Friday, 5 August 2016

So another exciting season starts...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours, Oliver Ash

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Is the present Drinking Act at football stadiums outdated?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Williams