THE ACN INTERVIEW; TOM SMITH & CSF

02/08/17

Norwich City's Community Sports Foundation recently announced plans to redevelop the old Anglian Windows site. Jon Punt and Andrew Lawn were lucky enough to talk to Club Director Tom Smith and CSF's Head of Development Jackie Thornton about the club, the Community Sports Foundation and their plans for the future....

Norwich City has always had its roots firmly steeped in the community. Since 1992 the club has had an official charitable arm which has worked in conjunction with the Norfolk FA, the county's schools and the local NHS to provide football coaching sessions, work with disadvantaged groups, and deliver schemes designed to encourage sports participation, social cohesion, improvements in health and the achievement of educational goals for children and adults of all ages and abilities. Rebranded in 2011 as the Community Sports Foundation, it has gone from strength to strength - and now is seeking to undertake its most ambitious project yet.

Local amateur footballers will recall fondly the old Anglian Windows social club site, adjacent to Norwich Airport on the outskirts of the city. Where once matches were keenly contested on a swathe of playing fields, it has for some time now been an overgrown and derelict landscape. But all that's about to change, with a radical redevelopment planned by the Community Sports Foundation. 'The Nest' will be a flexible and innovative community space that will hugely boost both the local area and the opportunities the Foundation can provide. Jackie Thornton outlined for us the thinking behind the purchase of the site, and the ambitions held for it.

"The site closed in June 2014, at which point we showed a real interest. It's taken us over three years to actually purchase it. We're ripping out everything to replace the grass pitches, as they're not in good shape. Our first priority is to get the football pitches done and do up the clubhouse.

"It's a fantastic community hub for the whole area. Outside we'll have "bunk boxes" for housing up to 14 people for residential stays, so we'll be able to bring kids on residential camps, kids with disabilities, or teams on tour from other countries, community activities, social events and some corporate facilities for team building events - which will all be available for hire.

"That's Phase 1. It costs lb1.2m and will come from CSF funds, we've saved every penny for 25 years. This will compliment Carrow Park [next to Carrow Road], we built that nearly 13 years ago. We'll still use the number of facilities we use around the city and county, but this site will allow us to do far more. We're hoping Phase 1 will be all done and ready to go in May/June 2018."

Phase 1 is ambitious in itself for an organisation having to generate their own funding streams, while continuing to operationally support the individuals they work with. Phase 2, however will require much more money to be raised, given the scale of the long-term vision of the Community Sports Foundation.

"The aspirations are for a full size football pitch and sports hub for lots of different sports. The flight path across the site leads to some limitations, so floodlights aren't an option and if we are to build a 3G pitch it would have to be indoor. We are currently trying to gauge, can we build it, and do we have the support of people to help us raise the money. We don't know exactly how much at the moment, but it will be a multi-million pound facility. Lots of partnership work is going on to see who can benefit from this. It will be a huge asset to the football club and the wider community. We're really excited about what it can bring.

"The whole project could bring 27 jobs to the area. Phase 2 depends on planning permission and what level we are able to go to, based on the support we get. So that's what we're trying to do now, gauge the support for how much we can do. Conversations at this stage are very positive. But we will need Norwich fans to get behind it. We need the fans, we need businesses. We need everyone who can help us to help us build the Nest."

And what about that name? Of course, it references City's last home before Carrow Road, but also sums up the ethos behind the development. "The name is perfect, it brings us closer to the football club and keeps 'The Nest' alive," said Jackie. "We want it to be a safe, nurturing place, where people can come, develop and grow."

The development will also provide tangible benefits and opportunities for several of the city's other sports clubs with their own ambitions for community engagement.

"We want to re-engage with grassroots football, and would bring Hellesdon and Horsford football teams, who used to be based here, back here. They're excited to come back. We're hoping that the ladies team [currently based at Blofield] would also be able to come and play here, no different to all of our other teams. We want to engage with everybody and want to get as many people playing football here as possible. Our investment in women's football is more at the bottom end, in terms of getting as many girls as possible playing football, starting with 5 and 6 year olds progressing through, and quite a bit of investment goes in there.

"The cricket club next door are one of our stakeholders and we have been speaking to them for a long time about how we can complement each other as neighbours. They are very keen to look into how the sports hall could help with their winter nets and coach education programmes. We're also looking to talk to other sports like netball and others, so it's a whole range of sports. There'll be a gym, classrooms and all sorts of other things involved."

Tom is equally enthused about the plans. He was clear about where the football club's operational remit stops and the Foundation's kicks in, while also underlining the reasons why supporters can and should be proud of and support the Foundation.

"The Community Sports Foundation is a separate organisation legally [to the club]. It has its own board of trustees, of which I am one. The football club is a private company, with its own board of directors. So you have two separate organisations legally, but for me they are pretty much indivisible.

"The club has the aim to be the very best it can be. To play the best football it can, to entertain and inspire and get people involved. The Foundation takes that inspiration, that energy and that identity generated by the football and uses it to run the outward facing community programmes they do in health and education, regardless of age, gender, ability.

