Sunday, 19 November 2017

Ten years on

This year is the tenth anniversary of my involvement with Maidstone United and I raise my glass to that. No regrets yet. On the contrary the experience has been most stimulating and highly enjoyable – at least from October 2010 onwards. 

It has been my good fortune to have met some wonderful people who support the club in so many different ways and to develop a bond with the club, its loyal business partners and its supporters. Long may this continue for me and my family because Maidstone United is now important to all of us and the club is, in every sense, a worthy cause.

Not everybody thinks this of the club of course, even those who really should. Last week we published a press release regarding the local council and the issue of the piece of land we have been trying to buy. But more of that later. This is but one of the thorny, existential issues facing the club as we now find ourselves competing at the top end of the National League. Everything concerning 3G pitches, stadium development and financing and EFL rules for entry seem to be coming to a head. Let me review these challenges in detail and consider where we are and where we want to go…! 

In 2011 we were still playing at Sittingbourne and when we moved into the new Gallagher back in July 2012 we were in the Ryman South. When you look at John Gooch’s marvellous video of the new ground launch on Stones TV and you follow the camera around the mudhills and mudfields which eventually became the Gallagher Stadium you cannot help but be gob-smacked by how far we have come in a short space of time. It’s why we sometimes still do things ‘on the hoof’, there has never been a period of consolidation. It’s always been Go, Go, Go… Currently we find ourselves with a fabulous new stadium but which is far from ready to be accepted in EFL. 




Forgetting for a moment the question of the 3G pitch, we still have to persuade the EFL to let us take part in the play-offs this season, should we finish seventh or higher in the League, a genuine possibility. In order to satisfy them on this we have to show by 31st December 2017, backed up with architects’ drawings, planning documentation, detailed costings and a programme of works to be carried out, that before 30th April 2018 we will be able to fulfil the EFL ground criteria. 

This means increasing the capacity to 5,000 of which 1,000 are seated. It also means increasing changing room sizes, adding medical rooms, press facilities, disabled facilities, turnstiles, etc. It is more complicated than meets the eye. For example no hard standing areas alongside the pitch count for capacity in EFL. So before we even start to consider increasing the capacity from 4,200 to 5,000 the capacity will have dropped to about 3,200! So we have to find another 1800 capacity. 

When we demolish the existing Loucas End we will lose the 500 existing capacity. So we will need to replace these numbers too. So it will need to be a pretty massive new South Stand in due course. We are now looking at just developing the South End initially seeing as the West side is currently on hold and we have to have a plan capable of being constructed in its entirety between mid-May of one season and end April of the next, and while football matches are being played. As if that were not all challenging enough we have to work out how to finance all this. Building a huge Super Genco Stand at the South End together with associated ground and utility works will not leave much change out of £2 million. 

It has to be said too that we are perhaps the only National League club to be in this position, of having to extend our stadium every time we are promoted because we started only six years ago with nothing. We haven’t had the luxury of building up the infrastructure over time. We’ve almost risen too fast. Other clubs at our level have large stadia which qualify in many cases for EFL – in some cases even at Championship level – together with training facilities. 

When I spoke to the Crewe chairman recently about 3G pitches he explained that there was no pressure for them to install a 3G pitch because they have a first class training facility up the road. We find ourselves in the invidious position of having to extend and alter virtually every facility we have in order to go up to the next level. It is true that EFL have some room for flexibility in allowing some items to be upgraded or extended at a later date but there is absolutely no guarantee they would do us any favours the way things stand at the moment.

Talking of 3G right now we are squeezed between an EFL not allowing artificial surfaces and a National League punishing clubs for being successful on them. Things are certainly moving on all this but it is hard to see what the end-game will be. The EFL may decide to allow 3G and relax other rules relating to entry to EFL but not before 2019-20 season, (may…) while the National League double relegation Rule 23.12 can only be changed by a vote of clubs. 

It is unlikely clubs will vote for changing this controversial rule without pressure from the FA because as it stands it would be like turkeys voting for Christmas. However in reality, if a 3G club were promotable and refused to rip up their pitch and put in natural grass (not a simple matter anyway in little over two months) what would the FA do on appeal? I believe it would be difficult for The FA to force the relegation punishment down a 3G club’s throat given all their public support for 3G pitches and their acceptance widely in international football. And that is before any question of legal action (already hinted at by one 3G club) or public outcry at the absurdity of it all.

