Friday, 27 June 2014

Can there ever be any excuse for underachieving?

After my Directors XI had once again taken the supporters team to task in our annual football match down at the Gallagher Stadium, we all carried our very tired bodies into the Spitfire Lounge for a couple of drinks, a bit of pizza and a friendly chat.

The conversation was varied but there was one subject that kept coming up from most of the regular supporters – who kept reminding me that the season wasn’t very far away – was: ‘what do I think we will do better this season and not make the same mistakes?’. Or more to the point: ‘can we stay clear of the injuries and can one or two players up their game?’

It jogged an age old problem that I have faced throughout my whole football career. I know exactly where everyone is coming from as I am the same – I hate getting beaten and want my team to win every game – so what I believe everyone was asking me indirectly was: ‘can there ever be any excuse for underachieving?’

We made a lot of genuine excuses last season, mainly to do with the injury crisis that struck and it is the only excuse that I believe any coach can accept. If a player has a genuine injury or is ill, it is impossible for him to perform at his highest standard.
How often have you read after a very good performance the manager or coach says: ‘We have set a high standard and now we must reach the same each week’? 

The formula to getting each player to achieve his very best standard of play each week is a very complex ingredient as there are so many factors involved. But it is what the management have to strive for and somehow place that ingredient somewhere in that player’s brain.

So what does it really take to make a championship team? 

I believe that the most important ingredient is, if possible, to select and sign the best players available. You then need to get the balance of those selected players right, train them well and get them to a highest level of fitness. 

You also need to instil a clear understanding of the different systems that the team is going to use, drill the set plays into every one of them and sharpen every aspect. Add to that making sure that each player feels good about himself, his fellow team mates and the club. Some people would call that creating a good team spirit. 

When you put it all down on paper it all sounds relatively simple, but of course it isn’t and even when you think that you have got it all right – out go the team and they get beaten 4-1 by the very same team that they had beaten 4-1 a week earlier – you ask the question: ‘what went wrong?’

It turns out on this occasion that although everything you did was in fact the same – three players had played with slight injuries, the centre half got a pulled hamstring just before half time and two of the players had rows with their wives before they left for the game the very same morning!

So to all those supporters who spoke to me over a pint and think that they have all the answers, hopefully you can now see that it certainly isn’t a simple task trying to make sure that every player we sign doesn’t ever underachieve!  

Bill

Sunday, 11 May 2014

A cunning plan…

I have now heard about the proposals for League 3 and heard the reaction from the non-league world: outrage, annoyance, fear, disbelief, any number of negative sentiments. Hardly any in favour. 

People have questioned the logic, questioned the Commission membership, questioned the motives, questioned Greg Dyke’s credibility. I too believe the proposal to be misguided and wonder why it was put forward in what appears to be such a clumsy and provocative way. Deliberate surely?

There remains the strong underlying issue here of an FA, which has to run an England team but which doesn’t control the source of its players anymore: the Premier League. After all the Premier League were not even on the Commission and let’s face it, Premier League clubs, foreign-owned in many cases, don’t care if no English players play for them as long as they win things and make heaps of dosh! The biggest challenge Greg Dyke has is to wrest some control of English football back from the Premier League, a tough ask.

League 3 is supposed to be a solution to the challenge of producing more talented young English players for the national team. Even Greg Dyke himself admits it may not be the best solution but it’s the only one they seemed to all agree on and he invites us to propose a better solution or accept this one because something needs to be done. Well it has certainly got the debate stirred up.

League 3 is wrong firstly because it ignores the unique nature of non-league and lower league football in England, which cannot be compared easily with other countries’ structures. We have about 100 full-time professional clubs. Is there any other country in Europe, which can claim such a huge figure? The huge number of followers and supporters of non-league and lower league clubs is also exceptional. In France’s professional Division 2 for example, the bottom four clubs’ crowds average 2000, comparable with The Conference, our Division 5. Our pyramid structure is highly liberal: all clubs can legitimately aim to rise to the top. Nothing but merit restricts them.

