Monday, 17 December 2012

My 3G tantrum

Oliver Ash

It was a day of frustration for all at Maidstone United when our FA Trophy Second Round match against FC Halifax Town was called off on Saturday due to an unplayable pitch.

Several other fixtures were also called off around the country but Maidstone United’s magnificent new 3G artificial grass pitch was playable and hosted a match between the Stones and Folkestone’s deaf teams. 

Last Tuesday, in freezing evening conditions, 1120 spectators watched Maidstone’s home game in the Ryman League, while all but one other league game was called off due to frozen pitches. At the end of the game the referee praised the pitch, saying it had felt like a good quality grass pitch throughout the game despite the chill. 

A few weeks prior, when the rains came down and several more games were called off with waterlogged pitches (with others taking place on mud baths) Maidstone’s home game was played on a perfectly drained pitch in front of an enthusiastic crowd of 1400. 

We became the first club in England to purpose-build a 3G pitch stadium. Recent weeks have vindicated our decision. Our opponents and ourselves have enjoyed a perfect playing surface in heavy rain and freezing temperatures alike. 

It is frustrating that 3G is not yet authorised at Conference and above. As a result, clubs below that level are reluctant to put in 3G, when they otherwise might. Therefore, football often has to be played on knackered grass and mud pitches at non-league or junior football league level.

Let’s face it, a number of non-league grass pitches are poor quality, particularly at this time of the year. They are virtually unplayable for a quarter of the season due to bad weather, causing fixture backlogs, supporters’ frustration and revenue losses. They aren’t conducive to playing good football either because they are in a dreadful condition, therefore long-ball football is often the main tactic. 

Meanwhile, there is research evidence now available after 10 years play on the new 3G surfaces, to show they perform as well as decent grass pitches in terms of ball bounce and roll and likelihood of sustaining injuries. The only real difference therefore is that 3G plays like a top quality pitch in most weathers while grass and mud is often unplayable in extreme weather conditions.

I am not saying all clubs have to follow our example and put in 3G. It should be a simple choice where the club has the resources and believes the business plan on 3G would work. For the time being the FA, the Conference and the Football League are all refusing to open the door fully to 3G. All we want is for clubs to have complete freedom to be able to choose to put in perfect playing surfaces which are weather proof. The more such pitches the better for players and spectators alike. Sounds like a no-brainer doesn't it?

Most 3G pitch business plans would indeed work due to the potential pitch hire income, as long as capital or credit can be raised for installation. The costs are around £250-300k depending on soil conditions and pitch specification. Also the regular gate income from weekend matches uninterrupted by postponements is vital and can be life-saving for cash-strapped lower league clubs.

Figure this out – the world football governing body Fifa allows international matches on 3G; several leading UK clubs and national bodies, like Arsenal and the FA itself at Wembley, are already allowed to use plastic grass strands to knit their grass pitches together better. Some 3G is good, some 3G is bad... it doesn't make sense.

And after this weekend, as the players, officials and supporters of FC Halifax Town and Maidstone United sat twiddling their thumbs I wonder if it's not time to change tack. Perhaps it's actually the poor quality grass and mud pitches which shouldn't be allowed by the football authorities, and not 3G pitches?!

Friday, 9 November 2012

A couple of words on crowd size: UTTERLY FANTASTIC!

Oliver Ash

I’m certainly feeling a bit cut off from all the Gallagher Stadium action (and all the work as some will point out…) over here in Paris and with a dose of lumbago keeping me off sport: so it is blog update time. However, it seems I am by no means the only ‘supporter in exile'. That there should be Stones fans in Thailand and goodness knows where else is appropriately humbling.

It’s been refreshing to follow a series of good results and some fine performances to match. There is certainly a buzz in our own household as a result of this so I can only imagine the buzz around Maidstone must be quite something! 

I take my hat off to Jay because he is under constant pressure and has turned things around from the difficult start to the season in the best way possible. He predicted this would happen and it has. I am most pleasantly surprised to see us up top of the division and commanding most of our games. However it is only a quarter of the way through the season (although with what felts like about 100 pre-season games that is hard to believe). It will be a long hard winter and I only hope that the team remain motivated enough to push on from here and build up a substantial lead at the top. There is no doubt they are good enough technically.