Could this rule lead to clubs trying to throw matches? Well, it sounds unlikely doesn’t it. The idea of Sutton v Bromley at Wembley with both sides attacking their own goal is shocking. For me the very fact that the rule penalises success so strongly inevitably gives an incentive to losing and that is disturbing.

The question has of course arisen as to what would we do if we were in the position of winning promotion. I have spoken to a few fans as well as colleagues about this. My view at present is that we cannot afford at this stage in the club’s life to rip up our pitch and put down grass. As well as the cost of putting down grass (£200K-300K?) there is the ‘loss’ on the cost of the virtually new 3G pitch installed last year (£200K), plus the loss of income and savings through losing the 3G pitch (estimated at £500K per annum). Add to that the loss of our community infrastructure, the need for a new training facility for the first team and all other club teams and the potential cost of reinstalling 3G should we be relegated immediately back down from League 2 and it starts to appear like a no-brainer. 

You’d have to be insane to rip up a complete club model of community and sustainability. Now this is just my opinion and we have not debated this at board level nor discussed it openly with fans (Winter Supporters Meeting in January, date to be announced shortly). I do believe however, contrary to what was argued by a National League spokesman in Matt Dunn’s excellent recent article on 3G in the Express, that our fans would understand if we were forced to refuse promotion because we felt it could kill the club financially. I believe they would back us as they have always backed us. 

Our club has after all already suffered the worst loss of all for football club fans in 1992 when the club folded having taken a promotion for which it was not ready and which it could not ultimately afford. We would have to be insane risking that again. I believe our long-suffering supporters would want us to do the right thing for the club in the long-term and if that means refusing a promotion and then facing the consequences on 3G so be it. 

Whatever happens this season on and off the pitch I firmly believe we will not end up suffering the ignominy of a double relegation from the National League. Terry and I remain confident that we will find solutions to the various challenges outlined above (and to the ones I haven’t told you about) as we have always managed to do. Simply this is the first time since we returned to the Gallagher Stadium that we have had a set of challenges which are so daunting. They are daunting because of time. It is not hard to plan for, say, three to five years in the National League while you prepare properly for promotion to EFL. It is harder to work out what to do when you find the players outperforming in Year 1 and giving you the ticklish problem outlined above of possible promotion or play-offs!

All this brings me back to the strip of land and the borough council. As you can see acquiring this strip of land is not the critical issue we face right now. It would however allow us to consider development options serenely and probably make some savings on costs. In the longer term it is essential in order to develop the West side with a modest stand. As it happens the strip of land was only ever going to be used as an access way and we have no intention of developing it. If we can acquire this land there will be enough room for the West side to be developed into a small stand with this new access way used to get into it from the back. 

In order to play ball we did offer to pay a clawback bonus to the council if the stadium land were ever sold at a profit. What we have to have is simplicity. Our stadium site is covered in easements, rights of way, covenants and legal charges. You will be horrified to learn it cost us nearly £10,000 in legal fees and countless hours of unproductive administrative work just to get the Football Foundation grant for the Genco Stand put in place! We cannot afford to have a restrictive lease contract doing the same thing for us. This we made abundantly clear to the council but they ignored it, while stating that they supported the club and it was good for the town.

What I find ironic is that in my activity in French rugby with Brive we have a very supportive local authority. The Town Council in Brive la Gaillarde and the Regional Councils give us around €1,200,000 per annum in grants and sponsorships and this amounts to some 7% of our annual income. The officials from the councils are always at our side supporting us on match-day and providing logistical support whenever possible. They understand that the town gains much of its recognition from the rugby club ‘brand’ and that if the club is successful it will rub off on the town and the whole region. It is truly win-win. A few years ago an economic study estimated the economic value of the rugby club to the region to be some €53 million annually! 

Now I am not advocating that in Maidstone the council owes us anything. I appreciate that public finances are under pressure and that there may be more deserving causes. We are not asking for grants or sponsorship. Just genuine support when we need it and when it can be given without cost to the council. Here we have such a case. When you consider all the challenges we have as described above we could do without the extra one of spending 12 months going round in circles on what should be a relatively simple matter.

Well, that was a bit of a lengthy ten-year review. I hope you found it stimulating. I hope the next ten years in the life of your club are just as stimulating as the last ten and together we have a lot of fun!

