Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Still grounds for optimism

It’s difficult enough when the business you run struggles after so many successful years but when that business is the football team that you support, it makes life almost unbearable.

I know how the fans have felt over the past three years in the National League and although we enjoyed the feeling of relief when we stayed up in the first year, since then life as a supporter of the Stones has been testing at times.

As owners we have felt the financial impact of trying to stay in the National League. In previous years we have carried our profits into the next season and used the money for building works and improving the facilities.

We did, however, make a miscalculation when we increased playing budget by about 20% at the start of the 2018/2019 season. We felt this would guarantee our survival at this very competitive level, help to sustain attendances and see us push on to mid table and maybe even flirt with the playoffs.

The reality, as we now know, was the polar opposite, with a miserable season ending in relegation.

We have learned from our mistakes and will continue to learn.

Our business model will never be in a position to compete with the likes of Salford and Leyton Orient. In previous seasons, we have also been plagued with trying to compete against clubs who have thrown money into a playing squad and inflating the financial expectations of players.

While we are desperate to win matches for ourselves and the supporters it cannot be done at all costs, which would put the club’s long-term stability at risk.

I have absolutely no doubt that John and Hakan will bring the Gallagher back to life and bring a team together that we can be proud of.

The players we have signed so far have all demonstrated the same eagerness to play for Maidstone United, with one of the big reasons for signing being the reputation of the supporters.

I was humbled by the support and kind words I have received and the massive optimism that supporters show despite everything we have had to put up with.

Here’s to 2019/2020 being a season to remember for all the right reasons.

Terry Casey

Friday, 25 January 2019

Questions, comments and fake news

Replies to questions, comments and fake news about Maidstone United, finances, player wages, 3G pitches and how professional football leagues could be restructured in England.

For those of you who missed my informal Q & A down at the club recently (only people called Morgan ever seem to turn up to those…) here are some blunt replies to comments, questions, allegations and fake news items heard and read recently. 

(This was written just before John Still took over as Maidstone Manager.…)

« Maidstone Utd have no ambition »

Yes we do, we want to be a successful, sustainable, stable and family-friendly club. We know we’ve made some questionable decisions this season : apologies but we’re only human and we always seek to do our best in the long-term interests of the club. We’re ambitious for the club to rise as high as it can in the football pyramid while respecting the above goals. After three difficult years in National League we now realise it will take longer than we thought to get into the EFL but so be it. With our financial structure – and unwillingness and inability to subsidise the club – that’s where we are for the moment.

« What financial structure ? »

We’ve invested in a £5 million stadium fit for National League but not EFL League 2 (another £1-2 million would be needed). No other club except Fylde in National League has had to build and finance a stadium from scratch in the last 8 years. The business model means there is little spare cash to finance the business except that which is generated from the business itself. In good seasons we have managed to get promotions while earning enough revenue to keep building the stadium so we would comply with League rules. This means we have no cash reserves built up. It is all in the metal and concrete. In difficult seasons like this one, where we have extra costs from changing the playing squad and management and crowds have dropped significantly, the cash flow is under great pressure. It is a vicious circle. People don’t always realise that there is constant capital expenditure and maintenance needed to keep the show on the road. This season for example we have had to replace the floodlights and restructure the pylons at a cost of some £40K. Last season we installed toilets under the Genco Stand (£60K if I remember correctly). In another season or two we will probably have to replace the pitch. We understand that (particularly the more recent) fans might deem the current situation of struggling in NL for three seasons too awful to bear but every supporter who gives up on us reduces our revenues and impacts the budget. You need to know that.

« Are Maidstone able to survive in the National League or are we a ‘yo-yo’ team now ? »

Right now the NL is so tough to survive in financially that we will struggle to break out unless we find a new source of funds. We are always open to consider new investors or partners who could have better financing and a sensible strategy going forward. However as we are at present, if we manage to recruit more wisely, we should be able to enjoy stable years in NL and/or play-off years in NLS. We hope fans will buy into this reality as something to savour not to abandon. In due course we will find a way of moving on upwards but it will take time. It may be the same sort of ‘yo-yo’ situation as we experience with Brive rugby club at present; we just have to make the best of it.

