HE may have wealth that most of us could only ever dream about, but Eastleigh’s owner/chairman Stewart Donald is very much a man of the people.
Having sunk “easily seven figures into the stadium” and “easily seven figures into the team”, it would be tempting to assume the 39-year-old Oxfordshire-based businessman has no idea how the other half live.
But seeing the ease with which Donald mucks in with staff and supporters at the Silverlake Stadium is the first clue that he is no ordinary millionaire backer.
The second is his refusal to use promotion to the Conference Premier as an excuse to hike up admission charges at a time when, irrespective of what Britain’s economists keep telling us, the majority of people are still feeling the financial pinch.
“Admission prices are staying the same as last year,” he said. “It’s £12 to stand, £15 to sit, £7.50 concessions and free for under-sevens”
“We haven’t increased the prices having got promotion – 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.
“Some clubs are charging £18-£20, but everyday people don’t want to pay all that to watch football and we’re aware that we’ve got to compete on a Saturday afternoon for people’s attention.
“I’m of the view that if we keep things affordable at Eastleigh and I commit money to the facility and the team, then the town will respond.
“And as long as the town responds, I will keep doing it.”
For those Eastleigh fans who have taken advantage of the club’s earlybird season-ticket scheme, entry will be unbelievably cheap for when the likes of Bristol Rovers and Grimsby Town come calling.
“Our cheapest season ticket is £105 which works out at around £4.50 a game,”
“It’s less than £3 for a pint of beer and you don’t have to pay to park.
“So if you’re a season-ticket holder, you can come to a game with £10 in your pocket and have a couple of beers and buy a programme without having to substantiate the cost to your partner!”
Given the calibre of player Eastleigh have signed since Donald’s company, Bridle Insurance, stepped in as main sponsors late in 2011, there has never been any doubt about the team’s ability to climb the leagues.
Donald is sinking similar amounts i n t o upgrading facilities to Football L e a g u e standard, but the big question mark that has a r i s e n locally is whether the club c a n attract the fan base to match their grand ambitions – particularly with the resurgent Saints on their doorstep.
The owner believes they can.
“If it’s cheap enough and the facilities are good enough, we can do it,” Donald insisted.
“We had 30-odd season-ticket holders when I came here and now we’ve got 600-plus. We’ve had 300 new season- ticket holders this summer and I still think we’re scratching the surface.
“Eastleigh as a borough is huge. I keep being told we’ve got 40,000 people living within 20 minutes of the ground.
“Obviously there’s lots of talk about Saints, but the reality is that a lot of people can’t afford Premier League prices.
“I’ve had people come up to me and say they came to three or four Eastleigh games last year, but for under a fiver a game with a seasonticket this season they couldn’t say no.
“Will we make the same gate money? Probably not – but we’ll have a bigger fan base.”
When Donald first stepped foot into Eastleigh he had no idea just how much it would cost to steer the club into the Conference Premier.
But though he openly admits “I didn’t envisage spending these sums”, his love of the club and the people in it have spurred him on.
“It’s fun and it makes me feel alive,” he said.
“I do it for the love of football and for the way the club and all the people in it have responded to me.
“They’re all working hard and they deserve me to work hard too.
“I didn’t think getting the team promoted and doing the ground up would cost me as much as it has, but when I see how hard everyone’s working and the potential of the place, I’m excited by it.”
Given the turmoil just down the road at Salisbury City, Stewart completely understands that the first words on many outsiders’ lips must be “What’s the catch?” as they wait for the Eastleigh bubble to burst.
But he stressed: “I understand the views of other clubs who think this won’t last and that 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 it’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.
“Most clubs spend beyond their income – Chelsea, Bolton, Nottingham Forest etc – and Eastleigh are no different other than the fact that the owners are putting in money without creating debt, which is miles better.
“The day I walk away there won’t be any debt. We will leave a decent legacy.
“When you own a football club and write a cheque, you have to accept the money’s gone.”