COYS.

Oliver

Friday, 8 September 2017

Agents - are they saviours or parasites?

The statement – “Are agents good or bad for the players and the game as a whole” first came up for me way back in 1980 when I had been just been given the job as coach to the Atlanta Chiefs in the North American Soccer League and the debate is still rearing its ugly conversational head on a regular basis.

Mixed opinion is widely spread across the whole of the football world!   

Now if I was a player today I think I would have a positive approach towards agents as there is no doubt on occasions they create opportunities or make more money for players. 

But if I was a Manager I have to say I would, without doubt prefer to deal with the player directly and leave the agent sitting outside the office! 

Supporters I believe are like pundits, journalists and hacks that have little time for them as most see them as leeches just taking from the game and pushing up the prices to unbelievable levels.

At the National League level where we operate nearly all players have an agent, so both Jay and I and of course Terry have had to become used to dealing with them.

Personally, I do believe that professional footballers need professional advice. However, at the same time I don’t believe that they ever need amateur opinions. Whilst I believe in some cases agents are responsible for badly advising their clients and should be held accountable for this advice, it is reasonable to say that not all agents undertake such practises, whether the advice is innocent advice that may have been well intentioned or unqualified bad advice or advice with an ulterior motive.

But as a general rule I do believe that most agents try to safeguard the best interest of their clients.

What I do disagree with and feel doesn’t help our game at all is the fact that today almost anyone can become a football agent. You just need to register with the Football Association, take a multi-selection exam, get yourself insured then out you go searching for the next Messi, Ronaldo or Neymar!  

So what percentages of agents in this country can firstly, see talent in a young player and then secondly advise him throughout his development if they have had no background in football, let alone ever played the game, not many I would suggest. 

It’s a bit like me taking a three week exam on electrical engineering and actually picking up the tools! I’d have no idea at all as to where to start.

So to conclude: My experience of agents over the past thirty seven years has been some good, but mostly bad and today I take each encounter on a very individual basis and judge them as I find them. But the jury is still out and it is I believe for most folks still a bit like the old marmite or anchovy comparison, you either like them or you don’t and I think it’s going to stay that way for a very, very long time yet.

Bill
(@TheBossBW)

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

3G fake truth

The coverage of non-league football was incredible last weekend. 

Sutton United and Lincoln City were virtually wall-to-wall on any media outlet covering football. When Lincoln beat Burnley, away from home, it was quite simply sensational. I am full of admiration and respect for what they have achieved. The supporters will be in seventh heaven for a few days or even weeks and the clubs’ coffers will be awash with gold. 

For Lincoln the adventure continues and who can say, now, when it might stop? For other National League clubs these stellar performances are an incentive to work even harder to achieve similar results next season, now that these two clubs have shown it can be done.

We have a particular connection with Sutton because of our 3G pitches. Our positive experience with 3G since 2012 encouraged Sutton to install theirs in 2015 and we had many constructive contacts along the way. 

This is the reason I was particularly delighted with their FA Cup progress, as it showcased this fantastic pitch. In three rounds of the FA Cup, three 3G records were broken. The first time a League One, a Championship and finally a Premier League club had played a senior competitive match on 3G. 

Each time the pitch played beautifully and there were no problems of any significance. Each match was marked by attractive, passing football along with robust, sliding challenges on occasions. Watching on TV it would have been easy to imagine the teams were playing on a Premier League quality natural mud and grass pitch.

Except that sadly we couldn’t. The media coverage of 3G had about as much basis in fact as a Donald Trump press statement. 

Instead of pushing the achievements of a non-league club like Sutton in an unpatronising, analytical way by explaining in detail how the 3G business model has been the saving of their club like it has been of ours, the commentators and pundits jumped on every chance to criticise the pitch. 

We were treated to comments about how Danny Wellbeck could not be risked on the pitch with a slightly injured ankle, how the pitch was very different and difficult (Arsène Wenger); how the pitch would be watered and would behave very differently to a dry one (Arsène Wenger again, who seems not to have noticed that it rains in England occasionally and that even mud-grass pitches are sometimes wet, sometimes dry); how Arsenal would have to beware "the ball suddenly deviating or stopping dead" (Martin Keown, for goodness sake ); that it was a good question (rather than a no-brainer) as to whether playing on 3G was better than playing on a traditional non-league bog (Graeme Le Saux). 

