It has been a turbulent 10 months for professional sport in the United Kingdom, not least for Rugby Union. With the game continuing to suffer financially due the ongoing impact of the Coronavirus pandemic, Sid Sutton knows all too well how challenging this period has been and will continue to be for Sale Sharks.
Since taking charge of the club in November, the newly appointed CEO has had to navigate Sale Sharks through one of the most difficult periods in its history, whilst at the same time getting to grips with the day to day running of a professional rugby club. It’s a challenge Sid has taken in his stride and he insists his transition into the role has been eased by the enthusiasm and commitment of the Sale Sharks players and staff.
“I think it’s always challenging coming into a new role in any business and coronavirus hasn’t made that any easier. Thankfully we have an outstanding group of people working for us behind the scenes at the club and its credit to them that we have been able to remain flexible as a business which has enabled us to adapt to the challenges we have faced. There is a hardworking culture across every aspect of the club which has really eased my transition and I believe with just a few tweaks we can take Sale Sharks to new heights.
“The majority of our squad and staff are committed to the club on long term contracts and the togetherness I see on daily basis across the business is testament to the family culture we have here at Sale. We have a special group of people who are striving to succeed and want to achieve great things for the club and it’s supporters.”
One of the many frustrations for sports clubs like Sale is the lack of support within stadiums on matchdays. In the grand scheme of things, this is a small price to pay for the safety of the nation, but Sid feels this is one of the greatest challenges for both the players on the pitch as well as the commercial side of the business. Especially with the news this week that the Heineken Champions Cup has been forced into a reshuffle due to travel restrictions imposed by the French Government.
“It’s unfortunate that we cannot continue our European campaign as we would have liked but we have built some momentum under Deacs in the Premiership and as we have said these are testing times and everybody just has to react and adapt to whatever is thrown at them at the moment. On the upside it has afforded the players some valuable time off that otherwise we wouldn’t have been getting, so we have to take the small wins and do what needs to be don’t in order for us to return to normality. The game is truly nothing without supporters, and sadly we have not been able to welcome you back which is frustrating.
“The atmosphere on matchdays is second to none when the south stand are in full flow, but the most important thing for us is the health and wellbeing of our fans. We are continually working with the AJ Bell Stadium and the local safety advisory group so that when we can welcome the Sharks Family back it will be as safe as possible for everyone to enjoy the experience. The situation is ever changing, so for now we await further instruction from the government once lockdown is eased.”
With increasing coronavirus case numbers nationwide and a number of contained outbreaks within Premiership Rugby, there have been numerous calls for professional sport to be suspended indefinitely in England. However, Sid believes this would be a step in the wrong direction at present, believing lockdown is a perfect opportunity to introduce rugby union to new audiences and keep the country entertained, providing Premiership clubs can continue to act accordingly and be diligent in their efforts to keep the virus at bay.
“Premiership Rugby, the RFU and the clubs are continually reviewing processes and our number one priority is the safety of all involved, but I think the country needs something to pull us together at the moment. These really are challenging times for everyone and if we can provide some relief to that by keeping people occupied at home watching an attractive brand of rugby, then that can only be a good thing. Of course, if circumstances change and we receive new directives from the government then we will abide by those, but at the moment I know all Premiership clubs are being incredibly stringent with their efforts to control the virus. The environments we are training and playing in are as safe as they possibly can be and we will continue to learn and develop our practices to ensure this going forward.”
Having overseen the biggest change at the club in over a decade following the departure of long serving director of Rugby Steve Diamond due to personal reasons, Sutton is keen to keep further change to a minimum but admits the club are looking at the option of bringing somebody in to assist Paul Deacon in his role as head coach.
“We are extremely pleased with how the coaching team have taken the job on under very difficult circumstances. The owners and I have been nothing but impressed with Deacs and anybody who may be brought in needs to compliment him in his role. It is of importance that we keep our current coaching team in place as we have an outstanding team leading our group of players. If the right person becomes available and we believe that person can complement what we have in the right ways we will of course act accordingly to ensure a successful future for the club.”
A successful future for the club is something that the Sharks’ owners Ged Mason and Simon Orange have been keen to secure since they took over the club in 2016, and after building one of the most star-studded squads in the Gallagher Premiership, Sid believes that Sale have everything in place to be one of the best teams in Europe in the years to come. Providing the country can navigate through the Coronavirus pandemic successfully, the Sharks boss thinks things may seem a little more normal in the 2021/22 season.
“With the good news recently that the government has started rolling out it’s coronavirus vaccine, we are hoping that things may ease back to normal throughout 2021 allowing us to return to business-as-usual next season. I think one of the positives to come out of the situation we find ourselves in is that Premiership Rugby’s clubs have bonded and worked harder together than ever before to ensure the future of our game and I think this will pay dividends going forwards in the organisation. It has been fantastic to see everyone rally together during these tough times and we are all looking forward to working together to learn and develop through the pandemic and beyond. We can’t wait to welcome the Sharks Family back to the AJ Bell and we’re doing everything in our power to make sure we can do that safely as soon as possible.”