« Does the club have an £800 per week wage cap ? »


«  Are you lying ? »

Er…no. We set playing budgets where we believe we can afford them as part of the overall forecast for turnover and expenditure in the business. We have never set any individual player salary caps although we judge on a case by case basis if we think we should make a special effort or pay a fee for a particular player. I think it would be indiscrete to individual players to give more detail on this.

« You seem to play your cards close to your chests… »

What ? Please tell me you’re joking. I challenge you to find me any other club where the owners are so open with information about the club, regularly do Q & A sessions, publish blogs about the club, submit their accounts promptly, sometimes with additional comments and press releases and provide information whenever reasonably requested (without breaching confidentialities) on every aspect of the club.

« What moneys do you and Terry take out of the club ? »

None. No interest, no salaries, no expenses. We hope to recover some or all of our investment as and when we divest in due course but even then a principal goal will be to leave the club in good hands, otherwise all that has been built up will have been in vain.

«  We had everything and we threw it away… »

No we didn’t, cheer the fuck up.

« Why do we have so many loan players ? »

Sometimes you don’t want contract commitments to players. This season ironically we planned to put more players on contract and in the end this has slightly back-fired on us. Several players have gone out on loan during the season but only on reduced wages, so this is costing us significant amounts of money and impacting the current playing budget…

« Why don’t we recruit a new centre forward ? »

We’ve been trying. We can’t afford to pay top striker’s wages right now, particularly if this means we have to relocate the player and put him up in a hotel or flat. We can’t really afford this sort of arrangement at the moment, we have to be more selective. But yes, we are looking for an affordable big centre forward who knows where the goal is…

« Money from sale of Turgott will finance next season’s NLS squad. »

Sorry ? This is about as truthful and accurate as a Donald Trump tweet. Please stop.

« Did we ever buy that piece of land from the Council ? »

Well we finally exchanged contracts on it a few weeks ago after a ridiculous amount of time and effort. We are waiting for final clearance from The Millenium Commission (don’t ask…) before we can complete.The purchase is highly significant in the medium term as it will enable the West Stand development to take place when it can be financed.

« Why did you replace the first 3G pitch after only 4 years ? »

It was wearing out quicker than we planned because of the high usage. It had to meet demanding standards of the leagues (FIFA 2*) in terms of ball roll, bounce, shock absorption, etc, while at the same time being used extensively (50+ hours a week). It failed its test in 2016. We then had a panic to replace it as economically and fast as possible in Summer 2016, which disrupted our Summer and pre-season useage. This time around we hope to get 5 or 6 years out of it but we have to be ready to finance another one as from the end of next season just in case…this might cost around £100K…

« Let’s face it 3G is never going to be allowed in EFL is it ? Let’s go back to grass »

Not so fast please. Never say never. It’s not going to be easy but as I still believe in the massive benefits of 3G to smaller pro clubs I still believe it will be accepted sooner or later in EFL. One alternative proposal we are making at present to EFL is that League 2 should accept a grace period of three years to allow NL 3G clubs a reasonable time to replace their pitch. So if a club were relegated after one or two seasons they would have been able to keep their 3G pitch and maintain their community structures. Also clubs might just install a better natural pitch after a season or two of planning and with the benefit of having enjoyed generous EFL funding for a couple of seasons. This would ultimately benefit all League 2 clubs.

Going back to grass is simply not an option for us at present. The 3G pitch does bring in significant revenues and it gets people coming down to the club and becoming involved. It’s part of our DNA. Replacing it next time will not be cheap but it won’t be ridiculous either (see above). In 2016 we invested in a new engineered sub-structure which should last 20 years. This means only the actual carpet needs relaying.

