Back in May 2004, Peterborough United were heading in a downward spiral, which ultimately led to relegation from the third tier of English football a year later.
However, a key recruit at that time contributed enormously to halting the fall. Not a big money signing or addition to the coaching staff, but a former Executive Manager of a catering and leisure company, named Bob Symns.
Taking up the role of Chief Executive and freeing up Barry Fry to focus on running the football side of things, Symns’ business background stabilised the Club off the pitch, and allowed them to prosper on it.
“We were a Club that was more worried about going down to the Conference than going up,” he admits. “Money was tight and it was a difficult time.
“I started to put in building blocks for the Club. We needed to have good relationships with the banks, the City Council and the safety authorities. We had to build from the bottom up, so that’s what I did.
“The way I describe it is I’m like the conductor of an orchestra. I can’t play the piano, I can’t play the trumpet, I’m no good on the violin and I’m terrible on the flute, but what I can do is bring them all together as a unit. I tried to build a group of people that would give us what we needed across all the departments, whether it’s finance, administration, retail, hospitality, groundskeeping, media, cleaning and so on.
“Once we brought in Darren Ferguson and the new Owner, Darragh McAnthony, came in, things started to rocket and we got the back-to-back promotions, which were great reward for all the work that went on behind the scenes. It was a long and winding road, but we got there.”
Symns called time on his lengthy stint as CEO in October, retiring after being a custodian of the Club through four promotions and an EFL Trophy success, although it is his impact in the community that will be the lasting legacy.
“The Club is in a good place having got back up into the Championship,” he says with a satisfied smile. “Football Clubs mean more than just the results on the pitch, though. I see Peterborough as a Community Club and the impact spreads far wider than just 90 minutes every Saturday.
“No matter where you are in the country, you’ll have a diverse group of people living in your area. There are people who are comfortably well off and there are those that are really struggling in life – a lot of them through no fault of their own. I just think it’s part of our responsibility to support those people in need.
“We’ve seen kids come through here that couldn’t afford a football kit or pair of boots, who are going to be very high profile, very clever and very successful footballers as they get older, and they wouldn’t have had the chance to do that if we as a Football Club hadn’t have been able to pick them up, look after them, get them to training, support the family by being able to kit them out and things like that.
“For old folk like myself, we bring them along to the Football Club once a month and bring in old players to have a chat with them about their experiences and memories. It’s an absolute joy to welcome them to the Club, have a cup of coffee and a biscuit and talk about the old days. We can’t do enough of that.”
The importance of Clubs to their communities has never been more evident than the time following the outbreak of COVID-19. Symns and the rest of the Club stepped up to support those in need.
He continues: “We opened breakfast camps and took food out to people. I did some deliveries myself to some of our elderly supporters and that was very emotional. I was also taking signed shirts around to people who we knew lived on their own or people who had been particularly ill.
“That’s the sort of thing you can do as part of a Football Club. You can change someone’s day and show them that there are people out there who care about them.
“We set up as a vaccination centre for a period and we’ve also opened up as a flu centre, just to try and help where we can. You can’t guarantee to people that you’ll help them on a matchday, but we can guarantee it off the pitch and that’s just as important, if not more so, in my opinion.”
Among his long list of achievements, one of Symns’ proudest came very recently, when the Club managed to secure approval for a dome as part of the Category Two Academy status application, which will not only support the Club’s young players of the future, but also help the local community via work with the Foundation.
“Initially, the City Council didn’t give us planning permission to build the dome,” says Symns. “Myself and the Head of Academy, Kieran Scarff, went down to a Council meeting, where you’re allowed two minutes to state why you think it should be allowed.
“I just read out a list of all the stuff that the Academy and Foundation do for the community, such as the amputee and girls teams, the soup kitchens that we run, the food parcels that we gave out during lockdown, all the stuff we’re doing for LGBTQ+.
“All the Councillors were stunned into silence for a while and eventually said that they never knew about any of that. That was a massive step forward for me because that’s the true legacy. This facility can help the community for many years to come.”
Symns’ strong values and selfless nature have made him a popular figure at the Posh, with the news of his retirement being met with a barrage of sadness and well wishes.
“I was quite overwhelmed by the response; I really wasn’t expecting it,” he adds. “Retrospectively, I think it’s just because I’ve been as honest and open as I can be, and I’ve always wanted to help improve things at the Football Club as a business and entity, for the supporters as individuals, and for the local community as well.
“I’d like to think that I’ve been approachable and always tried to help. It might be difficult, it might be awkward, sometimes we might have to put our hand in our own pocket, but it just means the world to me to be doing things to help people who are less fortunate.”
With a new stadium on the horizon for the Sky Bet Championship outfit, Symns steps aside from a Club in a far healthier state than the one he arrived at 17 years ago. And one thing is for sure, the impact of his work will be felt by the Club and wider community for generations to come.
This feature originally appeared in the winter 2021 edition of the EFL Magazine.