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Exclusive: Steve Cleeve talks Kings Lynn Town, Ian Culverhouse & Norwich connection

Kings Lynn Town FC has been on a remarkable journey since it was founded in 2010 from the ashes of the old Kings Lynn FC.

Since starting over in the Premier Division of the United Counties League, the club has been on an inexorable rise which has taken them to the top of the National League North table and within touching distance of England's fifth tier.

That rise would not have been possible without Stephen Cleeve, the chairman who joined the club in 2016 and has overseen their recent success alongside manager Ian Culverhouse.

Culverhouse made over 300 appearances for Norwich City between 1985 and 1994, and is now in second stint as manager of Kings Lynn Town.

The relationship between Cleeve and Culverhouse has been a crucial part of the club's success and when speaking to Cleeve it is very clear that his focus, first and foremost, is on the pitch and not in the boardroom.

"It has been a good season obviously and we have built on the momentum from last season, and it has accelerated," Cleeve said.

"The reverse can also be true for teams on the way down that is unless you change the organisation dramatically. If you are on the way up you are clearly doing something right as an organisation."

While Kings Lynn Town have been promoted rapidly, Cleeve is proud that they haven't done so through massive financial investment, but rather through prudent squad building.

Over the past few seasons the squad hasn't been overhauled, but rather tweaked and improved so as not to cause disruption and to give the existing players a chance at the next level up.

"What we have done over the last four years since I have been here is that we have kept the core of each group and added around the edges of it," Cleeve explained.

"Salford have a different model to us as they have five millionaires and one billionaire involved in the club. What I understand is that David Beckham put in some money and the others (including Peter Lim) also contributed a decent amount of money, and what Gary Neville said is that if we put £1.25m into the budget in the National League, we might go up, but if we put in more than £2m, we definitely will. For us that isn't a sustainable way of running the club and I also think it is hard on some of the lads that helped them get to that position."

One player that certainly showed his ability to adapt to football further up the pyramid was Frazer Blake-Tracy, who impressed to such an extent last season that he was snapped up by League One side Peterborough United during the summer.

Reflecting on the development and sale of Blake-Tracy, Cleeve seems glad the club were able to further his career and is adamant that the gap in quality between the leagues is not a dramatic as it is sometimes made out to be.

"If you look at Frazer Blake-Tracy, he is now playing in League One and starting most games. So what that tells me is that the gap between the top end of the Southern League and the Football League is not as wide as people make out. There are a lot of players at our level who would not disgrace themselves in the Football League. The difference between part and full time players is the consistency and winning every week, as opposed to having a good result and then letting it go."

One of the biggest challenges when it comes to running a non-league football club with ambitions of moving through the levels is money.

It was this factor that led to Kings Lynn FC being wound up in November 2009 and Cleeve feels there are ways that the football authorities could help support smaller clubs.

"Non-league clubs receiving support from the FA and the Premier League is a double edged sword," he explained.

"The Premier League clubs will say why on earth should we be helping Kings Lynn and that is not an unreasonable argument. However, the FA could help without spending money by ensuring non-league clubs get a fee for the players they develop. We are not allowed to put a player on a contract until they are 17 years of age if they are on an apprenticeship or 18 otherwise. What that means is a player can leave us at age 16 for nothing. This also creates an issue from a business perspective as there is no incentive to develop young talent if you cannot get anything for them. All the FA need to do is take a 10% levy on every single future transfer and pay it back proportionately to the clubs he has been involved with.

"Obviously we are not going to turn down money if the Premier League decided to offer it to us, and it doesn't take a lot of money to make a difference," Cleeve continued.

"We get about £15,000 and if that went up to £50,000, it would make a huge difference. The sad thing is these Premier League clubs don't think there are any players worth looking at but they are wrong. Tyrone Mings is a very good example. He was playing at Chippenham and his father was the manager and he refused to let Tyrone sign a contract, so Chippenham got nothing when he signed for Ipswich Town. We had a player in Cameron Norman and interest came in from Oxford United and they refused to give us a penny for him. At the very least a sell on agreement should be included, but Oxford even refused to play a pre-season friendly."

