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!