3 April 2012

Is it time for City to follow the Swansea model?

St James' Park has been Exeter City's home for the entirety it's 108 year history. Whilst the stadium has a charming, community feel about it, I do wonder whether the 8,541 capacity ground is somewhat limiting City's chances of progressing up the Footballing pyramid.

Let's take Swansea City for example, the South Wales side avoided relegation at City's expense on that fateful day in 2003, in a series of events in a period of untold misery for ECFC which nearly left us without a club.

For Swansea, though, it was the start of an extraordinary rise in the club's fortunes. The 2003-04 season saw the club finish 10th in Division Three (League 2) and reach the 5th Round of The FA Cup for the first time in 24 years.

However, in my opinion, despite winning promotion to League One in the 2004-05 campaign, it's events off the field that transformed the club's fortunes for the better and eventually has led them into the Premier League for the first time in their history.

After 93 years of hosting The Swans home games, the 2004-05 was the season Swansea City bid farewell to Vetch Field, which had a capacity of 11,500, slightly more than St James' Park's capacity. Swansea then moved into purpose built arena The Liberty Stadium for the 2005-06 season along with Welsh Rugby side Ospreys.

Since moving into The Liberty, Swansea haven't looked back. The first season in their new home saw the Swans finish 6th in League One and reached the play-off final, but lost on penalties to Barnsley. The following season wasn't as good and, after a poor start to the season, Kenny Jackett was dismissed and replaced by Roberto Martinez. Depsite an upturn in results, the Swans failed to get back in the play-offs.

The 2007-08 season was a huge success for Swansea and Martinez as they were crowned League One champions, amassing 92 points in the process. After two seasons of just missing out on the Championship play-offs, they qualified for them in the 2010-11 campaign. And, as you all know, they never look back.

The club are now sitting in 11th place in the Premier League and are guaranteed top-flight football for another season. The icing on top of what has been a remarkable few years for the Swans.

After seeing how well Swansea have prospered since leaving Vetch Field, should Exeter look to do the same and perhaps look to ground-share with the Exeter Chiefs?

The Chiefs, bankrolled by their millionaire owner Tony Rowe, have enjoyed huge success at their Sandy Park ground since moving from the County Ground in 2006. They are currently 5th in The Aviva Premiership and are close to securing qualification to the 'Champions League of Rugby' - The Heineken Cup, for next season.

St James' Park has been Exeter City's one and only home
A ground-share between City and Chiefs was discussed back in 2005 at St James' Park whilst Sandy Park was still being constructed. A statement on exetercityfc.co.uk at the time read "The two clubs are already in serious discussion over the Chiefs use of St James' Park for the 2005/06 season if they are successful in being promoted to Rugby's Premiership." Of course the Chiefs weren't promoted in the end so this move never transpired. However, at the time of discussing the temporary St James' Park ground-share, the two clubs also discussed the possibility of sharing Sandy Park upon its construction. The then Exeter City CEO, Ian Huxham, said at the time:

"We are convinced we can soon return to the Football League and we want modern stadium facilities that can cope with bigger gates. We can now start investing at St James' Park or we can become a partner in a new venture which will provide high quality facilities at Sandy Park. We want to get the best solution for the long term future of the Club."

Chiefs' supremo Tony Rowe was also interviewed at the time about the proposal and said:

"If we work together we can provide a bigger stadium for Rugby fans, more quickly. Sharing costs has got to make financial sense for both clubs. We are very keen to assess possibilities for the long term."

That discussed ground-share never materialised for many reasons, the Exeter fans didn't seem keen on the idea of the Grecians locating to the outskirts of the city but the biggest problem was funding for the move. In the end the club decided to remain at its original home and perhaps look to expand it in the future, something which has been proposed recently. The developing of student flats in the Big Bank car park funding a new Grandstand and away end.

However, if the Grecians are relegated back down to League Two as expected, I'm very doubtful as to whether the proposed redevelopment of St James' Park will happen.

And, with the Exeter Chiefs taking the Premiership by storm, it seems that Exeter's two professional sports teams are heading in opposite directions. As relegation-threatened City's attendances fall, the Chiefs are making record turnovers and are discussing expanding Sandy Park's capacity to 20,000 to match their meteoric rise in rugby.

Which leads me back to the title of this piece: Is it time for City to follow the Swansea model, and ground-share with a Rugby team?