The winter approaches and we shall no doubt soon have a chance to see if our 3G pitch lives up to its reputation and ensures football at the Gallagher when there is none elsewhere. One thing we have to do is prepare to rid our car park and also the road and footpaths coming down to the stadium of snow and ice so that if the pitch is playable we do not fall foul of access problems.

The 3G pitch issues move on slowly but surely. I heard a well-sourced rumour recently saying that a couple of League 2 clubs were preparing applications to play on 3G pitches. Another club in Conference has told me they are also definitely preparing an application. So the subject of 3G in higher leagues will not go away and I remain confident 3G synthetic turf pitches will be accepted in Conference before too long. What’s too long? Any time after we get to a position to be promoted to the Conference would be too long for us.

A couple of words on crowd size: UTTERLY FANTASTIC! Well done to all the new and old Stones fans who are cramming through our turnstiles. This is vindication of the belief Terry and I had when we decided to push on with this project that great numbers of local people wanted to see Maidstone United back in town. It’s also great to see the clubhouse and facilities being used by lots of our community teams as this is the lifeblood of the club.

Despite the attendances being well above our estimates (900-ish), the 2,250 capacity has not actually been threatened yet in any game apart from Brighton, although it might well be the case that we could potentially fill more seats. The extension of the seating or other parts of the stadium is not on the cards quite yet. 

As you may know the ground cost roughly twice the original budget and we broke every piggy bank we could find in order to finance it. Although the extra attendance income really helps the bottom line, you have to understand that the overall budget includes other revenue items - room hire, pitch hire, sponsorship, car park rental, academy income, etc. and not every item is doing better than budget…there are also far higher than budgeted costs to consider. 

You may be surprised to know that a significant part of first season revenues have already effectively been spent on stadium capital costs….so you will appreciate that extension projects are not on the cards yet although it may well be sensible to take a medium term look at what could be done to the ground if the real need arises to add seats.

On the other hand issues such as ease and control of access, turnstile capacity and operation, entrances and exits, e-ticketing, improving bar operations to cater for big crowds, toilets, stewarding, etc are under constant review and will be improved wherever possible. Your ideas are always welcome. Rest assured that everyone at the club is working toward making the match day experience as enjoyable as possible for the supporters; it’s good for you and it’s good for the club.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Exciting, humbling and ultimately rewarding

Terry Casey
The last year has given me some of the most exciting, humbling and ultimately rewarding twelve months of my life.

When we gathered last September on a piece of wasteland in Whatman Way it was difficult to imagine what we would achieve. I now watch our own Maidstone United academy students as they study in their state of the art classrooms and play each afternoon on the equally state of the art playing surface. Many of the students show genuine footballing talent which will secure the playing future of Maidstone United for many years to come.

The future is also being secured by the numerous children’s and youth teams that use the pitch every week. Many of these children never knowing that the county town of Kent ever had a football team but now having a burning ambition to, one day, represent their home town sometime in the future. These youngsters are the future supporters of Maidstone United and we will nurture their love of football and make them feel part of the club.

The future of Maidstone United must also be secured by an attitude to business that means it will never again suffer the indignities of financial collapse and should never teeter of the brink of extinction again. We must make the club commercially viable and there is a clear link to a successful youth development system and a financially secure football club.

To complete the work of building the stadium was sometimes traumatic and often stressful but the support Oliver, Bill and I have had from the supporters of the club meant that we were never going to be deflected from the ambition of bringing football back to Maidstone after twenty five years. The 'tours' I conducted of the stadium, or as it was then building site, for the fans made me feel very humble with genuine supporters telling me about their aspirations for the club and their memories. They would often recall their fathers taking them to their first matches which reminded me of my dad who used to take me to the Athletic Ground on the London Road.

The interment of Elvis’s ashes are a poignant reminder of all the supporters who could not make the return of their team to the town.

The backing, financially, physically and emotionally, that we received from the supporters carried Oliver, Bill and I on a wave of enthusiasm and whilst I have said it many times I should repeat that it has been the supporters that have kept this football club in existence. The crowds we have attracted since we opened are proof that the football followers of Maidstone have an appetite for semi-pro football and I hope that they will stay with us because there is a lot more to come. What is also evident to me is the large numbers of families who are coming to the games which also bodes well for the future.

While what happens on the pitch is vital to all of us we are creating a stadium which will function throughout the year and become a hub for sporting and business activities for many years to come. I am acutely aware that a successful first team will generate more income than all the other activities of the business as a whole so we must ensure that we always financially support the team.