Don’t think natural pitches come cheap either. High cost and high maintenance. For a top hybrid pitch we’d need not far short of £1 million to install one and you can’t play more than roughly 10 hours a week on it depending on the weather so it won’t allow any significant community use. 3G, hybrid and natural pitch technology is all changing fast so we have to try and keep our eye on the ball here and be creative and reactive.

« Why is the National League such an impossible one to survive in ?

The fact is that the five professional divisions in English football are administered by three separate leagues, The Premier League, The Football League (EFL) and the National League. These are not administered in a uniform, structured way. Rules are different between the leagues and there are rich and poor divisions. When you go from NLS to NL you find the average playing budget for the NL is £500,000 higher (yes you read that correctly, perhaps I should spell it out like they used to do on the teleprinter when Raith Rovers beat East Fife 10-0…) than in the South division below ; you cannot by law drink alcohol while watching a match, which probably costs us £80K in lost revenues ; the travel and accommodation costs are far higher as the league is truly national ; to compete you may have to convert to full-time employment contracts and add various layers of playing and non-playing staff to your operation. If after all this your club is still standing well I’ve got more bad news for you, you may also have to fund considerable additional stewarding services to segregate matches. That all adds up to a hit of about £800.000.

All this is in addition to any one-off costs of extending stadia to comply with strict rules on capacity, seating, dressing rooms, floodlighting, etc. After absorbing all these costs you might find you cannot increase your playing budget very much so you then find yourself battling relegation at the bottom of the table, resulting in crowds dwindling and reduction of ancillary revenues, cup income, etc. So the National League could be said to be the graveyard of the pyramid. This explains why clubs are so desperate to get out of it and spend obscene amounts of money in owner subsidies to do so. Forest Green Rovers were rumoured to be subsidising at £2 million a season while in NL and Ebbsfleet the same amount until recently. My guess is that today many NL clubs are still choosing/having to inject £500K-£1 million per season into their clubs. Leyton Orient new owners are rumoured to have already ‘invested’ £10 million since taking over in June 2017 as they try and make the leap into the promised land of the Football League (EFL). The bottom line is that annual handouts to clubs from the EFL from commercial and TV surpluses total around £1 million today for League 2 clubs while they are less than £100,000 for National League clubs.

There is of course a parallel with clubs in The Championship busting a gut to try and reach the Premier League, As an example take AFC Bournemouth in Season 16-17 in the Premier League. Their reported turnover was £139 million. Of this amount £124 million came from Premier League TV and commercial rights.* That’s 90% of turnover. Staggering. By comparison the money is considerably lower in the Championship. In 2015-16 season club turnovers were between £10 – 40 million and total losses in the division were over £200 million. ** Some clubs will risk everything to try and get to The Premier League. It is a similar story (albeit on a far smaller scale) with the gulf between the National League and EFL League 2.

« What can be done to change this imperfection in the league structures ? »

Now that’s a really good question. The answer is lots but football administration changes very slowly in England so don’t wait up for it to happen.

40 years ago the Conference was created and populated with the top semi-pro clubs. Today the National League is predominantly populated with fully professional clubs in their diverse forms. When you look at some of the clubs playing in The National League today (or who have recently been in it) you could be forgiven for thinking this was a brother division to League 2. Here are twenty of them – Chesterfield, Tranmere, Leyton Orient, Hartlepool, York, Torquay, Wrexham, Chester, Stockport, Southport, Aldershot, Dagenham, Barrow, Macclesfield, Barnet, Luton, Halifax, Cambridge, Lincoln, Grimsby…

One argument I find appealing is that this division should now be incorporated into the EFL as League 3. There could be renegotiation with the TV companies and other EFL sponsors for extra rights and fees, as EFL would have extra matches to screen and more product to sell. There would need to be a negotiation with The FA for additional financial support for the new division, integration of the division into the EFL rules, reorganisation of EFL competitions, etc. However all this should lead to extra revenues being generated to provide League 3 clubs with a financial support of, say, £300-400K per season, which would be a decent, gradual step-up between NL and League 2 and which would be welcomed by all National League clubs and especially those clubs pressing to join EFL at present and risking a fortune to do so.

