In June 2023, following Coventry United’s relegation from the Women’s Championship, the club’s association with the women’s team was brought to an end with the team announcing a partnership with Rugby Borough, a club situated seventeen miles away.
Sections of those involved in women’s football wrote the team off and had low expectations of them coming into this season. However, Borough have shown faith in their ability and are riding high in the FA Women’s National League Southern Premier and on the tail of Portsmouth and Hashtag United for promotion back into the Championship.
I caught up with Borough’s First Team Manager Lee Burch to find out how the new partnership has been going and the challenges faced in getting the club to this point.
Going into June (2023) how were you feeling about the prospects for the 2023/24 season?
The changes as a club meant for uncertainty but also an opportunity to push forward on and off the field. We knew there would be a big change of players for various reasons, but on a staff front, we kept everyone together meaning we were able to plan and keep the consistency needed to create a platform for the season. With that in place we were confident but it would come down to recruitment.
While many outside of the area may not have known very much about Ruby Borough, was it quite clear early on that a partnership was in the best interests of the long-term stability of the team?
Yes, the decision made by the club was a tough one as far as moving from Coventry and the recent history of Coventry United. Independent clubs need to make big decisions and try to find strong partners that have the same values and help clubs grow so they can compete against some of the huge football clubs with big resources. Rugby is a great facility which is growing itself and we both felt we added value to each other.
If there was no partnership/merger what would the short to medium-term have looked like for the then Coventry United?
I think the partnership gave the club the best opportunity to be competitive going forward and the situation for Coventry United and Butts Park wasn’t the right or helping the club. The FA are pushing clubs on facilities and as the goalposts move we have to also.
With regards to the long-term future of the club, how do you feel about the club’s long-term growth prospects? Have you been on the phone with Eni Aluko and the team at Mercury?
Long term we are in a better place, we still have some growth to do off the field, building links and creating some strong community partners. Football moves fast, money makes the world go round and in the ever-competitive nature of the game, we have to keep up with the growth. I am not involved in the bigger discussions that is left to the owner, board and GM. I am of course happy to give my opinion but I have a huge trust in Lewis Taylor the owner of this club, I’ve been at a fair few clubs now and for me, he has been excellent and really wants what’s best for the club in general.
Did the behind the scenes discussions impact your ability to plan your recruitment and pre-season?
Yes of course. It was the hardest summer I have had with recruitment. But because as a staff we had planned in so much detail we were really pleased with the outcome. The Rugby Borough brand and badge was not appealing we knew that, even though we are in the Southern League we are competing with huge clubs such as WBA, Wolves, Stoke, Derby, Nottingham Forest etc.
We continued to train in the day which caused issues for some targets around work and finance. Agents weren’t reaching out at all and clubs were not supporting with loans so it was a huge task. We only kept five players from last season which was about half of what we had hoped, but we lost some players for normal football reasons such as Jodie Bartle to Newcastle. The opportunity for her was one she felt she couldn’t turn down and I had no issues with that, other players like Hayley Hoare moved from the area due to studies so couldn’t travel to us.
Ultimately the players we have are here for the right reasons and are a really strong group on and off the field. Pre Season as far as training and games were planned really well and detailed and that gave us the right springboard into the season.
I noticed that the club made the decision to offer spectators the opportunity to pay what they thought the ticket price was worth. How has this gone?
Yeah, the club’s general manager wanted to try something different and we have been pleased with how it’s gone, supporters continue to pay a normal amount and some have been extra generous.
Has it been a challenge rebuilding the fan base? What sort of reaction and challenges have you faced as a result of this?
Some have followed us across and that’s great and we hugely appreciate that, with some new fans from the area starting to come on board and we are seeing the same faces again and again. Our engagement with the youth section at Ruby Borough is growing and growing bringing more to the games.
It was a shame that some Coventry fans lost out as far as the ability to watch us at Butts Park, the fans at those games in tough times were really excellent. But travel is part and parcel of being a supporter and we aren’t that far away, we offered a bus to help anyone but it wasn’t taken up on, plus now we also offer a live stream of our games for those that can’t come. It’s building slowly as we predicted.
Being Hampshire-based, you are faced with a four-hour plus round-trip commute from your home. How is that impacting you?
I have always travelled no matter the club I have been managing so I am used to it coming from Southampton. The trip is relatively easy and lots of podcasts, audiobooks etc fill the time. I stay up in Coventry as much as possible but have to balance it without missing things with the family. Always said to players, coaches and parents, elite sport means elite travel.
You have managed to recruit well and in your first nine games you won all bar one, against a strong Hashtag United team. Has it been quite satisfying silencing a few critics?
I understand why the critics were there, although it was interesting when other managers were telling players we would be relegated again when they were trying to recruit players. I always felt I would talk about what we were looking to do rather than put down other sides, players see through that.
For me, getting back to winning ways and being able to enjoy things more after a really tough season last year for everyone involved has been great. We have had a few reach out saying they were wrong, should have joined us etc but ultimately everyone has to do what they feel is right at the time, I’m just thankful for all the people who believe in me, my staff and what we could do. Long way to go.
What has been the bigger challenge, recruiting a new team of players or building a camaraderie between the group?
Recruiting and getting them in was the toughest of the two. We had ideas in place to help build those links for example little things like we go for a team ‘family’ meal each month as a whole group somewhere to help bond. Winning games and celebrating is huge also. We have a young group which means they have more in common away from football which helped them get to know each other quickly. We also house some of our players so again that helps bring them together.
Given that you’ve spent you have spent a large part of your recent managerial career in the top two divisions of the women’s football pyramid, what are your impressions of the National League and are you concerned about T3 and T4 being able to keep up with the Championship without wealth backing of a Premier League, Championship or League One affiliated club?
Yes, the National League is new to me but reminds me a bit of the Championship or WSL2 as it was when I first joined Millwall. The League is good with a lot of good people trying to push it forward, obviously, there were some big changes at the beginning of the season around the governance of the league and I don’t know what it was like before. I think there are still some big clubs in these Tiers but the worry is always there. I believe our game and culture is only as strong as the Pyramid from top to bottom.
While Portsmouth and Hashtag United are leading the way in the FAWNL Southern Premier Division, Ipswich Town and Rugby are looking to push them. How do you reflect on the first half of the season so far for Rugby?
It’s been positive, a couple of games haven’t gone our way with some red cards tipping the balance away from us we felt, but the league will have a lot more twists and turns. We are happy we are in the fight at the moment with a lot of very good sides. We still have players to come back from longer injuries and have added some additions so again we believe we will only get stronger.
You have just been drawn on the Third Round of the Adobe Women’s FA Cup against Sheffield United. How excited are you to bring a Championship club to Nationwide Windows Arena?
It will be great to test ourselves against a Championship side, the players were excited with the draw. As a club, an easier draw would have been nicer with the financial rewards available but will are looking forward to hopefully a big crowd and a good performance.