At the start of 2019, Andy Mazey was chairman of Swinton Lions and his club was braced for what would be its best season since 1998.
They went on to finish ninth in Championship, after having survived by the skin of their teeth with victory over Workington a year earlier.
But fast-forward 12 months and Mazey is no longer a part of the Swinton club, and instead on the verge of taking over at League 1 Rochdale.
I caught up with Mazey to discuss his time at Swinton, the fall-out which saw the entire board of Swinton directors resign en-masse, and his plans for the Hornets.
Mazey’s business became a sponsor of Swinton in the summer of 2017, at a time when the club was experiencing severe financial difficulties which threatened their very existence on the eve their 150th anniversary.
But Mazey’s connection with the club wasn’t purely financial. His uncle played for the club and he had connections with the then coaching staff of John Duffy and Stuart Littler from his time as a director of Leigh Centurions.
Explaining his decision to become more involved, Mazey explained: “When the club ended up in a financial crisis in the summer of 2017, they came to me and asked for help.
“It’s a long story, but I ended up buying the club’s majority shareholding from the former owner and we saved them just a couple of days from liquidation.”
Mazey who has “lived and breathed the sport since being a kid” knew the magnitude of the task ahead, but he grew confident that he could turn the Lions’ fortunes around, with the support of those around him.
“The fans rallied hard and gave me the confidence we could do something. I knew it would be hard but I’ve never been afraid of a challenge.
“The players weren’t being paid and it was a mess, someone had to do it. The club needed to be completely restructured, and quickly, but with the support of the fans we managed to do what was needed and achieved some fantastic results on and off the pitch.”
The club continued to struggle on the field in 2018, but the roller-coaster ride took an unexpected turn when a league restructure gave Swinton a lifeline that they grabbed with both hands.
Ultimately, the Lions would face Workington in a promotion-relegation decider and gained home advantage by winning a coin toss.
It was the only chance Swinton needed and they secured Championship status with a comfortable win over the Cumbrians.
Mazey reflects: “2018 was a tough year as we simply didn’t have the quality or budget to compete after dealing with the issues and problems of 2017, which affected recruitment.
“But we stuck together, believed in what we were doing, backed the coach – and it paid off.”
And 2019 would prove to be totally different.
The club’s on-field performance improved and relegation was never much of an issue as they finished a full ten points clear of the drop zone.
Mazey attributes that progress to the relentless hard work of everyone behind the scenes, who helped to turn the club’s fortunes around.
“2019 was a result of planning and hard work, and some pretty smart recruitment on the league’s lowest central funding.
“I had a very close relationship with Stuart Littler, and we worked well together, but it wouldn’t have been possible without the efforts of the other board members, who transformed the club’s fortunes in terms of media and commercial activities.”
But matters took a dramatic turn and the feel-good factor quickly dissipated following a bitter struggle that engulfed the club.
Swinton Lions were to become Manchester in an effort to expand their appeal and bring a new big city name to the sport.
Mazey explained: “The intention and ambition was always to get the club back to Swinton, and we worked hard, but it wasn’t possible.
“With the reality of this not being an option, and a return to Swinton after three decades now highly unlikely, alongside factors like the direction of travel the sport is taking, and the uncertainty around funding beyond 2021, we honestly felt a rebrand was the best chance of sustaining that particular club and taking it forward.”
Despite negativity from some quarters of the club’s support, the wider response from the Rugby League community was positive.
The inclusion of the famous Manchester name in professional Rugby League for the first excited many fans of the game.
But Mazey was left disappointed by the reaction from the club’s own fans, with some viewing it as a betrayal of the Swinton name and an abandonment of the club’s traditional roots.
“It’s very disappointing. We 100% believed that this was not only the right way for Swinton to go to give it a chance of long-term survival and sustainability, but also the only way to keep it alive should the worst happen and funding drop or cease beyond 2021.
“We had some strong support and backing for the re-brand and it would have brought some profile to the club, with some big name players agreed in principle to join and major partnerships ready to execute.
“It would have been a success and an asset to the sport, aligning nicely with the global brands that are coming into Rugby League.”
