On Tuesday 16th April, Football in Berkshire was invited on a tour by Bobby Wilkinson of Bracknell Town’s two new training and multi-sport sites at Ranelagh School on Larges Lane.
We were shown around by Bobby and Steve Shortland, Chief Executive of the SB Group, the company running the club and overseeing the project – we were also able to sit down with Steve after the tour and ask a few questions.
Undoubtedly, the club’s plans are ambitious with the local press reporting as well, news of what is to come at the Larges Lane ground itself, the clubs historic home.
With a stated goal of becoming a professional football club, the work that’s already gone in on-site is impressive from what we saw during our tour and will provide some terrific facilities for the club’s players of all ages, as well as the school which will benefit.
Here’s everything Steve said during our interview in the main stand stand, looking out on the first teams pitch.
We’ve had a look at the facilities today, you’ve explained to me a lot about what’s going on with the club. We’ve had a look at two different facilities on the Ranelagh School pitch, can you talk me through the main first facility that we had a look at and what is going on there?
We’ve got an amazing partnership with Ranelagh School, it’s an educational and facilities partnership, they’re a fantastic group of people. They’ve been using our facilities here at Larges Lane, and we’ve been helping them develop other facilities. Our partnership means that they can use the facilities during the day, we can use them in the evenings, holidays and after school when they’ve finished their after school clubs.
At the front of the school on what I can only describe as their derelict old tennis courts, we’ve completely revamped it into a multi-use games surface, that’s basically going to be for the school to use as a multi-use PE area, it’s got cricket nets, it’s got skill warm up zone areas, it’s got tennis courts, netball courts, football, a hockey pitch on there. We’ve invested nearly £400,000 into that project in order to get it going and that’ll be finished in the next couple of weeks.
We’ll be using that as a base for our junior end football, so our under 11s, under 10s and below. We’ve also got further ambitions, we’re building a rugby pitch for the school and we’ll put another 9v9 pitch in there as well which can be shared.
It’s a well-finished facility, an outstanding facility with a top-quality finish on everything we do because we want the longevity of the facility. We’ve put an office on there, some storage, toilets and so on. We’ll make full use of this for our juniors to be able to drive in there, play their football, do their training, compete, do their skills and have a really enjoyable time on a quality surface. That will be a great area for the under 11s, under 10s down.
The second ground I showed you, is known as new ground with the school which is the Ranelagh School playing fields, we’ve completely bulldozed it over and completely redressed it. It’s going to have three superb quality grass pitches on it, one of them floodlit. Again that will be joint use so the school want to play it’s big football matches there and do a little bit of summer training there, things like that.
We want to move our academy base program there and it will be known as the SB Campus, there will be a building on-site, whether it will be called a clubhouse or Pavillion we don’t know yet but it’s in the plans to have classrooms, educational areas, student common rooms, dining rooms, also on there we’ve got a little wellbeing centre tucked away so kids can just drop away and reflect when they need to, that’s important in this day and age as well.
As I say, three superb Wembley style, level grass pitches, fully irrigated, pop up sprinkler systems, well looked after by our estates and maintenance team, plenty of parking, again links in with the local community.
With regards our 16 to 19 academy, everything we do here now at Bracknell has got an educational base to it so we support our kids being in education, we support them being in education for the long haul so we’re looking at all ages from 7 to University places, one day there might be a Bracknell University, I don’t know but we’d love to have that set up and have that educational base running through what we call an ‘honest pathway’.
Our 16 to 19 academy also has the overseas element so we are looking at boarding and we are building boarding accommodation for 75 athletes, that won’t be on that site because that’s not the right place to build it but we will have borders, we’re looking at footballers this year from Holland, Belgium, France, Botswana, the USA, Canada, we’re looking to bring that cultural exchange element, there’s some really skilful players coming into that which then pushes our 16s to 18s to dominate our under 18s setup and our under 23s setup.
We’re also looking for a huge domestic program here also, so we’ll have 16 to 19 education programs for kids from the UK and again a lot from this area but because we’ve got boarding facilities we can bring them from all over the country and look after them there so we’ve kind of gone about splitting our Larges Lane facility into three facilities where we’ve got our junior football at the front of the school, our multi-games area, we’ve got our academy on the playing fields and then we would also look to redeveloping a stadium site, news to follow with regards that.
We’ve talked a little bit off camera about what’s going on with regards that, it’s no secret that this Larges Lane facility is not going to be here for all that much longer, is there a time frame on when football will no longer be played on the current first team ground?
I think it’s difficult with the current Covid experience to know when the season will start, we don’t know but we wouldn’t move to a stadium site until it is completely ready because we want that to be perfect, not only for our players but our fan base of supporters and we want to create a real real positive experience for them. that’s at the forefront of what we’re doing with the first team. The first team is 5% at the top end of the business, the other 95% is the juniors and the academies so that’s all in place.
We’re not looking to leave here right away, but certainly within the next year but again it depends when the season starts.
Probably fair to say there is at least another season at Larges Lane?
We don’t know, it’s difficult to pinpoint but the best thing to look at is why we feel we need a new site and the importance with what we’re trying to achieve is staying in the borough and being in this Bracknell area. This is where we want to be. We’ve loved our time, even the short time I’ve been here on this site, it’s exceptional in itself but we’ve simply grown out of it. We’re a club with ambition, one of the reasons we’re putting everything in place below the first team is to feed the first team with the odd player, we’ve obviously got Bobby [Wilkinson] in now, working with the first team, managing the first team, lots of experience there. We’ve got Kayne [Steinborn-Busse], a chairman who’s investing £4.5million in the club and facilities which is an unbelievable investment, but we’re a club with ambition, we want to get promoted, we want to keep climbing the league ladders and become a professional football club. Because of the way we are here at Larges Lane we are limited in how we could expand and it’s not just expansion its also being safe. Growing [crowd] numbers, which we want, and making sure those growing numbers are safe and comfortable and just have a really really good day out.
