Marine CEO offers ‘different ball game’ National League North verdict as budget boost criticism acknowledged 

Marine defender Josh Wardle lifts NPL playoff trophy.

Marine have to step up as a club in preparation for their campaign in the National League North, says chief executive officer James Leary. 

Following promotion from the Northern Premier League, the Mariners ended their four-decade stint outside of the Conference North and National League North.

Work is already underway to ensure the future of the football club as they plot plans to relocate to a 4,000 capacity stadium, with a view to a 1,000 extension.

After their first season back in the Premier Division, manager Neill Young admitted that they wasn’t ready for the step into the National League North – which boasts the likes of Chester and Scunthorpe United. Speaking after securing their place in step two, the 48-year-old said they have to put themselves on the map. 

The retained list is set to be released in the coming days with additions likely to follow. But their season wasn’t without twists or turns.

A 4-1 defeat at the beginning of January forced the club to take stock and immediate action on the playing squad. Changes were made which saw former professional footballer Bobby Grant arrive with Matty Waters, Freddie Sass and Jack Bainbridge entering the fray.

Leary hailed the manager for his role in constructing a promotion-winning side after a disappointing end to the 2022-23 season. In securing their place in the National League North, it achieved their ambitions in a five-year plan.

“We came off the back of a midtable finish, we were going strong until January then tailed away,” he told Off The Park. 

“In our second year in step three, we wanted to give it a good go, we knew it’ll be tough with Radcliffe, Macclesfield and one or two others but we definitely wanted playoffs. It’s what we set out to do and for the majority of the season, I was confident, apart from when we lost at home to Hyde but we were well worth the promotion. 

“The aim was top five then anything can happen, luckily we have the best manager in the business as has been proven for his one-off match as it has been proven with the FA Cup runs and playoffs we had. It was our day against Macclesfield and what a day it was.” 

He continued: “We set a five-year plan, the aim was to get to the National League North in that period – given the fact we’ve done that when two of the seasons were null and void because of COVID is incredible, in three full seasons we’ve had two promotions. 

“It was a pipe dream but it was an ambition that we wanted to aim for, the club has been trying to get into the division for 20 years, it’s something we always wanted to do and when we got to step three, we were looking to see how we could do it. We’ve increased budgets with all the changes around the ground, it allowed us to be more competitive and have a go, it was a pipe dream but it was a challenge that we wanted to take on. Neil was the best man for the job in terms of making it happen.”

In light of their once-in-a-lifetime FA Cup third-round tie against Tottenham Hotspur, revenue and attendance sky-rocketed. On the back of the match, when football resumed, Marine won promotion to the Northern Premier League, via the playoffs in 2022, before beating Macclesfield in May.

Plans are already being formulated to build a new stadium, in a relocation, from their current home at Rossett Park. With the success on the pitch, after the FA Cup third-round plus two first-round performances as well as their promotion triumphs, Leary hopes it can be the catalyst to continue the momentum.

He said: “We came off the back of a tough time as a club, the cup run was the lever and now it’s about keeping the momentum going. For the committee, it’s about how do we keep the excitement and momentum going, how do we keep growing the club and we’ll be looking to do that.”

With the progression on the pitch, there is a greater emphasis to mirror that off it as well. Leary notes that while Marine have been successful with their methods so far, they need to change aspects of the club in order to avoid relegation back to the Northern Premier League.

He said: “We know the level and the step up is absolutely huge, we know it’s a complete different ball game. We know that if we keep doing things in the same way we were when we were in the Northern Premier League for the last 45 years, we will be relegated as quickly as we got promoted. 

“We’ve got to step up as a club in every area to sustain and become a key part of the National League North. It’s going to take a couple of years really but it’s important that we act like a National League club and we try to do everything as professional as we can. 

“You look at some of the teams in the league, everyone has a different way to be successful and competitive at the level, you look at Darlington who have raised money through a ‘Pay for a Player scheme’, Scunthorpe United are a huge club, King’s Lynn and if you look right through the league, they’re all big clubs and there for a reason. We’ve got to find a way ourselves. 

“We sat down with Neil as soon as we beat Macclesfield, we’d spoken a few months earlier if we got promoted, we planned for a budget if we got promoted or stayed in the division, I’d say we’re competitive but nowhere near the top end.”

In light of the new stadium relocation news, Leary announced that fans could offer a £100 donation alongside the purchase of a season ticket. Initially, there was some pushback to the news but the club are now offering a system where season ticket holders can donate £25, £50, £100 or £150 which will go directly into Young’s playing budget. 

With Chester and Darlington running similar initiatives which have transformed their playing budgets to compete financially, the Mariners CEO says they will review it but the aim of the plan was to provide a boost to help the Marine boss compete for the players he is targeting.

“My only aim is to give Neil the best budget we can and for me, it’s ‘what way can we do it?’” He continued. “There’s some clubs that have done a ‘pay for a player’, ‘boost the budget’ and some who have done nothing. 

“I felt because of the amount of season ticket holders we have to the attendance is really high, the amount I’ve spoken to that want to help to make Marine as competitive as possible.

“Since we done the announcement, there has been some pushback from people but I’ve had lots of positive emails. 

“We’ll review it, if there’s improvements to be made we can look to change it but for me, it’s about finding a way to be as competitive in the league and as quick as possible to help Neil in the league next season.”

Marine will enter a league with a number of hybrid or full-time, a change that has come into effect in recent years in a bid for clubs to earn promotion to within one tier behind English Football League Two. 

Due to the competitiveness and Football League juggernauts slipping into the non-league pyramid, the price of success has skyrocketed. For the two clubs each year that earn promotion to the National League, often is the case they find themselves immediately back in the division blow. 

This year alone, Scunthrope, Chester, King’s Lynn Town and Buxton are among the clubs offering full-time football or the hybrid football model – which is a phase of training that increases contact time with the coaching staff in the day or in the night time. 

But for the meantime, it isn’t on the table for the club, Leary said: “We’ve spoken about it with Neil in the past about when is the right time to go, maybe not full-time, but to a hybrid model. 

“There’s different ways to it Macclesfield do it three days and other clubs do three evenings, we’ve got all the facilities to do it, we’ve got the kitchen to prepare food, we’re looking to put in a gym – so we’ve got everything here in terms of the budget for the players and whether we want to make that transition. 

“Can we make that? I think we’ll hold off for the next couple of years and see how things move on, there’s half a dozen teams in the league who are full-time, it’s becoming more competitive and that’s why it’s such a big step up, as a club we’ve got to look and act like a proper National League football club. 

“It’s going to be a great season but now it’s about preparing as much as we can, especially off the field. We’ve got a list to ensure that the club is ready for the National League North but also to give Neil as much as he can to prepare as well as possible to rise to the occasion.”

[Featured Image: Darren Murphy – NPL]

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