The question of increasing promotion places up into League 2, the ‘3 up 3 down’ campaign upon which the National League focusses so much attention today, would be resolved in one fell swoop : there would even be four up and four down as in the rest of EFL. Relegation from League 3 would be as it is at present in National League.

National League clubs playing on 3G pitches would also have their difficulties resolved by being members of EFL League 3 and being entitled to 3 years in which to remove their pitch in the event of promotion to League 2.

Clubs in League 3 would be less likely to risk everything for promotion because the financial gap between League 2 and League 3 would be smaller than the current gulf between NL and League 2.

In terms of administration EFL would need additional resources to run an extra division but after the restructuring period these would not be significant and higher costs would effectively be compensated by economies as the National League would effectively disappear. The administration of NLS and NLN, now the highest non-league divisions, could be handed to one of the three leagues currently running Steps 3 and 4 of the national game. In due course sponsorship and rights sales would enable these two top non-league divisions to create new revenues, identities and prestige.

Wouldn’t it make sense for the professional National League clubs of today to be incorporated into the EFL ? Wouldn’t it make sense for non-league football to be regional with semi-pro clubs at its pinnacle ?

« Are Maidstone going to be relegated this season ? »

We still have a chance to survive but it will take a minor miracle. We’ll be doing everything we reasonably can on and off the field. If we do go down it will be a blow of course but we’ll recover, go again and bounce back stronger and better prepared next time 

Oliver Ash

Friday, 21 December 2018

Hip hip hooray

I recently joined that exclusive club of bionic patients who will carry a titanium hip replacement joint around with them for the rest of their days! 

The operation took place on the 29th November and although it had to be done because of the very uncomfortable state that an osteoarthritic hip leaves you in, the downside is that it has restricted me from seeing a live game since we played Eastleigh on the 27th November.

It has driven me mad sitting at home just doing a few exercises and very little else, waiting for the recovery time to come round and be signed off. All communication at the moment has come via the telephone and email and I can’t wait to get back down to the Gallagher and start doing my job again.

The trouble with convalescing is that you have far too much time to think and read. Both are a formula for sending you to bed smarter than when you woke up but it can also give you sleepless nights.

I have spent many hours over the past fortnight pondering every aspect of our football club. Amongst all the massive positives; I was brought back to earth with the headline in last week’s KM. It certainly stirred up a great deal of unwarranted comment and, in some cases, unnecessary abuse towards certain members of our club and the club itself. 

It is something that we all could have done without and we all need to move on and have clear positive minds for the real task in hand, which is supporting our team and management and start moving up out of the bottom four.

We have built an excellent club here at Maidstone United. We have first class, honest ownership. We have a great support. We are in the throes of change for the first time in six years and dealing with it on a day to day basis. 

Within the club we know we are not perfect, we accept we will make mistakes and put our foot in it from time to time, we don’t have infinite resources either but one thing I can tell you is that we all have the wellbeing of the club at the front of our minds. Everybody here puts in a serious shift to keep the club going as positively as possible. 

There are some negatives: such as the injury to our most creative and best goal scorer Blair Turgott but for me the most niggling negative of all at the moment is that we have a very small percentage of so-called supporters who seem to find great delight in letting us know what they think we don’t know and how they would go about solving all of our troubles. In some cases it has been quite personal and abusive. This is not helpful.

We have a huge job to do to stay in this league, so to the very small percentage of negative writers I have a very clear message. 

Firstly, you are entitled to your opinion and by all means express it but always in a non-abusive manner please. That said, if you feel so strongly that what we’re doing here at the club is wrong, do what anyone has the ability to do – stop coming and please allow the rest of us to get on with our jobs and let us run and support the club how we see fit.

Finally, and back on a positive note, can I wish you and your family a very happy Christmas and best wishes for what I hope will be a good 2019.


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!



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.


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