STEWART Donald has delivered on bringing Conference Premier football to the town of Eastleigh.
But his gift to the club and the fans stretches way beyond success on the pitch.
The Spitfires’ enthusiastic owner/chairman is funding major ground improvements that will see upwards of £1.5m spent on bringing the Silverlake Stadium up to Football League standard.
A terrace with crash barriers purchased from Exeter Chiefs Rugby Club will offer covered accommodation for 1,220 spectators opposite the existing 350-seater main stand and another 500 behind the clubhouse end goal.
Planning permission has gone in for a larger 2,300-capacity stand, with seats, at the far end of the Stoneham Lane ground which will hopefully be in place by September.
Further money is being pumped into the changing rooms, turnstiles, fencing and refreshment and toilet facilities to satisfy grading demands.
“This work will pretty much get us the capacity we need. We’ve got to have 4,000 and must show we can reach 5,000 if we want to get into the Football League,” Donald explained.
“They will come in September and tell us what we need to do, but I’ve read the pamphlet and I want to get 90 per cent of the work done and leave us with very little come March when we have to have the grading.
“The police have got a number of things they’d like us to take on board and we’ve got to have the ability to segregate the crowd.”
Asked about the cost of the work, Donald confessed: “I don’t know. I just keep saying ‘yes’ and writing a cheque.
“It’s probably about £600,000 at the moment and I envisage another £1m to get the ground where we want.
“I thought we’d get the team promoted but I didn’t envisage spending these sums,” he admitted.
“I didn’t realise how unsuitable the ground was for Conference Premier football or how competitive the league was and how much we’d have to change things around the edges of the team – travelling, daytime training, diet, etc – to make us successful.
“But when I see how hard everyone’s working and the potential of the place, I’ve got excited by it.”
Eastleigh, though, is no rich man’s play thing for the 39-year-old, who insisted: “We’re serious about it. We’re not mucking around.
“I understand the views of other clubs who think it won’t last and it’s not sustainable. Everyone in football these days has a five-year plan!
“But the reality is that we’ve got less debt than 99 per cent of clubs because the money’s been gifted as a present from the directors.
“Either we’ll donate it or do it as a share issue to cover it and keep the football club debt-free.
“It’s important to us that the club is debt-free so the fans don’t have to worry about it and we will leave a decent legacy.
“When you own a football club and write a cheque you have to accept that the money’s gone.”
As a gesture to fans old and new, the Conference South champions are not raising admission prices to match their rise in status.
“We’re keeping prices the same, firstly because we’ve got to increase the fan base and, secondly, because in the current financial climate, I don’t think it’s right,” said Donald.
“I’m of the view that if we keep things affordable for the fans and I commit money to the facilities and team, the town will respond. And, as long as the town responds, I’ll keep doing it.
“We had 30-odd season ticket holders, now we’ve got over 600 – and I still don’t think we’ve scratched the surface.”
Manager Richard Hill and the players will be the star attractions when Eastleigh host a family fun day tomorrow (July 5, 10am-4pm). Admission is free.