He was also keen to emphasise the huge reach of the Foundation, the power of its links with the football club despite financial independence, and the level of success achieved when held up against similar football club programmes around the country.

"I think community work is a big part of the club and the city's identity, but the work of the Community Sports Foundation isn't fully understood. We reached more than 38,000 people last year, not just quick visits but providing real services. We're in the top three in the country for community work. I'm really proud of that. We inspire people on a daily basis, either through people taking part in the activities or fundraising for us. I want more people to feel that.

"The bespoke facilities [at The Nest] will let us run the programmes we want to run, for people all around Norfolk. This would be our home. We can do this without taking any money out of the football, but we can also harness that passion and support people have for the football club to then say, "Yeah, I can get behind that". That, for me, is precious. This is going to be a landmark, it's going to be so special, but we need to raise our own cash for it. It's going to take a lot of transformation. The ambition and the vision for what this can be is inspiring. The amount of people hours that have gone in already is huge."

Tom explained to us how his dual roles as a Club Director of Norwich City and a Trustee of the Community Sports Foundation work on an operational basis.

"As a board of directors we support the club, we don't work at the club. We support club executives. We have monthly board meetings at Colney, as it's a great opportunity to go and see the manager, the players and all of that side of things, but we're not day-to-day employees of the football club.

"I devote about a day a week to the Foundation now, not least because this project will require us to unlock a lot of funding, primarily, but also build a lot of relationships. I want to use that time to spread the word and the love. This is an incredible thing that people should be proud of.

"What we do at the football club is that we hire good people and then we trust them to use their expertise, which we're paying them well for, to be successful, and while we set the direction of travel, they are the ones who have to get us there."

Club finances and increased transparency have been topics of interest to supporters over the close season. It's clear to many that City have to cut their cloth accordingly, yet there is still an expectation from some quarters that the money generated by Jacob Murphy's departure will be fully reinvested into the playing squad. Tom was understandably guarded about specifics, but offered some insight into the current state of play.

"The club has a role in communicating about our finances and I know Steve Stone has done a lot of work around that, but we do have to be mindful of our competitive information and there will always be that tension between what the fans want to know and what we can tell everyone. I think there needs to be patience on both sides for what people expect to hear and what they want, because you can never give everyone the itemised expenditure, but I do think Steve and Stuart are doing great work in opening the club up to fans.

Let's not forget that at this minute we have no external debt and we have no overdraft. We have to forecast out to see what things will be like in a year, two years' time, but that's part and parcel of it."

Smith additionally stressed that the expected passing of the club from Delia Smith and Michael Wynn Jones to him is not something on anyone's imminent agenda.

"Delia and Michael asked me to join the board, and that's as far as it's gone at the moment. I am very honoured and privileged to be able to help in that small way, so I don't want to get ahead of that. People care about the club, and I hope people realise we all care about the club."

With a new coaching staff and a raft of fresh players, a different identity is being forged on the pitch, and we have also seen how the club are taking steps to improve the sense of togetherness through facilitating improvements to the Carrow Road atmosphere. Tom has been keeping a keen eye on that particular debate.

"A culture where people come together and harness that passion for their club, win or lose, to do excellent community work and have a cracking atmosphere on a match day is the Holy Grail. We all support our football team in the way that suits us, but I have sympathy with people who are looking to start a conversation about how we can make the atmosphere better.

"I think it's wonderful that conversation is starting to happen, and we'll be watching that with interest, just as we are really excited about the potential outcomes of the supporter consultations we had. I think it is the club's role to facilitate that discussion, understand people, and then maybe adapt to it and provide fans with the tools they need to support the club in the best way possible."

The enthusiasm of Tom and Jackie for the Foundation and all things Norwich City was both striking and uplifting. As fans we can be truly proud of our association with a charity who are at the forefront of community engagement. Tom was particularly keen to encourage fans to get involved in making sure The Nest achieves its potential, by raising the funds to bring to life all the planned phases.

"We want the Community Sports Foundation to play as big a role in the community as we possibly can. They have such an important role to play and we have to safeguard and protect that, now and in the long term. What is really clear is that we need to raise a lot of money for The Nest in the next few years, and it would be great if supporters could be a part of that. We want and need as many people as possible to get behind it. Get involved in fundraising, come and walk the Three Peaks or the North Norfolk coast. This is going to be your site: come and help us build The Nest."

More detailed information on the plans can be found here.

Formal fundraising for the site will kick off in the Autumn time, so keep your eyes peeled, more information will follow very soon. In the meantime though.....

Here at Along Come Norwich we're doing our own bit of fundraising, auctioning off a one of a kind yellow and green Daniel Farke t-shirt, signed by the great man himself, with the proceeds going to the Community Sport Foundation. It's a size Large, because that was the most popular size from original sales of the marl grey t-shirt.

We'll be running an auction for the t-shirt until 6 August at 5pm. If you'd like to place a bid, add this in the comments section below. The highest unique bidder wins the t-shirt. We know Jackie, Tom and the Community Sports Foundation would really appreciate your donation, and the contribution it will make to the realisation of their big ideas.

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