STOWMARKET Town chairman Neil Sharp says he knows he won’t sleep much on Friday night.
Sharp (pictured above) is counting down the days to the club’s first-ever Step 4 fixture – the culmination of seven years’ hard work at the club.
The Old Gold & Blacks were awarded promotion from the Thurlow Nunn League Premier Division under The FA’s restructuring earlier in the summer after two Covid-interrupted seasons.
They will start life in the Pitching In Isthmian League on the opening day of the 2021-22 season on Saturday at home to Canvey Island, kick-off 3pm.
“I won’t sleep much on Friday night,” admitted 60-year-old Sharp, who has been chairman of the club for around ten years.
“I don’t often sleep well the night before a game, but I know I won’t this weekend, which will be a combination of everything that’s been going on.
“Saturday will be a great day for the club, although we will have to wait and see how many spectators turn up to watch, but hopefully the sun will be shining and they will see a good game.”
Sharp has been involved with the club for 40 years, although not continuously, starting out as a player in the days when Stowmarket’s home ground was at Cricket Meadow in the town.
The club have come a long way since then, but especially since they were languishing in the lower half of Division One of the Thurlow Nunn League seven years ago.
Before Rick Andrews arrived as manager the club, who have averaged just over 300 for home matches in the past couple of seasons, were struggling to attract more than 50 paying spectators through the gate.
Several new signings sparked an upturn in fortunes and the club won promotion for the first time in their history as Division One winners in the 2016-17 season.
An appeal for £10,000 towards new floodlights, which needed upgrading to comply with regulations following promotion, caught the eye of Tom Morley, who has been the club’s benefactor for the past four years.
His involvement coupled with success on the pitch has enabled Stowmarket to attract a raft of players with higher-level experience and led to them being 15 points clear at the top of the Premier Division with just ten games remaining when the 2019-20 season was curtailed by Covid in March last year.
After a second Covid-interrupted season, during which Andrews stood down due to personal reasons and was replaced by his assistant Paul Musgrove, Stowmarket were awarded promotion.
Musgrove now has Richard Wilkins, the vastly experienced former Bury Town, Leiston and Needham Market manager, working alongside him.
Sharp said: “It was disappointing not to be promoted by winning the league on the pitch. However, I think we deserved to be promoted two seasons ago, and anyone saying otherwise would be fibbing.”
Sharp admitted that although it has been an exciting time it had been ‘daunting’ dealing with the extra paperwork involved.
Fortunately, some of the ground improvements required have already been carried out thanks to the club winning a national competition run by Buildbase.
The £25,000 prize money covered the cost of materials to upgrade the boardroom, kitchen and turnstiles.
Sharp said: “The Government grants we have been able to access through lockdown have enabled us to continue work both inside and outside at the club.”
Stowmarket are waiting to hear back from The FA as to what is now required to bring their ground grading up to Step 3 level, should they win promotion in the future.
Any future Football Foundation funding will be determined by the outcome of ongoing negotiations over the lease of the ground which is currently in the hands of the club’s solicitors.
The current officials’ changing room is slightly too small, so the club are looking at a portable solution, subject to successfully applying for funding.
Like many clubs, Covid has hampered Stowmarket’s pre-season preparations – last Friday’s friendly fixture at Soham Town Rangers had to be cancelled – but Sharp feels they have improved on the pitch with every game.
As they await their debut at Step 4, Sharp took time to thank those that have made it possible.
“Tom deserves great credit for helping push us forward as a club. Hopefully we will continue to progress with Tom involved as well as Muzzy (Musgrove) and Wilks (Wilkins).
“Thanks are also due to a lot of people quietly working behind the scenes, without whose help we would not be where we are now,” he reflected.
“We are all excited by the challenge ahead; obviously it is going to be a lot harder this season to get the results we have had in previous seasons, but hopefully the fans will stick with us as they are our 12th man,” added Sharp.