Financially, where does that kind of investment come from? There are all these things going on but how does it all knit together and ultimately be a non league football club?
It doesn’t knit together in any cloak and dagger way, where someone is doing something to risk all we have. Basically it knits together in that we’ve got and lucky to have personal investment. If you think about our chairman and his wider family, they’ve been involved in this club for years. So in their own businesses and in their own ability to put personal investment into the club is again, it’s a bit of a unicorn, it’s quite a unique contribution, it’s a family, Kayne and his family are really committed to this club and making it successful and also giving it long term security. But this investment is not just for the football and the club as I was saying earlier, this is for the wider community. Kayne is a Bracknell born and bred boy putting personal investment back into Bracknell facilities for young kids and to help stimulate growth at BTFC as we want to be a sustainable force. Ranelagh I’m sure, if you interviewed Mark or Beverley, the head and deputy head, they would say that they just simply could not afford to build the facilities that are being built so this is more than just a football investment but the football is definitely leading the way in what we are doing and there are other sports to come to. We are looking at other sports, as we evolve, we’ve got a basketball academy starting in September, we’re looking at cricket and netball and rugby for the future and so on.
A big part of Kayne’s drive, I know Kayne very well obviously, is that it’s community based as well as the top end of the football so I think really that it’s a personal passion to invest in this area and these facilities for the people of the community but the investment also allows growth and stability for the club.
You’ve got Bobby Wilkinson in as the first team manager, how does he work with you and the rest of this facility as a club?
Bobby’s got a tough job, anyone that looks at non league football or even league football as a manager the job is so tough. Bobby’s come in and had an immediate impact, he’s changed the way we play, he’s looked at bringing in new players, he’s brought, I’ve noticed, this intensity. I love watching training, I’ve coached myself – not football but many other things but – the intensity he brings to those training sessions! My job really, so is Kayne’s, is to support Bobby to help him create the environment he needs in order for us to be successful. We don’t involve Bobby too much in the other 95% of the business because he’s got a huge job to do with the football club and that’s what we want him to do but Bobby being Bobby and Meeka being Meeka [assistant manager Mike Percival] they want to help so during their downtime like today, they’ll come in and help us with issues and talk to us about things. Our job really is to create the environment for Bobby and the players to flourish at first team level, and also for the fans and the people who are interested in the football to enjoy their experience overall.
The football is the 5%, but fair to say the first is the focal point of a lot of peoples interest in Bracknell Town, so it’s important for the project that that first team is successful?
I’ve been involved in a lot of academies and a lot of clubs, a lot of pathways and a lot of sports, different experiences. The first team, we want it to be successful, everyone involved wants it to be successful. In order to give our project longevity, we have to have a wider business platform because you are always going to spend a lot of money at first team level, all players are furloughed or not signed at the moment, it’s difficult but we’ve got to try and generate a business below the first team in order to keep the first team alive but we’re not just generating a business, we’re generating a community and a genuine pathway so that’s really really important.
Our focal point on a daily basis is meeting with Bobby and Meeka, and actually making sure everything is right for them and supporting everything they do. We genuinely want this club to climb the leagues and to become, one day, hopefully, a professional football club.
Is that important for the success of the club overall?
Absolutely, it’s important for the success of the club, it’s important for the fans, it’s important for all of that. We want it to be successful. The other thing is, there’s no point having an ‘honest pathway’ unless you’ve got something for these kids to aim at, at the top and to look up and go ‘that’s the right way to behave, that’s the right way to train’.
The one thing that Bobby’s done, I love this, being from a rugby background is that whenever our players leave an away team venue the changing room is spotless. We’re looking at different types of behaviour so along with that intensity of the way we play and how we play and the high skill level we’re looking to develop, there’s also a lot of work going on behind the scenes with regards character and the ethos of what we’re trying to achieve and giving that longevity as well. We’re not interested in showboaters, we’re interested in people who want to come and be part of a good team, an honest team, work hard and gain credit for what they achieve. We’re looking at all these people, I’ve been involved in sport a long long time, for me there’s two crucial critical points of difference when you are looking at a young player or a senior player, there’s a point of difference in skill level but also a point of difference in character and that combines to make a successful athlete.
This has underlined everything we are doing now which is really good.
Steve, thanks very much for talking to us, just to finish off, when the first team starts playing again, obviously your focus is on the academy and everything in the background, what will people expect to see as and when the season starts, when they come to Larges Lane? I can see a lot of building work going on around me already, but I suppose, why is there work going into this ground now when we know the clubs is going to move elsewhere?
I’m not just interested in the academy or driving the academy, my heart is in the first team and preparation as well. We’ve got a great pitch here, we’ve got great facilities here, what we want to move to are excellent and unique facilities and that’s what we’re designing and building and that’s what our stadium site will look like. What we want here is, we don’t know when the season is going to start, so why are we doing all this work? Because we want our first team players to have a quality surface and pitch and training area to play on, we want our supporters to have a comfortable watching and supporting space and also with the facilities that are required, so we are tidying up here, we can’t drop what we are doing here based on ‘we might move sometime in the year’ so we want everything we do to be top end and we want people to enjoy the experience when they visit and when they come to watch. Bobby and the players provide us with a quality standard of football and that’s what we’re looking for all to enjoy.