Additionally League 3 adds an unfair element of imperfect competition: clubs will inevitably put together their (reserve) team not simply in order to win matches and the competition as a whole, but in order to ‘practise’, to improve players, their experience and ultimately their club’s first team. This will skew the results unfairly. The division will be compromised and the results almost irrelevant in sporting terms. This pollution of the pyramid is undesirable to say the least. The pyramid is not perfect (e.g. the absurd situation by which non-league clubs at AGMs get one vote in Step 1, 3 and 4 but virtually no votes in Step 2…) but it’s not bad the way it is, thank you very much.

More importantly it doesn’t seem to be the best solution to the problem. After all the FA Commission highlighted the problems: too few coaches in English football; too few good pitches; too little competitive football for 18-21 year olds because existing reserve leagues are not deemed competitive enough; surely they are not trying to tell us that the only answer they can find to all these questions is the League 3 idea. Surely they know we will realise they can’t be that stupid?

Let’s look at the questions and answers:

We need more coaches? Well create more courses and coaching/training facilities and make sure conditions and costs are such that more top football people are tempted to apply and qualify.

Too few good pitches? Well yes it was only going to be a matter of time till I got to that one. Then continue to promote 3G pitches throughout English football; not just in grass roots but in lower league stadia that will improve the standard and frequency of football being played. It’s one thing we can learn from our fellow Europeans: it works. In this respect the FA have started to shake up football’s reactionary governing bodies in England and perhaps League 3 is a cunning plan to harass and provoke these bodies into creating a stir, the volume of which might cause a rethink at Premier League level where change needs to happen and where The FA is weakest?

Too little competitive football for top reserve teams? Well set up a competitive reserves competition. Perhaps the obscenely wealthy Premier League clubs should put some of their millions up as prize money for a Premier B League, to give a proper incentive to win games? £5 million for the winning club should make it competitive.  Or improve the player loan system to encourage clubs to loan out players to lower league clubs but limit the numbers allowed to be loaned to each club. It’s hardly rocket science but would it not work?

And why not push for limits on players not qualified to play for England in the Premier League? This would be similar to what the French Rugby Federation have recently chosen to do in the Top 14 competition, comparable to England’s Premier League in football, in order to improve the poor results of the national team and combat the increasing numbers of foreign mercenaries being imported by rich clubs.

And why was there no consultation of non-league bodies? There are a few non-league bodies who are capable of demonstrating common sense, vision and leadership, e.g. the Ryman League, who should have been asked their opinion. However having listened to the Non-League Show there are clearly some who continue to live in cloud cuckoo land: issues like 3G show up the failings in bodies like The Conference. They do not, contrary to what is claimed, stand up for non-league football as a whole. They are not leaders they are followers contrary to what their spokesman claimed; they are more concerned to secure additional promotion places to League 2 (perhaps now League 3?), an issue of importance to maybe 25% of Conference clubs, rather than promote 3G pitches, which, as they themselves admit, would be welcomed by far more clubs, even in The Conference itself, let alone throughout the wider world of non-league, where so many people now support more 3G pitches. For Brian Lee to state that “the FA have lost the plot” is laughable. The Conference need to have a good look at their own plot first: voting rules, membership of their Board and governance, communications, representation of non-league as a whole, all have much room for improvement.

And why not encourage non-league clubs to form academies, as we have done and the NPL are doing as a League? This can only provide benefits in every sense. Instead there is still no real financial incentive for clubs to go down the complicated and costly set-up costs of academies because the rules are such that Premier League clubs can freely poach players and no financial compensation structure exists for smaller clubs.

So it just cannot be possible that this is the end result of The FA Commission’s deliberations. Greg Dyke is too canny for that to be the case. He and the FA have recently shown great courage and leadership in the 3G campaign, throwing open its competitions to 3G and pushing other bodies to embrace 3G. Their actions will encourage more clubs to install these pitches and they have virtually removed all remaining barriers to 3G in non-league. I can only assume therefore that this wacky League 3 proposal must be part of a very cunning plan…

Oliver Ash

Friday, 9 May 2014

Close season observations and ambitions

Terry Casey
Last season was the best that Maidstone United have enjoyed for many years. 