To the supporters who stuck by the club - thank you again.

I wonder where we will be this time next year!

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Taking shape at The Gallagher Stadium

Oliver Ash
Every day means another chance to see the pictures and photos of the Gallagher Stadium taking shape. 

It's a very exciting time for everyone connected with the club. The contractors, our project managers Prime, Terry and Bill, and all the well-known club officials (including a few familiar new faces in new jobs) are all working flat out now to get it all done on time.
The ground has become green this last week and what a difference that makes. It suddenly looks like a football ground, which is a good job really. Getting the pitch laid and trouble-shooting every day to solve problems is a real challenge. 3G pitches, particularly when they will be used for senior matches in main stadia, are an unknown quantity; not much experience exists of installing them; independent advice of quality is hard to come by; empirical evidence even rarer. So we are having to make difficult decisions at times and we trust we won't come to regret too many of them when we see how it all looks and plays.
Our group of clubs, 3G4US, is going strong and lobbying for greater awareness and change on 3G pitches. We are eagerly awaiting feedback from the Football League after their survey, to which many of you contributed. Even more so because we are targeting automatic promotion this season. We want to progress up the pyramid as quickly as sensible business performance will allow us. 

In a nutshell that means that as long as enough supporters come to games, drink and eat in the clubhouse, buy merchandise, join our future membership scheme, play the lottery etc. and as long as local businesses support our sponsorship and advertising campaigns then we will generate enough revenues to afford a top quality team and infrastructure.
In addition we will have a pitch to hire out, a car park to fill, an academy to operate and a clubhouse/ bar events centre to manage profitably. The more revenues that all generates the more we can invest in due course into the football club. We won't go down the road of other football models where owners' or bank money is thrown at the first team and insufficient revenues are deemed irrelevant until the ship starts to sink. 

That's why we need all of you, including hundreds of new followers we will meet at the Brighton game, to keep behind us on and off the field so the business works well. Then we can realistically hope to be able to jump up at least couple of levels in the next few seasons. And that's why we want to get change on 3G sooner rather than later because you will know that under current rules the Conference has not yet agreed to allow 3G.
We are working with Jay to reorganise the squad for next season and give ourselves the best chance possible of achieving this aim. The new stadium and quality turf will give quality players the chance to show their skills; it will be such a different surface to the ones we're used to; looking like Wembley, genuine skills will be at a premium; luck will be less important than elsewhere. I for one, cannot wait to see the first few games and savour the spectacle!

Thanks for all your support.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Business end of the season

Terry Casey
We are getting to the business end of the season and also the latter stages of the building of our new stadium.

On the field, which is a lot less stressful than the events concerning the stadium, I feel we have done remarkably well to stay in the hunt for a play-off place. It is a credit to Jay who, despite the cutting of his budget, has managed to keep the players motivated and focused. It is simply in our hands now in that if we win both matches then we make the play offs. I think Bognor will be playing for the title on the last day of the season so it promises to be an exciting day.

Off the field we are making great progress and next week we will be laying the 3G carpet. I read that one of our local councillors reported to a local newspaper that he felt by laying this pitch showed a lack of ambition. While he is of course entitled to his opinion, the fact is that without the 3G surface we would not be able to offer the facility for over fifty hours each week to our community, children’s and disability teams. 

It may be that Maidstone United change the face of lower league football if the FA accept the 3G surface at Conference level. It is ironic that CSKA Moscow can play Real Madrid on this very same surface but Dorchester Town cannot play against East Thurrock in the Conference South.

Our decision to spend more money on the east stand looks as though it will be vindicated as we have almost sold out of the VIP seats earning us much-needed revenue. Advance sales on advertising and season tickets are also very encouraging which will mean that our predicted crowds for next season of 800/1,000 will be an achievable target.

We have made some staff appointments in advance of the opening of the stadium that will make sure that the ground and its’ facilities will be professionally managed which will go some way to making sure that the business opportunities will be successful.

The capacity of the stadium has been reduced by the authorities, which has been a disappointment, but we intend to develop a good relationship with the fire and police departments and demonstrate that we will have the systems and facilities that can cope with larger attendances. Bill, who now regards Gus Poyet as “a close personal friend”, has worked a miracle in getting a Championship side like Brighton and Hove Albion to The Gallagher Stadium and it is clear that we will sell out of the 2,000 tickets that have been allowed. Charlton Athletic have said that they will give us date for a friendly, as they also want to be part of the return of the Stones.