Mr Le Saux is by the way an ‘Ambassador’ for the Football Foundation, who have been busy installing 3G pitches all over the country in recent years. Please Graeme, hurry up and tell The Football Foundation just how bad 3G pitches are, because it would appear they don’t know yet.

The worst part of hearing all this nonsense spouted by so-called experts, who really should know better, is the disrespect to non-league clubs. Here was one shining example of a non-league club, Sutton, using a top quality artificial pitch to improve the football they play on it, as evidenced by an astonishing FA Cup run. 

But no, the media ignored the positives for the non-league club and concentrated on all the supposed negatives for the Premier League club. There were no plaudits for 3G pitches enabling the community to become fully involved in their non-league club by having football played on them virtually non-stop. 

There was no mention of 3G clubs’ football academies bringing out the best of our youngsters around the country. No analysis of how 3G can make postponements a thing of the past and make a club financially sustainable. It was awful, patronising, embarrassing.

But I suppose it could have been worse…the pundits and commentators could have expressed astonished disapproval about other European countries, some of whom seem to have recently won World Cups, who foolishly allow and encourage these difficult 3G pitches in their top professional Leagues; they could have attacked the irresponsible FIFA people, who allow 3G in the Champions League and World Cup qualifiers and in the Womens’ World Cup finals; or even criticised professional rugby for allowing 3G to be used in senior club level and full internationals, when it's clearly bad for your joints – I mean what do rugby people know anyway?

Yours, Oliver

Friday, 5 August 2016

So another exciting season starts...

You still have to pinch yourself to remember that this time six years ago we were starting another season in Ashford with no concrete plan as to how the club could survive let alone go forward. Only in my wildest dreams did something akin to the Gallagher Stadium appear on the horizon looking like Old Trafford, but then again I'm not sure I want to go into too much detail about my wildest dreams... 

Now we are actually starting a season in Division 5 of the professional game. Pinch, pinch. Fixtures against York and Wrexham and Tranmere are now the norm not the exception. Pinch, pinch. We only have one FA Cup match to win before we can get to Round 1. Pinch, pinch...

Terry, Bill and I rarely make formal targets for the season, just as we rarely have formal Board meetings. Of course we discuss the football just like you do and there is usually a meeting of minds, after all if we didn't have a similar outlook on matters football and business we would have fallen out long ago. 

For me an admirable target for this season would be top half. Such a result would be fantastic. If you had come up to me at Homelands and said in six years time would I accept 12th in the Conference and a 4000 capacity new stadium in town with a top quality new 3G pitch I'd have torn your arm off before eating it. Well, maybe not eating it...but I may well have accepted your offer.

This close season has been frantic. We have had to commission and lay a new pitch. We have had to prepare plans for our new stand. We have had to prepare for a new division with new rules and constraints, travel on a national scale, new players to recruit and existing ones to manage, etc.

It's been a massive effort by Bill, Terry, Jay and all the club staff, who have been flat out trying to get all this in order. It is a major challenge getting everything done within the strict time limits imposed by the FA and raising vast amounts of money (close to £1,000,000 this close season) but as ever we will do our best. As long as it makes good business sense. So far that is still the case although in an ideal world we might perhaps have 'chosen' to wait another year before promotion because of all the capital project requirements which come in its wake.

Our financial results for the past season will be published soon and they are looking as encouraging as in previous seasons. Four successive seasons of increasing turnover and steady profit margins is not to be sneered at. It underpins increased capital spending on the stadium at a difficult time and encourages Terry and me to invest further as we will unfortunately still have to. The main thing is we are investing in infrastructure which will give the club a first-class home for the foreseeable future and not in a quick hit on players. 

We asked the supporters to contribute through our Stand up for the Stones project and so far the response has been terrific. Many thanks to all of you who have given and thanks in advance to those who are still to give. Every contribution makes a difference, not just with this specific fund-raising but throughout the season, with tickets, merchandising, beer, in fact everything the club tries to sell. It all goes towards club funds and allows the club to operate successfully at this level. It's very simple really: every penny you spend in and around the club helps your club! So please make that extra effort for Maidstone United, go the extra yard if you can.