Winning the league cup, finishing seventh in the league, our average league crowds increasing on the previous year – yet I felt that we had underachieved. 

This is in no way a criticism of Jay and the squad but an acknowledgement that at the start of the 2013/2014 season Jay had put together a squad was capable of, at the very least, making the play offs. 

During the early months of the season it was unthinkable that we would not be involved in the final reckoning because we were beginning to realise that this team really was good enough. The impact of the injuries cannot be overstated. 

Losing Steve Watt, our captain and the best centre half in the league; losing Mickey Phillips from midfield and losing one of the most exciting players in Orlando all meant that we were going to hit problems at some stage. Replacing Orlando with Rory should have helped but to lose Rory for most of the season was another blow. We underachieved because we did in fact have a team that might even have won the league but for the crippling injuries.

I continue to say to people that we are not a Ryman league club – we should be in the Conference at the very least, and I feel confident that we are only a year away from making the step up to the higher level.

The academy proved its value to the club as it was lads like Gary Smith and Liam King who scored goals for us on our way to winning the league cup. I describe the academy as the jewel in the club’s crown and watching the way they destroyed Eastbourne Borough in the Conference Youth Alliance cup final made me feel immensely proud. I also felt terrific pride in the numbers of our supporters who travelled to Crawley to support the lads in their quest to complete the double.

Their successes on the field are second to none, leaving other academies in higher leagues wondering how we have become so successful. 

The facts are that we have the best coaches in Jay Saunders and Jack Parkinson, the best tutors in Jim Bodle and Tom Parkinson and the best facilities at the Gallagher Stadium. The young people are also aware that, regardless of their footballing ability, they are valued and are learning from excellent role models within the staff and coaching team. They should leave us with an understanding of how to conduct themselves once they enter into the adult world and to enjoy their triumphs and to show dignity when things don’t go to plan. As a testament to the lure of the academy we have had to turn away dozens of young people who wanted to join the academy for 2014/2015 season.

Not making promotion, whilst desperately disappointing, means that we do have some time to plan ahead with the expansion of the ground. We have met with various organisations and have presented them with our plans to achieve the minimum capacity of 3,000. The problem is that the plans that we are currently looking at have come in at costs ranging between £800k and £1.2million. 

We will have to borrow to get this sort money and the cost of finance is extremely prohibitive. We are now looking at cheaper options which might enable us to finance the project ourselves and would satisfy the need to get our capacity to the level required by the Conference. The fact is that there is a clear shortage of covered seating at the stadium and whatever we finally decide upon , we will meet that demand.

The great 3G debate rumbles on and I am delighted that we have Oliver on this particular subject because he has moved the argument on through his skills, patience and perseverance. Every time I listen to anyone who opposes the case for 3G I can only conclude that they do not understand fully the argument. We must win the argument and my thanks go out to all of our supporters who take pride in the fact that their football club are about to change the face of non-league and lower league football. It has been the support of the Maidstone fans that have given Oliver, Bill and myself the strength to fight on. 

The only sad note is that it appears the Michel Platini of the directors’ team has not been able to agree terms with Bill Williams and may not be in the team to face the supporters on 20 June. Representatives from both parties have been unable to reach a compromise. Sources close to the Ash camp have said that the tactics used by Williams did not suit Ash’s unique skills. Sources close to the Williams camp were unaware of Ash’s skills.

Thank you for making Maidstone United Football club the envy of every non-league club in the country.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

A decent few days

Oliver Ash
It's been a decent few days for your club. 

Let's look at the positives and forget the negatives: we've welcomed back one or two key players from injury; we've stopped the run of away defeats; we're still unbeaten at home this season; we've got Jay signed up as our manager for next season; we're making good progress on our stadium extension project; next year's academy recruitment is going well; we're in the league cup final AND we’ve just won our play-off appeal to The FA. 