Kings Lynn Town is based in Norfolk, a large county geographically but also a county with only one Football League club.

That club is Premier League side Norwich City and Kings Lynn, aside from the Ian Culverhouse connection, are building a relationship with Norwich that is proving mutually beneficial for both parties.

"From Norwich's perspective, we can take their players on loan and the higher we go through the leagues the better players we can take," Cleeve said.

"They can monitor the players closely and they still train with Norwich every day, while also doing a couple of evenings with us. Then on match days they come with us. These relationships need to grow and the higher we grow, the better it becomes for Norwich too as it gives them the opportunity to give some of their youth prospects men's football."

For youth players there is a huge step up from under-23s or reserves football to the Premier League, and Cleeve feels that having the opportunity to play in the sixth tier can help improve their game.

"I think men's football is much better for developing youth players," he argued.

"They are playing in front of paying fans with all the good and bad things that that brings. They become used to the pressure and it just helps because the results also matter hugely compared to under 23s. They are also playing with experienced professionals like Ryan Jarvis and Michael Gash and other players coming through the ranks who will go onto have league experience. Arsenal were looking at Gabriel Martinelli in the fourth tier of Brazilian football, but a lot of clubs aren't looking at the National League North."

The Norwich connection goes further too, with former Norwich City forward Ryan Jarvis also part of the current squad.

Jarvis also works as coach with the Norwich youth squads and Cleeve thinks he brings a huge amount of experience and insight to the club.

"Ryan is a good guy and I can always go and talk to him and he will offer his opinion and he has the ability to relay information about players to me," Cleeve explained.

"From a players experience he helps bring young players through around him. He is also playing better and better and a lot of players at our level just coast, Frazer Blake-Tracy never had to get out of second gear, but Ryan isn't like that. I think he is an integral part of our football club."

Former Norwich man Simon Lappin also had a spell with Kings Lynn, while Grant Holt played a few games for the club in 2017.

While Cleeve is open to bringing in more former elite level players in the future he insists their commitment has to be total.

"Many fans wanted us to sign Wes Hoolahan when he was released and he would put bums on seats, just like Holt did when he played a few games for us," Cleeve said.

"But it is a lot of commitment and you have to be prepared to travel and give it your all. That level of commitment isn't as common as you would hope, not talking about Wes in particular here, but it takes a certain type of professional to keep up their intensity after dropping down the leagues. We won't have anyone who wants to come in and play when he wants, they have to want to play Hereford away on a Tuesday, which is a long journey."

With the club experiencing such success in recent times, the speculation that has emerged around Culverhouse's future seems somewhat inevitable.

Recently rumoured to be in the running for a couple of jobs, Cleeve said Culverhouse is still committed to securing promotion this season.

"I can never be fully confident but there was not a link with Lincoln City that was just paper talk. He tells me he hasn't put himself out for any job. My view is that if we get promoted this season, clubs will notice him and if a full time club come in for him I think he probably would go. It would obviously depend on the job, but I wouldn't want to stand in his way if it was the right job. But also if he doesn't want to go, I would be delighted. If we part, I want it to be on good terms. If he does go, it would be great if he brought back a big club for pre-season friendly. If you pick the right coach they will move on."

Culverhouse of course is the only big name managing in non-league football, with Steve Watson and Lee Clark also managing in the National League North.

Chris Wilder also made his start in non-league football and Cleeve thinks it a great experience for a manager learning their trade.

"Non-league should be a stepping stone and I think if you produce a good standard of football on a modest budget relative to your opponents, then people should take notice," he said.

"When you go up the leagues the role changes and the less involvement you have. It's not a bad way of doing things, but it is a different experience. But as a grounding in football management you cannot get a better start."

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William Dodds

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