I'm not sure that supporters realise how much pressure is placed on clubs by The FA and Leagues with their endless rules and regulations, not always useful or fair, but which pile on stress and pressure. When Sport England threaten to cut FA funding if their structures aren't reformed and professionalised I cannot help but agree with the sentiment. The FA and Leagues should exist to help all their clubs, not just some of them, reduce their stress and remove the needless obstacles in their way and not just to expand the blazer buttons and egos of some of the officials.

Terry always accuses me of spending my every waking moment on the sunny terrace of some mythical Parisian café-bar. This is a quite scandalous accusation, the very thought of which is disturbing my Pina Colada by the pool here on vacation...from where I wish the Stones, Jay and all our new squad, all of our wonderful supporters, the very best of luck for the exciting season ahead.

Yours, Oliver Ash

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Is the present Drinking Act at football stadiums outdated?

There are a number of adjustments that we will all have to make now that we have been promoted to the upper echelon of non-league football, and for me personally the most frustrating change is going to be that none of our supporters will be able to drink alcohol when they are in ‘view of the pitch’.  

Yes, you did read that right - this now takes effect at all first team games, exactly the same as we have all got used to when we play FA Cup matches.  

After five years of being able to walk into any of our four bar areas here at the Gallagher Stadium order a drink and casually either stand and chat or sit down and consume the contents while watching the game has now gone – it is not allowed at this level under the control of alcohol Act which came into force in England and Wales in 1985. 

It is my opinion that there are now a couple of very valid reasons why this Act should be revisited. The first is that without doubt the average match day experience has changed significantly since banning football supporters from consuming alcohol ‘in view of the pitch’ happened back in the 80s. And yet, nearly 30 years later, it still remains the case that drinking and watching football while cheering on your team is a crime potentially punishable by a prison sentence!

Even grounds at our level now bear little resemblance to the pre-Premier League environment of the 1970s and 1980s. The make-up of crowds has shifted dramatically. The affluent middle classes feel that they can attend football stadiums with their families, with little risk of encountering danger. 

Secondly, there is a very clear disparity with other sports. Why should a Rugby supporter be able to drink a pint while sitting in their usual seat, simply because the game in front of them involves an egg-shaped ball rather than a spherical one? Or similarly the Barmy Army, famed for following the England cricket team all over the world, are lauded for their drinking culture; yet lazy stereotypes associating England football fans with alcohol-fuelled hooliganism persist. If there remains concern that drinking alcohol while watching football matches poses any more risk than doing so while at rugby or cricket, such a view needs in my opinion to be objectively re-evaluated and substantiated.

The justification for the more general Licensing Act in 2003, which allows premises the option of flexible opening hours and the potential for 24-hour drinking, was that it would discourage binge drinking by enabling people to spread their alcohol consumption over a longer period. This more liberal approach was a welcome acknowledgement that the out dated restrictions aren’t necessarily the most effective way of influencing behaviour. 

However, this legislation contradicts the situation which we are all going to have to face in the Gallagher Stadium, where our fans will be indirectly encouraged to drink as much as they can, as quickly as they can before the match and at half time, to compensate for not being allowed to do so while the match is taking place. In this contradiction lies an inherent, outdated suggestion that football fans are unworthy of the privileges enjoyed by the general public at Rugby and Cricket.

There is pressure on non-league clubs to be self-sufficient; revenue generated from match day food and drink sales has become more crucial. I believe that relaxing the pitch side alcohol ban could make a difference to clubs’ like ours quest for survival.

In the current, vicious political climate, it is inevitable that some tabloids would sensationalise the idea of reversing the legislation as a gateway to the return to the hooliganism of the 1980s, but evidence contradicts that. The assumption that football fans can’t control themselves is again in my opinion an antique relic that bears little relevance to supporters of today.

But we are for now where we are and all of our supporters understand the law of the land and more importantly the rules that abide here now at National League level. We all understand that we will have to adapt to an FA Cup type mode every week and behave accordingly. But it still doesn’t make it right and I hope that someone, somewhere, more powerful than me argues the case with the authorities sooner than later, as I have seen nothing wrong with our clubs approach to drinking over the past five years that warrants this change in approach. 

Bill Williams

Thursday, 5 November 2015

The joys of the cup, 3G in the Football League and five years on...

Once again, thanks to the skills and professionalism of our squad and management, we find ourselves in the first round of the FA Cup and looking forward to a real treat of a match on Sunday against Yeovil. 