Following the appeal hearing Ian and I were treated to a private tour of Wembley changing rooms and pitch. We could admire at first hand the hugely impressive infrastructure and pitch maintenance equipment. It certainly is an expensive business keeping a pitch like that in good condition year out. Although it is a hybrid 'Desso' type pitch, the grass needs constant feeding with light and CO² in order to grow fast between matches and events. 

The FA appeal result was good news for the club of course because it keeps our season alive until the very end. It's also excellent news for the whole 3G4US campaign. Every development on 3G is greeted through email or on social media by a flood of replies and comments from all our fellow clubs in 3G4US. 

There really is a great group of clubs involved in this campaign. There is good solidarity with all we are campaigning for and it's heartening to remind ourselves of that widespread support.

The appeal decision and the mood of the hearing itself was another clear indication that The FA mean 3G business from now on. There is a clear message for change. Now it is up to us on the field to defy the odds and to get into a promotion position.

If all that should happen (and I must stress that it is rather hypothetical given where we are in the table - the realistic odds today on us winning the play-offs must be about 7-1) and if we were refused entry to The Conference in May despite having qualified through the play-offs then we would be entitled to appeal to The FA. 

Whatever happens there is now a positive feeling around the club that even if it is not for this season one way or another, then at worst by next season all this will have resolved itself in favour of 3G being allowed in Conference and that is excellent news for clubs all around the country.

On the subject of the stadium Bill, Terry and I met earlier this week to discuss the designs and funding for the Henry Reeves End extension. We are working on a design, which would give us another 600 seats and another 400 standing capacity, thus increasing the overall ground capacity to about 3300. It would provide much needed seating with excellent views of the pitch, extra covered stepped terracing in front of the stand and maintained pitchside railing standing capacity, albeit uncovered. 

Once we have gone through the last revisions with the architects by the end of the month we will arrange to display the plans so that you can comment on them and give us some more useful ideas. This is sincere because the extra terracing design comes from comments made during the February supporters' meeting, so we do listen! However no design is perfect and this will be no exception. We have to do the best we can given the league requirements, health and safety, planning issues, available land and costs.

We are looking to fund this extension with the assistance of local agencies, The Football Foundation, and a debenture scheme, which would allow around 100 seats to be purchased in advance for several years at a reduced price. We may also need some capital contribution from club or shareholder funds and our major partners, all of which will be under discussion over the next weeks. The extended stadium should be capable of providing the club with an infrastructure enabling it to operate profitably and sustainably for the foreseeable future and provide comfortable high quality facilities to supporters, customers and the local community. 

But never mind all the play-off battles, 3G arguments, stadium extensions, etc. All that really counts for the next two months is getting half-fit (no, let's be realistic, a quarter-fit) for the Directors v Supporters football match and BBQ party on 20th June. Hope to see you there.

My appearance in last summer's supporters vs. directors match

Saturday, 25 January 2014

It's a pitch Jim but not as you know it

Terry Casey
It is clear that we still have a long way to go to win the 3G argument judging by Jim Parmenter's recent article

Jim was kind enough to show Bill and I around his operation at The Crabble ground before we began the building of the Gallagher Stadium. In an effort to dispel some of Jim's pre-conceptions on 3G surfaces I would like to return his hospitality and invite him to our ground so that we can explain why 3G works for Maidstone United FC. 

Whilst I cannot deal with each point that Jim raised there are some fundamental facts that I would want to clear up when we meet. The first is that 3G surfaces do not mean that games are sterile. We have played hundreds of competitive matches on the surface and because the ball rolls and bounces in a consistent and proper way it simply means that players can play the "beautiful game" in the way it was always intended to be played. 

Our supporters keep returning and they will tell you that the games that are played satisfy all football supporters need for excitement. The term level playing field is never more relevant than when we play on the 3G surface. The next point deals with injuries to players. I can say that there are more injuries to players on pitches which are part iced over and part waterlogged. 