I cannot thank enough those people who continue to express their support both financially and in their efforts behind the scenes for what we are trying to achieve - it means a great deal to Oliver, Bill and myself.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Bad weather = good news for 3G

Oliver Ash
The bad weather is back, turning thoughts to our future 3G synthetic pitch.

I noticed that Durham City played one of the few games to survive the weekend but Woodley did not - it snowed heavily just before kick off and not even 3G could cope with that. So even if it's not perfect 3G has proved its strength again this weekend and it will continue. 

We are leading the lobbying, as we said we would, in order to inform football people of the qualities and advantages of 3G, with a view to getting increasing acceptance of the surface at higher levels. We have now established a lobby group of clubs and so far have received nothing but positive replies from other clubs to the initiative. 

You will have seen the good news on the Football Stadia Improvement Fund grant. A special thanks to Mike Littleboy for his efforts on our behalf; he is a tenacious battler and never gives up: essential qualities on and off the field. 

I met Mike a few years ago when I first joined the club and saw how he and others worked hard on the first presentation to the FA. I originally agreed to help the club financially based on the 'hope' at the time that a major grant could be obtained. I was conscious of the risk. We had no other resources. 

Well it soon became clear that getting a £2 million grant for a stadium project (without a serious financial business plan to back it) was pie in the sky. It had nothing to do with whether we were a limited company or not, simply such substantial grants were not available for such projects. End of story. 

Except that fortunately it was not the end of the story. I was now attached to the club in every sense and Terry Casey swallowed hard and jumped in our direction at the last moment. The result is that 12 months later a well-conceived and prepared grant application was made for a much smaller amount, that we were confident of winning. Sincere thanks are due to the  Football Stadia Improvement Fund and the executives who believed in our project and backed us. 

The other sums needed for the stadium are being put into place, with other essential contributions from the supporters and our stadium sponsors the Gallagher Group. It's still challenging despite all these contributions because the overall cost will be around the £2 million mark. 

However the club will be on a strong footing as a result of the business model being developed: the revenue generated, once loans and running costs are covered, will be able to be reinvested sensibly to support the club's efforts on the field. But the model will only really work if you come in your hundreds to support your team and your club at The Gallagher Stadium.

Weather permitting I look forward to seeing many of you at Dulwich.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Construction, crowds and commitment

Terry Casey
We continue to make good progress at Whatman Way - thanks to a combination of good weather and the hard work of the Gallagher team. There are now a number of significant target dates we are working towards with 14th July the intended first match against Charlton.

The installation of the floodlight masts is the beginning of a programme that is working to another target date which is the 18th April, when works starts on the laying of the 3g surface. 

Before this can happen the framework on the stand must be completed and the terraces must have been installed. We are about to order the pitch perimeter barrier which must also be in place prior to the 3g installation. The work in getting everything in place is enormous but each time I visit the site I am encouraged by the supporters who are also watching the progress.

I want to make a personal request regarding the foul and abusive language at some matches of a small number of our fans. I want the club to be a place where children and grandchildren can attend matches and not have to listen to some supporters using the F word as part of their way of abusing the referee and players and including it in their chants. 

As an example the chant to the Whitstable supporters of “you can stick your oysters up your arse“  was OK as it was a bit crude but amusing whereas “you can stick your f---ing oysters up your arse” is not acceptable. 

When a player or referee is subjected to direct abuse that includes the f word I do not want children or indeed anyone to have to listen to that type abusive language. I accept it is a passionate game and emotions can become inflamed but there are alternatives to abusive swearing.

There has been some debate recently about the club rewarding the loyal fans in terms of  tickets for the friendlies and season ticket distribution. 

I will take this opportunity to make the club’s position very clear as I feel that it has been those same supporters who saved Maidstone United Football Club, so it will be those supporters who will get priority and preference for the pre-season friendlies and season tickets.  

Somehow the club has managed to retain hundreds of loyal supporters despite all the false dawns and the indignities of not having a team that plays its football in the town that it represents. I would not have become involved but for the fans' dedication and loyalty. 

If there is ever a discussion about who saved the football club from extinction there is absolutely no doubt in my mind. It was saved by the commitment and loyalty of a few hundred supporters.