I am gutted to miss a home game in the FA Cup First Round for the second year running, particularly as it looks like we will set a new capacity record thanks to the huge demand for tickets. 

We are obviously delighted with the interest generated but disappointed for those unable to get tickets. There is no perfect system for satisfying everybody when demand outweighs supply. We do however recommend joining our Fan Club as it is relatively cheap and guarantees you a ticket and also helps club funds.

At times like this our newer supporters in particular might be forgiven for thinking this is just what it's like every year. But you'd be wrong. This is an exceptional run of success for the club and we should all savour every moment of it. 

To get to the proper rounds of the FA Cup is always the icing on the non-league cake. It allows the players and managers to test themselves against seriously talented professional teams; it gets the club into the limelight for brief but unforgettable moments; it raises the profile of the club and enables us to attract more supporters, more business partners and more customers, all of which is positive for the long-term health of the club. 

Also it's a huge amount of fun mixing it with the 'big boys'. This is what most non-league clubs dream of. So let's share the dream and enjoy every minute and never, ever, take any of this for granted. 

And while we do that, let's remember that our squad has managed to get us to third in the league and pressing for a play-off place. This is as notable as the FA Cup run and will hopefully keep our whole season as alive and kicking as the previous Gallagher Stadium seasons have been. There is a long way to go of course but there is a growing confidence that we can compete in this league and have a chance to reach the play-offs in April. Let's see how we go.

The FA Cup also raises the profile of our 3G pitch, which is no bad thing, even though we are aware our pitch does sometimes look tired, what with all the use it gets  and can appear shiny and patchy, particularly under the lights and on TV. After Graham Westley's comments last season on the dangers of 3G, while his club Stevenage were advertising it in their programme as perfect for youth training, it will be interesting to hear what the Yeovil manager has to say.

Recent weeks have seen England play on 3G again, without any serious adverse comment. Furthermore we have heard on the grapevine that the Football League are once again revisiting the 3G issue, under pressure from The FA. The time may indeed not be far away when a club from National League comes knocking on the Football League door with a 3G pitch. The FA realise that there is no simple way for National League to manage 3G clubs seeking promotion while the Football League door is shut. So they will be as keen as we are for the Football League to allow in 3G. 

On that topic I noticed today that Kidderminster Harriers, in serious fiancial difficulty, were taken over. Their new owner stated he was looking at a new business model to grow the club as a community facility not dependant on match day revenues…well my friends at 3G4US may have some advice for him.

You will possibly be aware of the race against time to get the new east staircase open and fit for purpose this Sunday. The completion of these works will give us over 3000 capacity in normal circumstances and just under 3,000 when we segregate. It all depends on how we segregate too. The numbers change all the time depending on where we might put dividers and how many rows of seats or metres of terracing we wish to block off. That depends on whom we are playing… in any event these numbers will be quite satisfactory for us and the league. 

We are also embarking on a new master planning exercise for the stadium design to revisit where we plan to be in future years as and when we continue to climb up the pyramid. The focus now is achieving the minimum capacity requirements (4,000 for The National League and 5,000 for League Two) in a logical and economical way, so as to give us the best possible chance of financing them sensibly. The precise urgency of this exercise may depend on how the team is doing!

You can all be rightly proud of the club's facilities, which are among the newest and best in the league. On top of that please let's make sure all of us, staff and supporters alike, continue to welcome all fellow and opposition supporters to the stadium with the same friendliness we usually do. That is what we stand for.

As Christmas pokes its nose round the door, can I respectfully ask you to consider buying presents through our shop? Look out for special opening times in the run up to Christmas. We try and produce new and attractive merchandise, Helen and her volunteer staff are the friendliest in the business and every penny contributes to your club's financial stabilty. So it's for a great cause! Thank you.

Lastly we held a club Premium Partner wine-tasting event last week, thanks to Shepherd Neame, which was successful. Our Premium partners such as Shepherd Neame, Britelite, Gullands and Gallagher Group, as well as many others, contribute hugely to our resources. 

On 19 November, in the evening, we host our twice-yearly Supporters' Get-Together in the Spitfire Lounge. The theme is 'Five years on, looking back and looking forwards'. You will have a chance to meet fellow supporters for a drink or two, chat to Jay Saunders and some of the players and ask questions, hear from Terry and Bill about the latest club news and possibly view the premiere of the latest Stones TV production thanks to Fred Atkins and John Gooch. In fact you might soon be seeing much more of John's work because he is returning shortly to bring you - once again - highlights from most of our matches. 