We can and do play on our pitch even when there is heavy frost and other matches are postponed. We would not risk the safety of the hundreds of children that use the surface, we would not risk the safety of the players who hire the pitch.

We would not dream of risking the safety of our first team players or the safety of our 60+ academy students who use the 3G surface every day and play all of their competitive matches on this same pitch. I do notice that the Dover academy use a 3G surface and I am sure that the coaches at Dover would not risk the safety of the young people who could be the future of the club. 

If our confidence about the pitch is not enough, surely the fact that teams in Europe from Bayern Munich to Barcelona have embraced this surface shows that it is the way forward. Games played on the mud baths of the Ryman and Conference leagues are not always going to be a true contest of footballing skill.

We have made a decision at Maidstone United to create a business model that enables the football club to conduct our business on the basis of its income exceeding its outgoings. This means the distortion of football club owners ploughing their own money into a football club that is hopelessly insolvent could be a thing of the past. 

Our business model can only happen with a surface that will be used for fifty hours a week. Many of the numbers quoted in the article are a long way off the true figure and I would relish the opportunity of showing Jim that the cost of the surface can be re-paid within two/three years.

I do sincerely hope that Jim will come and visit. We are not trying to persuade Dover to change their pitch or even change their approach to the way they run their business, we are just hoping to explain why it works for us and how it could work for others.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Much ado about 3G


BY OLIVER ASH

There's on-field and off-field at a football club. We have all been very occupied with off-field matters over the past few months. Fortunately Jay and the players have had an excellent start to the season on the field. 

As I write this we are in a strong position close to the top, with a couple of games in hand and able to put in first-class performances on our day. We would have signed up for that at the start of the season. In fact those of us who thought play-offs were a reasonable target sometimes forget that that implies there will be a few defeats as well as the run of victories in style. We can't always play attractive, entertaining, winning football. Even Barcelona have off-days.

We now need to consolidate and make sure we don't have too many of these off-days. If injuries are not too unkind to us we will be there or thereabouts at the end of the season. We don't have FA Cup, Trophy and Youth Cups to distract us anymore. While this might be a good thing in the longer term as we can concentrate on the league; I am disappointed we didn't get further in these competitions. The FA competitions are the glamour end of non-league (and of course there's the prize money) and who wouldn't trade a league win or two for the chance to do what Brackley FC have just done by knocking out Gillingham in the first round...? I have a sneaky feeling next season is going to be ours for a majestic cup run. Just remember you read it here first...

Off the field we have been concentrating on making sure match-days are safe, entertaining, friendly and with a good variety of food and drink outlets. We hope we are getting this pretty much right most of the time. No doubt you will continue to tell us if we don't! We're also planning to increase the range of merchandise you will be able to purchase and we are improving the on-line shop to make it easier and quicker to order on-line.

I am surprised that I have managed to get to the fifth paragraph of this blog without mentioning 3G. Do not fear, it is still my number one obsession. Over the past 12 months more and more people in football are coming round to the idea that 3G is not the devil but has a huge and positive role to play in football at every level. In the top divisions in Wales and Ireland it is allowed. In Scotland there are 11 clubs playing on 3G in the Scottish League. There are two 3G clubs in The Scottish Championship - Falkirk and Hamilton. Hamilton are currently runaway leaders of The Championship and are a case in point: several years ago they were promoted to SPFL and chose to rip up their 3G pitch. Their community and academy programmes suffered considerably in the following years and it took relegation and a decision to put 3G back in to their stadium to rebuild the fortunes of the club. It is hard to imagine they will choose to rip 3G up this time if they achieve promotion and much more realistic to imagine The SPFL taking the sensible decision to allow 3G in their league.

