Colin Goldring, one half of Worcester Warriors’ new ownership double-act, is nothing if not an optimist. He fervently believes the club are on an upward trajectory and are on course to challenge the mighty big guns of the Premiership – and will do so in the next five years.
However, that flies in the face of history and the cynics among us who have followed Worcester’s progress – or lack of it – since they first won promotion from the old First Division to the Premiership in 2004 and can point to 15 years of false dawns, underachievement and mounting debts at Sixways which numerous boardroom and coaching regimes down the years have failed to halt.
After the high point of an eighth-place finish under the late-John Brain in 2005/6, Warriors flashed the cash under his successor Mike Ruddock by recruiting ageing ANZACS like Chris Latham, Greg Rawlinson and Rico Gear, but never finished better than tenth before being relegated in 2010.
Promotion back to the top-flight followed immediately under Richard Hill but he was unable to unlock the club’s potential and was fired in April 2013, after which Dean Ryan took over and a similar pattern ensued – relegation, promotion and a tenth-place finish before Ryan left in 2016.
Three seasons, three more bottom three finishes and four directors of rugby on – Nick Johnston, Carl Hogg and Gary Gold have also held the reins – worldly-wise Alan Solomons is the man now charged with breaking Worcester’s woeful cycle of underachievement, one that also includes racking up regular financial losses ranging from £2m to £8.1m in the 2016/17 accounting year.
A basket case? You might say.
That’s not a view shared by Goldring, though, who joined the club with business partner Jason Whittingham last October and, having since taken full control following the departure of Jed McCrory in June, is hellbent on transforming Warriors into a top-flight powerhouse.
Reflecting on Worcester’s ugly past, Goldring, who also co-owns Morecambe Football Club, told The Rugby Paper: “That’s what created the opportunity for Jason and I to come in and sort things out. This club deserves to be one of those big-boy, top-playing clubs but its history has kept it supressed a long way behind its real potential – and that’s what Jason and I saw when we bought the place.
“Jason and I got involved in the sports business with Morecambe FC and they’d had a bit of a turbulent period before we went in there. Nobody really knew who owned their shares so we had to work all of that out. But we found we had a good knack for turning things around there through applying real commercial strategies, which is what our business background is all about.
“What we achieved at Morecambe gave us a taste for the sports business and we wanted something a bit bigger and better, so when Warriors came up as an opportunity, as well as a couple of other Premiership rugby clubs that were run past us as potentials, Worcester was the one we liked best of all because of what I regard as opportunity. There’s vast potential for this place.”
Goldring adds: “People call Warriors a sleeping giant but it’s never been that; it’s been sitting there waiting for someone to really grow it.
“We had a detailed analysis done around the rugby, the business side and the assets around what we could do with the place to make it sustainable long-term, as opposed to just throwing money at it and going boom and bust, and we believe we can turn this place into a powerhouse.
“Having been in here for nine months, I believe it even more. We’re already exceeding expectations both in terms of growth of commercial partnerships and on the rugby side. I’m very happy with the work of (rugby director) Alan Solomons – we’ve just extended his contract because he’s part of our long-term plan – and we’re doing everything in a calculated, properly planned way.
“It’s a mountain of a task but we’ve got the know-how and the team in place with excellent heads of marketing, commercial and operations and an excellent director of rugby. While Jason and I believe we are good at what we do and drive high standards, it’s also about surrounding ourselves with the best people we can find across the board.”
But what about those horrendous financial losses? Goldring counters: “Reported losses are high because there’s been a lot of investment in this club. The previous owners, Greg and Dave Allen, invested heavily in the infrastructure at Sixways – new stands, gyms, 3G pitches etc – and the losses on the various balance sheets down the years are mainly due to those things.
“A lot of money was spent but it’s not as bad as it looks and there’s a lot of other stuff happening around Sixways that is going to make Worcester ‘industry-leading’ across so many aspects of the business. We want to be leading in rugby but we also want to be industry-leading as a conferencing and events arena. There is a big development plan which I can’t say too much about yet but it will delight our fans.
“We have the luxury of owning our own land, which a lot of Premiership clubs don’t have, and that opens up a lot of funding opportunities. The local authorities at city and county level are extremely supportive and want to see the club grow at the heart of the community. We bring something special to the area without just being totally rugby focussed.”
Goldring has a vision to make Sixways a multisport venue that may include Worcester City FC, who have been homeless since leaving their old St George’s Lane ground in 2013.Goldring says: “We’ve had some conversations with the guys there and they’re working really hard to get back into the city. I’m open to football, netball, basketball or whatever and want Sixways to be a sporting hub.”
All well and good, but what about the rugby? When all is said and done, long-suffering Worcester fans want an end to bottom three finishes and relegation battles.
Can Worcester break their cycle of underachievement? “I’m confident of that,” says Goldring. “We improved significantly last season and although we didn’t finish where we wanted to be, there were some incredible performances. The boys showed their potential and we finished with nine wins, just one behind Harlequins and two off Northampton.
“Coaching-wise, there’s been a historic issue with a lot of comings and goings but Solly’s going to be with us for at least three years and he’d made a good head-start before Jason and I got here. He has a wealth of experience across the Premiership, Super Rugby and the PRO14.
“He’s been involved with World Rugby as well so here is a guy who knows rugby right across the globe and he’s a very impressive guy. I believe he has the ability to strengthen our squad and grow it into what will be a top-tier club.
“Solly’s shown us his plans and Jason and I add value where we can. We work closely with him, the agents, players and their families to work out how much we need to spend to get there and we will spend to the salary cap because if you don’t it’s not worth competing. Watch this space because we have a five-year plan to become a stable, top-tier club that can compete at the highest level.”
While Goldring and Whittingham are new to the corridors of power at Premiership Rugby, they have been no slouches in recognising the potential value of switching to a 13-team top-flight with a reduced threat of relegation.
Goldring explained: “It’s an incredibly exciting time for Premiership Rugby. There’s huge potential for expansion and growth and I think Premiership Rugby will become a pinnacle of the world game in future as far as domestic competition is concerned.
“Jason and I are directors of Premiership Rugby and my observation is that while the Championship clubs play a good game, there is a gulf between that competition and the Premiership. In terms of safety there’s a big difference in weight and impacts and there’s a lot of infrastructure behind Premiership clubs that’s still developing in the Championship.
“For a short period, there need to be some controls that enable Championship clubs to have a period of growth and enable the Premiership to have a degree of certainty. That can only be a good thing and while I don’t support ring-fencing, I do support an expansion of the Premiership to 13 clubs and having a play-off between the club at the bottom of the Premiership and the club potentially coming up.
“It means the club coming up is right for the Premiership and offers protection for both sides, which benefits everyone and reduces the threat of teams getting themselves into financial trouble. Ultimately, it’s about what benefits the whole of rugby and although the RFU and Championship still have to be happy with it, I believe it is the best solution.”
With investment firm CVC ploughing £225m into Premiership Rugby with the promise of growing the competition, top-flight clubs hold the whip hand.
Goldring adds: “It’s not just about the money with CVC, it’s everything else they bring to the table. They see the Premiership is strong and they want clubs to keep investing in growing the competition and their stadiums.
“Americans do it well with the NFL and all their sporting events, and when fans come down to Sixways they should have an incredible day out. Results are part of that, but fans will also forgive you the odd loss if you’re giving them a brilliant matchday experience and with the plans we have I’m sure Worcester fans will be delighted.”
Goldring had better be right because Warriors fans have waited long enough for their day in the sun.
NEALE HARVEY / Photo: Getty Images