Yours in sport,

Oliver Ash

Sunday, 7 June 2015

The shame of FIFA

Now this is a tough blog to write. I started a week ago and every day something sensational happens and I have to rewrite it. By the time you read this Desmond Tutu will probably have taken over as interim head of FIFA, Jack Warner will have been arrested again, this time for attacking Sepp Blatter with a baseball bat, Greg Dyke and Michel Platini will have been hauled in by the FBI and the results of all the corrupt World Cups going back to 1962 annulled. Now there's a thought...

With all the disgust in the air following the circus act that was the FIFA congress and Blatter's subsequent resignation it is all too easy to feel over-emotional and even down-right revolted about the sorry state of football administration.

When a governing body, association or league gets to the point where there is neither sense nor morality in its rules, finances, governance and transparency then the corruption, in every sense, has to be arrested.
  
Thanks to the free spread of information around the internet and social media there is now a spirit of revolution in the air; we can now take stock of all these years, during which the ultimate control of our worldwide game and its huge financial resources have been stolen by a group of evil men in suits, who resemble the henchmen around the dinner table in a mafia movie. 

And 'evil' they certainly are. Look at the obscenely huge amounts of money stolen. This very theft deprives millions of football fans the world over, including those in very poor countries, of improved football facilities capable of dramatically lifting their quality of life. It's all very well FIFA claiming they gave loads of money to poor football nations. Maybe they did but how much more money should have been given if they hadn't all been stealing it?

It all reminds me of an equally sickening scandal involving people abusing trust in France a few years ago, when the CEO Jacques Crozemarie was convicted of stealing millions from the leading cancer research charity Arc. It just beggared belief. 

How could it come to this? How could we end up allowing this situation to go unchecked for so long? One reason is simply that we, the fans, are a long way away from the FIFA debacle. Our game is administered by national associations, which in turn are administered by continental associations, which then come under FIFA

So the question perhaps needs asking differently: how come all the well-paid football suits in the other governing bodies didn't intervene earlier to stop this embarrassing mess happening? It's not as though the Sunday Times and BBC hadn't pointed the big finger years ago. How could they have let it get this bad? How far down the tree does the corruption, the incompetence, the disregard for the ordinary football fan go?

And of course in football, as in politics, vile regimes thrive on apathy. You let the bad guys get away with more and more and suddenly you realise they've taken everything. And that is exact what has happened here. 

So what next? I think the FA and UEFA need to keep the pressure up for total reform under a new President. Clean out the dirt, all of it, every single crook and start afresh in rebuilding a world football body serving the world and not taking from it.

Change the mad voting rules (not the first time I have criticised the mad voting rules of a governing body before...) to give votes to countries based on numbers of football players.

Limit the length of Presidential office to 10 years maximum so it's harder to establish a corrupt fiefdom.

Let Russia keep the World Cup, unless evidence suggests it's significantly more corrupt than previous World Cups in the Blatter era have been.

Let Qatar keep it too if it's played in the winter and if they reform their treatment of site workers and pay significant compensation to families of workers killed because of appalling working conditions. 

Fan-owned clubs

How does this follow on from the tirade on FIFA I hear you ask ....? Well there is a link here believe it or not. The theme is fundamentalism. The placing of one idea (or governing body) on a pedestal and not questioning it; discarding any alternative idea as worthless; rejecting critics as heretics.

In recent months there has been a torrent of praise and passion in favour of fan-owned clubs. These are what football is all about. Give the game back to fans and all will be beautiful in the land of milk, honey and cup runs. The game is for fans so let it be run by fans. 

Recent examples are the extraordinary FC United, the rebirth of Hereford and Merthyr Town and now a fund-raising by Bath City. There are several other cases in other areas of the pyramid where fans either control or have a big say in running their clubs.

And in a fundamentalist way we are told that the other traditional business model for football clubs, one or more shareholders, not always fans, often making annual financial contributions to keeping the club afloat, is by definition morally reprehensible and should be scrapped.

The existence of a few headline cases of business mismanagement leading to the demise of clubs such as Salisbury and Hereford, together with cases of clumsy owners trying to change the whole identity of a club (Cardiff) or stripping assets (in the rare cases like Man U where there are assets to strip), means that the traditional business model for football club businesses is rotten and must be discarded.