Closer to home let me update you on latest 3G news:
  • Our open letter in September to Greg Dyke at The FA received nearly 20,000 hits on the Maidstone United website and we received countless messages of support for our proposals from clubs and individuals around the country. In his reply Greg even admitted agreeing with us on 3G. In fact we still haven't heard one single, sensible, objective argument against 3G being allowed at all levels of the English game since we set up 3G4US (now 50 clubs strong) two years ago.
  • All this makes it all the more surprising that The FA has not subsequently addressed the issues we raised with any serious attention. In Greg Dyke's reply to us he said he had put a senior executive on the case. However the executive in question confessed to me when I spoke to him that he was not qualified to address the 'political' points raised in our letter. We wrote back to Greg Dyke to take issue with this anomaly. We have had no reply. I can only leave you to imagine how we feel this matter has been handled...
  • We have written to The Football Conference to request that they reconsider their refusal to allow 3G in their competition. We have added some new arguments resulting from consultations we have had with barristers, who specialise in sport and competition law. We are raising all these issues again with The Conference in a few days time. We remain confident that common sense will prevail and that The Conference will find a way of opening their doors to 3G. 

The other issue we raised with The FA was academies. There is still precious little sensible support for clubs like ours running academies to be protected when the big clubs come sniffing around. The system is really designed to protect and enrich the bigger clubs at the expense of the smaller ones. As a direct result we find our top young academy players are being scouted down and hassled by agents on a regular basis, which is disruptive for them and for us, although we acknowledge it can ultimately be in the player's interest.  Well when we have resolved the 3G problems, we will turn our attentions to urging The FA to organise a general debate on this issue. 

Well all that remains here is for me to hope that we come out of the next couple of weeks of very tough matches with a few points and some high octane performances to warm us all up in the chill.

Take good care.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Taking stock and thinking about the future

Terry Casey
If someone had told me that we would be in the promotion places of the Ryman Premier at the start of October I would have been obviously delighted but also relieved that we were not struggling as we did the last time we were in this league.

I remember watching numerous Ryman Premier matches wondering when we would field a team that deserved to be playing at that level. It seemed to me that almost every game we played we struggled to dominate or even compete on some occasions.

This season so far, apart from Margate, we have played well enough to justify our position and fully deserve to be where we are in the league. This constitutes real progress on the pitch and Jay and his squad supported by Bill should be congratulated on their achievements.

Because of our position it is inevitable that we are now gazing upward to the possibility of promotion to the Conference South. From what I have watched there is no doubt in my mind that we have the playing squad, the infrastructure and the leadership that could challenge for promotion. Oliver, Bill and I are already looking at the requirements for entry into the Conference South.

The most high profile and obvious battle we face is getting the Conference to agree to playing on our 3G surface. The arguments for clubs at our level playing on 3G have been eloquently put by Oliver and I feel confident that the work he is doing will eventually win the argument and common sense will prevail.

One of the reasons put by the Conference opposing 3G is that it would create problems for Conference teams gaining promotion to the Football League. Our response is that Conference South clubs like Boreham Wood (average home attendance 208) and Hayes and Yeading (average crowd 180) must be more concerned about survival than getting promotion to the Football league.

Promotion to the Football League would also come at enormous costs for clubs as there is a requirement for a minimum capacity of 5,000 and 500 under cover seats. If Maidstone United achieve promotion to the Conference South we have enough covered seats (the requirement is 250 we have more than 400) but we must increase our minimum capacity to 3,000 with the potential to raise the minimum capacity to 4,000 for further upward progression.

To achieve these increases in capacity we have asked our advisors to look at developing the Loucas End into a three tiered stand that could increase standing and seated capacity. To achieve this ambition will require further substantial amounts of money and whilst it is on our wish list we are not going to abandon our business principals and start trading beyond our means.

We can honestly look into these possibilities because we are the biggest non-league club outside of the Conference and we have a greater following than any club currently in the Conference South or North. We can genuinely consider thoughts of expansion and development as we have the potential to go a lot further up the pyramid. 

We will continue to strive to change the face of non-league football with our 3G campaign and we will continue to look to ways that we can maximise the potential of the football club.

If our fantastic support from local businesses and individuals continues then there are no limits to what we can achieve.