club over. They look at what has happened with teams like Fleetwood. We’re not one of those clubs.

“People will come to me and say they only want an extra £50 a week for something, but before you know it that’s £2,000 over a 40-week season. And if you say yes to four or five of those people, your overheads have suddenly gone up by £10,000.

“Our success over the last 17 years has kept the club on a stable financial footing, which is credit not just to the board, but to our core of 20 or 30 loyal volunteers – you would not believe the amount of things we get done at this club for nothing!”

* Grahame Rowley was talking to Cheshire Business editor Carl Jones

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