Mazey passionately defended and rationalised the re-brand in several media appearances, but the opposition from close quarters remained.
“I had hoped that the open and honest way we interacted and communicated with supporters, the amount of times I spoke to the media to explain the need for change, and the fact we’d proved we knew what we where doing, would have encouraged people to trust and back us.”
Ultimately, Mazey and his fellow directors felt they had no other option other than to leave the club – only just nine days after the announcement.
Despite the unhappy separation, Mazey is adamant that he and the rest of the board have left the club in a good place.
“We left on the back of a ninth placed finish which has already secured all but one of the staff and all the star players on new contracts.
“That’s alongside the central funding for 2020, which is more than double what we had this year.
“But it’s all history now. You live and learn and I wish them well.”
Following his departure from Swinton, Mazey enjoyed a short break from the sport and dedicated some time to his business interests away from Rugby League.
But three short months later and Mazey is on the brink of a return, alongside his board partners from the Lions, as they aim to complete a takeover at Rochdale and oversee the club’s transition away from being a supporter-owned co-operative.
And Mazey reveals he knocked back approaches from several other clubs before setting his sights on Spotland.
“The board we had assembled at Swinton was too good to be out of the game for long, although we didn’t plan on coming back so soon.
“I had plenty of requests to get involved on boards at clubs – one in Super League, a couple in the Championship and a few in League One – but nothing really captured the imagination.
“Steve Kerr, the Rochdale CEO, called me and we had a chat, and it’s fair to say I didn’t fully understand what the town of Rochdale and the club was all about at first.
“But, after a few conversations with Steve, I realised that it had all the key components we just didn’t have at Swinton to develop a really strong Rugby League club at the heart of its town and community.
“A first class stadium in the town, first class training facilities at Hopwood Hall, a strong community game with a hotbed of talent and an active community foundation.”
It quickly appeared to be a match made in heaven. And in a statement, the Hornets issued a rallying cry: “At present, the club is losing money and struggling to raise sufficient revenue to meet its obligations.
“The club needs investment, resource and a strategic vision to build value in the product, the team and the sport in the town.
“The co-operative model has served us well, but it’s unsustainable.
“Given the size of our membership, we have reached the extreme of our limitations, and we are currently over-reliant on RFL distribution and the generosity of benefactor loans to make us viable.”
But Mazey is quick to clarify that while he aims to bring fresh impetus, he is equally keen to build on the key foundations already in place.
“It’s fair to say the club was looking at a difficult time, but there are some great people who hold the club together and it’s a club that has had some success as a members-owned club over the last ten years
“For those reasons, I would like to pay respect to everyone for their efforts.
“But what I will say is the timing just felt right and it’s not a case of us coming in and taking over.
“We don’t want anyone taking a backward step, we are all in this together and we want everyone that cares about the town, the club and the sport to move Rochdale forward as one.
“We are realistic about where we are and we see 2020 very much as a transitional year and the first year of a long-term plan,” he adds.
“We will have realistic expectations, but we expect to have a competitive team with a great team spirit and culture, hoping to give a good account of ourselves.
“Players are coming in to play for the club not for the money, and they can see that it’s a new era and an exciting place to be around.
“The future is bright and I’m excited by what we can do in the next few years on the pitch.
“I believe that Matt Calland is the man to deliver for this club and we will back him all we can.”
And in the longer term, Mazey sees real potential.
“Rochdale is a big town. In terms of population it is almost ten times the size of Swinton and nearly four times the size of Leigh.
“It’s a bigger town than St Helens and it’s not landlocked by Super League clubs.
“Rochdale has the potential to be a sustainable and strong Championship club in its own town, using fantastic facilities and with player pathways as good as any.
“We believe that, by pulling together all the building blocks, we can be one of the strong heartlands clubs post-2021, whatever the outcome and whatever the landscape of the sport.
Andy and I close our conversation with a second rallying cry, this time from the prospective new Hornets owner.
He enthuses: “Rochdale stands a great chance if we can get the town and community engaged with its club again
“My final message to the people is simple – ‘the time is now!'”
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