Thursday, 5 November 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours in sport,

Oliver Ash

Sunday, 7 June 2015

The shame of FIFA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fan-owned clubs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, 15 May 2015

Building for a successful future

It seems like a long time since a thousand or so of us heard the news that Hendon had drawn and our result at Dulwich had virtually made us champions. 

It is difficult to describe my feelings of relief and elation because I had never before felt such an overwhelming sense of achievement. Oliver, Bill and I will be eternally grateful to the staff, the stewards and volunteers who gave so much time and commitment to get the club to where we are now. 

Being able to share the moments after the Dulwich match and after the final game at home to East Thurrock with the supporters, who have followed the team in such great numbers throughout the season, meant all of our efforts have been worthwhile. I am so grateful for being part of those joyous moments. 

The minute we knew that we would be promoted we put the finishing touches to the fundraising and plans for the east stand extension. 

Work starts on Monday (18 May) and we expect it to be complete by 7 August, the day before we play our first match in the NLS. 

We have a new lounge with 52 seats and we have 175 seats in the stand extension that we have been able to offer as season tickets. Incredibly all these seats have been sold for the start of the 2015/2016 which has vindicated our decision to spend £600/£650k on this development. 

There will be about 100 seats that we cannot sell as season tickets because we must offer them to our opponent's supporters when games are segregated. These seats will be available for sale on a pay on the day basis as the majority of games will not be segregated. 

Although the schedule for completion is tight we will be working all the hours necessary to fulfil our commitment to those supporters who have bought seats for the start of the new season. 

These works, along with extending the terraces at the north and south ends, will increase our capacity to 2,600 but to achieve the required capacity of 3,000 we must also install new stairs and new turnstiles in the north east corner. 

We have submitted plans for this work and are hoping to schedule this in alongside the east stand extension. We have until March 2016 to get the capacity to 3,000 to satisfy the requirements of the NLS.

To sustain all of our successes we know that we must continue to support Jay in his ambitions to secure the club in the NLS and put a team together that can challenge for a place in the higher league. 

We have the support and we have the infrastructure to play at a higher level and we intend to reward that support by putting together a team that we can get behind and be proud of. 

We will be facing opponents with substantially more money to spend on their squads but we have given Jay a budget that we feel will give him every chance of winning matches.

We have enjoyed three exhilarating years and had an amazing journey and we fully intend to have more years of excitement and success.


Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Does anyone have the right to behave badly at a football match?

Does anyone have the right to behave badly at a football match? 

The answer is obviously no. 

So why recently have we had one or two so-called supporters take it upon themselves to think they have the right to throw beer over the opposition management, players, or in fact anyone who should be in the immediate vicinity is beyond me. 

These people need to have a quick rethink!

May I remind everyone that the throwing of anything is totally against our ground regulations and anyone caught doing so will be issued with a banning order.

At our league game on New Year’s Day when we played Tonbridge Angels a very serious incident occurred mainly through the stupidity of one individual who decided, for whatever reason, that he would throw the contents of his container at an opposing official. An individual then decided to seek retribution.

The actions of these individuals were so out of order and it is the first time that we have ever witnessed this type of behaviour at our stadium. Had it not been for the quick and professional action of our security team this, in my opinion, could have erupted into a significant incident.

Bad behaviour is not acceptable and will not be tolerated. These two individuals will be banned from the ground.

This has since brought about a huge debate suggesting that we should consider withdrawing alcohol on match days. Now, I have very strong opinions on this subject and get totally hacked off when the minority, who always have a nasty habit of messing things up for the majority, cause this type of debate to even take place.

Here at Maidstone United we have always believed that the majority of our supporters are sensible people and why shouldn’t we as a club allow our supporters to make the decision that if they fancied a lager, cider or whatever, they could buy it at any time and go stand or sit in the stadium and relax and drink it. We spent a lot of time and money making sure that our supporters could enjoy that decision to have a drink anytime, anywhere in our stadium.

So once again the mindless idiots take it upon themselves to mess it up for the large majority and decide to throw beer pitch side and cause everyone untold problems. 

So my solution to the minority is a simple one, if you throw anything we will catch you and ban you from watching any home games – as I believe that it is fairer to try to educate the minority and eradicate them from our crowd - than punish the majority who just want to have a drink and enjoy a game of football.


(The incident is currently being investigated by The Football Association and Kent Police).