David Conn, the talented Guardian sports writer, raves about the FC United revival and attacks single owner models. He recently wrote:

"Many whose enrichment has outraged football lovers have made millions by selling shares in football companies that supporters still quaintly refer to as clubs. The guiding light for running football should be as simple as the game’s essence." 

Except of course it's not that simple. These new-fangled fan-ownership models are hot off the press and have not yet gone past their trial period. It would be only sensible precaution to thread a few questions through the euphory and optimism. 

Such as how will a purely democratic and 'communist' ownership model be able to deal decisively with all the ups and downs which affect football club businesses over the years? Is a 'communist' model likely to be more efficient than other communist political and economic models before it? How will it cope with needs to raise further cash? With questions of salaries, director payments, and cash management going forward? With questions of strategy, profitablity targets and sinking funds? The decision to raise ticket prices in order to raise cash? Resolving grave differences of opinion, which can arise even amongst fans with their beloved team in common? And what about those genuine fans, who for whatever reason will not buy shares in their club? What voice have they got? And what about those genuine fans of those clubs who might feel their club could be better run in a different, perhaps more traditional, way? Perhaps they will feel even less involved now that they are not fan-owners?

FC United may be a fine business model, it certainly is a great story and I sincerely wish them well, but where will they and others be in 5 or 10 years' time? You can only ever judge these things in retrospect. And doing just that let's not forget - or even simply discard as "irrelevant" - a previous system of fan ownership at Ebbsfleet, which time showed to be fatally flawed. 

This need for a balanced view and the wisdom gleaned from the passage of time is equally true of cases where a new and wealthy owner invests heavily in a club and its sustainability is questioned, like Margate. Let's wait and see and judge this model further down the road when the business plan ( if there is one) has run its course. 

Now please don't think I'm saying that these new models of fan ownership won't work. I'm not. I'm just saying we should exercise some caution before assuming in the manner of Candide that they are the panacea for all known evil in the football world at this very early stage in their development.

After all there are still many examples of traditional football club businesses, which seem to function well. Who is to say they would operate better under a different regime? They don't all have hordes of angry fans outside their gates screaming for the Chairman's head on a platter.

These clubs are in many cases run as efficiently and honestly as they can be by their owners, who are also fans themselves. I would hope that this description might even apply to the owners of Maidstone United but that of course is for others to judge.

The point here is that even when a club is owned by a mere handful of fans, it is still fan-owned. Such supporter-owners are as emotionally linked to their clubs as any other supporter and in most cases have business experience and financial resources to boot. They may therefore be in a unique position to combine the (optimistic) desire to see some sort of return on their investment with the desire to preside over a sustainable club serving its supporters and the wider community. It just may be the best solution for  the business in question. 

In some cases it is the only solution because of financial needs. When Terry Casey and I took over Maidstone United in 2010 the club was on the edge of bankruptcy and was losing money hand over fist. Time was of the essence in finding a solution to funding the new stadium for the small amount of £3 million.

We almost immediately tried to widen the ownership in order to raise substantial capital for the stadium project. We thought by offering shareholdings to supporters, admittedly in sizeable chunks because time was so short, that we might flush out a few enthusiastic supporters with funds and the desire to be part of the adventure going forward. No interest was forthcoming.

In addition the banks and the local council all refused to assist financially. We had no choice other than to find a way to stump up the money or the club would have folded. Even if we had had more time I doubt whether sufficient funds could have been raised by offering smaller shareholdings to more fans. Even, say, 2000 fans contributing £200 each would only have raised £400k, a sizeable amount of money but a drop in the ocean when compared to the amount needed.

Now 3 years on our capital structure is established and the value of the club and its stadium is such that no 'fan ownership' business model is possible for the foreseeable future. However the fans remain an integral part of our daily thinking for obvious reasons. The fans are at the heart of the club, they are both allies and customers and it would be nonsensical to ignore their wishes, demands and aspirations.

So let's just keep things in perspective about fan-ownership. Let's by all means doff our caps and admire what our friends at FC United and Merthyr Town are doing while keeping our feet on the ground and respecting other business models too. In 5-10 years' time it will be fascinating to compare the performance of these clubs with clubs like our own and see how we have all performed. Then and only then will it be time to draw any firm conclusions.

Oliver