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