Reformed characters: Almost 10 years on from reformation, Swillington Saints are on an upward curve with a bright future ahead. Oliver Roby reports.
Re-founded in 1996, Swillington Saints have had an ‘up and down’ last few years in the words of secretary, Jonathan Knowles. But, under the stewardship of new manager Dan O’Hearne, the club is on an upward curve and the future looks bright.
O’Hearne took over the Saints at the start of last season, in the wake of relegation to the West Yorkshire Second Division, but he made a positive impact almost instantly, taking his new side back up to the second tier in his first season in charge.
“We’ve done okay and stepped up relatively well to the new league,” said the manager. “Frustratingly, we seem to be the draw specialists of the league – we’ve drawn seven of our first 12 games – but we managed to get our first win in mid-December which was a massive relief. Hopefully we can start climbing up the table now we’re in the new year.”
O’Hearne is certainly one of the busier managers in the league, juggling his commitments with ‘Swilly’ alongside working as Sheffield United Ladies’ manager as well as holding down a job which sees him work nights.
“It can be stressful but I love doing it,” he said. And club secretary Knowles is full of praise for the gaffer’s commitment. “It’s a lot for him to do. He must enjoy it!” he said. “He’s done really well for us. He works very hard and puts a lot of effort into it. He’s working hard to get his coaching badges too which is great to see. His aim is to make it as professional as possible for this level of football.”
That professional approach is finally starting to pay off for the side from South-East Leeds as they picked up their first league win of the season on December 13 - a 5-3 win over seventh placed Old Modernians – which propelled them up the table into 12th place at the half way stage of the season.
The Saints have since slipped down to 13th in the league after their last two fixtures fell victim to the weather, but O’Hearne remains confident of achieving a solid league position at the end of the season.
He explained: “The aim has to be a safe mid-table finish – I believe we can do it. If we can consolidate ourselves this season, hopefully we can build on that and aim for a finish towards the top end of the table next season.”
Much of the club’s results this season have been down to top scorer Jamie Davies who, remarkably, has only been playing football for two years but has bagged 18 goals in just 21 starts.
“I don’t like to single people out too much,” explains club secretary, Knowles, “But we’ve got a lad up front, Jamie Davies, who is our leading scorer this year d he’s doing really well. He’s quite a surprise package as a player because he’s from a rugby background and he’s only been playing football for two years.
“It’s nice to have little success stories like that and I would like to say say the manager has been a played a big role in his development and has certainly helped get the best out of him.”
Knowles, who has held his current role for almost 10 years, has a long-standing association with the club and explains how he was one of the founding members of the reformed side.
“I started out at the new club as a player. We used to have a lot of junior teams down here, and those players who got too old for the junior ages just left – we thought it was a logical decision to set up the open age side again because the demand was there for it.
“It’s been a strange progression for me. I started out as a player and about three years after that, I ended up taking over as manager. I did that for a couple of years, then I progressed into being the secretary.
“I think it was just a case of no one else wanting to do it – the team either folded or someone took it on.
“It’s hard work but someone’s got to do it. I wouldn’t like to ever see the club fold. Hopefully I can help keep it going and make it stronger in the future.”
Around six years ago, the club inherited a number of players from Pontefract Sports and Social who had disbanded. At the time, Swillington were one of the perennial strugglers in the Second Division, but the new wave of players brought about a turn around in fortunes.
The first season after the Ponte’ players came in, the club earned promotion to the second tier once more, but the club’s then manager left for pastures new at the end of the season and many of the players who were crucial in their promotion campaign decided to follow. But, in the true spirit of Swillington Saints, the club, now almost entirely made up of locally-based or born players, battled on. A succession of spirited performances staved off relegation for a year – producing an incredible 11th-place finish – but they eventually dropped back into the third tier at the end of the 2012-13 campaign after finishing second-bottom of the league.
“It’s difficult for us as a club to get the players in due to the amount of teams around our area,” explained Knowles. “It’s quite a small catchment area for new players, so the core of our squad is from Swillington. Considering that, we’ve done pretty well for ourselves!”
The relegation saw a change of management and the club has gone from strength to strength in the last 18 months under the new man in charge, Dan O’Hearne. In O’Hearne’s first season in charge, the club finished second in Division Two, winning 16 of their 24 games last year.
They were able to boast the second-best defensive record in the league, conceding just 44 goals, while they also held the second best home record which saw the club lose just one home game all season – they also finished second in the league. But, while that makes for impressive reading, the manager’s ambitions are clear – he is determined for the club not to be ‘second best’ when looking ahead to the club’s long-term future.
The manager explains: “When we sat down at the start of the year, we decided our priority would be to just stay in this league and build from there. We are good enough to beat a fair few of the teams in this league and we’re feeling positive. If we can push ourselves up into mid-table that would be very much job done for Swillington this season.
“I think he aim for us in the short term is just to get a bit of stability but, even though we don’t like to look too far ahead, the Premier Division is the ultimate aim – it has to be the long-term aim. It’s an exciting time at the club and we’re looking forward to seeing what the future holds.”