On Thursday, PTB met via zoom with club CEO Karl Evans, who has now been in the role for 11 weeks as part of our monthly scheduled meetings. As Karl has alluded to on Twitter, it was a very open and honest meeting with an exchange of views across various subjects relating to the club both on and off the pitch. As Karl is purely responsible for what happens off the pitch and from a commercial & fan perspective, we have kept our notes purely around matters affecting fans off the pitch.
However, we did chat around the positive run of results on the pitch and how good/important this is to see. There have been a number of entertaining games and great goals and long may this continue, we want to see us climb the table and start challenging at the right end. The fight at Exeter was good to see. This has been missing for a long time.
Following the announcement of new, post-lockdown restrictions from 2 December 2020, the imminent return of football supporters to Boundary Park sadly won’t take place in the short term. We asked whether everything is in place from the clubs perspective for the possibility of crowds attending?
Karl advised he has been busy arranging essential works on the stadium (not covid related) to ensure that when possible, it would be a safe environment to let fans back in. Due to operational costs, Karl said it would be preferable to be able to get all season ticket holders into the stadium, but debate continues around this across football league clubs. It looks at this stage that the Harrogate fixture will be the next opportunity to get fans in the ground (26 December 2020). There are things to consider such as staggered entrances, different ideas on catering (drink and food from Food stands or Vending machines) but most importantly can this safely be adhered to with regards to queuing etc.
A lot of the talk was around the Rochdale Rd, Chaddy End & Main Stand being utilised so we therefore asked the obvious question of whether The North Stand would be open as things stand for Season Ticket holders?
It was suggested if fans are let back into the stadium, because of the outstanding work on the North Stand, there would only be three open stands officially and therefore the maximum capacity allowed would be a percentage of these remaining stands.
When fans are allowed back in the stadium, the club believes that IFollow will still be available even if fans are let back in stadiums due to limited numbers being given access to attend a game.
We asked who decides who is responsible for what in terms of the outstanding North Stand work?
Karl advised it is a 2-way street with regards to the work and the council are involved and the conversations have taken place with the OEC around the completion of work. They have been co-operative with this.
We discussed whether the corporate facilities would be open if stadiums were to re-open for sponsors?
Karl wasn’t sure due to a number of Covid relating factors, there is very little (Food/ Drink wise) at games currently across the league for staff/ players and directors attending games as there is strict adherence required. They would be hoping to get people in for corporate but this remains to be seen.
Purchase of Boundary Park
We asked if there was any movement on the purchase of Boundary Park. The last PTB/Karl Evans meeting seemed to suggest that this was on hold from the clubs perspective but AL stated in his recent video update that they were “working hard to bring everything under one umbrella”. Therefore, we asked the question which is correct?
Karl advised he genuinely didn’t know when the last conversation took place regarding this between Chairman Abdallah Lemsagam and landlord Simon Blitz so couldn’t comment on how this is progressing. Karl mentioned it’s the only way that the revenue streams can grow at the club, not only on matchdays but non-matchday revenue. He is told that conversations are ongoing above his level. We still live in difficult financial times and it’s not to say the purchase won’t happen, but Karl raised the point does it make sense to do this during a pandemic if revenue can’t be generated due to the OEC not being open? For the next meeting Karl would like to have an update for Supporters on where this is progress is up to as he wants to know himself. He knows that as fans we are frustrated about this and he is waiting for the green light to get involved. Part of the reason he came on board was to get his teeth into this and the potential of the North Stand.
PTB asked if a price has been agreed as this would suggest the level of progress. Also, if there is any unwritten agreement in place between AL & SB around the non-payment of rent while negotiations are ongoing, what is to stop SB from calling the unpaid rent in as part of a breakdown in negotiations?
Karl advised that he wasn’t sure if a price had been agreed but there has been no requests for rent since March and if there is no progress shown for a considerable time who can say what would happen next. We advised Karl that while we are being persistent with our line of questioning regarding this issue, it is only because of the concerns raised at the club Q&A in January, the club were asked if Simon Blitz could put the club into administration due to unpaid rent. The response was “tell him to try” and needless to say, we ended up in court in March for this very reason. We therefore seek assurances that this situation won’t arise again. Karl understood this and advised that Abdallah is looking to secure all the land around the stadium as this is the most viable way of doing the deal.
Project Big Picture, EFL Rescue Package & OAFC Finances
Project Big Picture was discussed and Karl believed there needs to be a longer term picture around the survival of football clubs in the lower leagues and the £50m mooted as being the deal given to Leagues 1 and 2 isn’t enough to sustain clubs for a longer period. Each club receives £30,000 for winning 3 games in the EFL trophy, and you get FA Cup money for winning games/ participating in each round as well as £12,500 for being on TV. The iFollow money comes through monthly for the last full month (October will be paid in November). There is still a payment in January for the solidarity payment but it’s not what it would be as a lot of this was advanced in the summer due to the pandemic. There is no doubts about the fact that it is tough at the moment. So income streams are coming into the club but granted they are limited with many dependant on cup success.
Abdallah Lemsagam Video Update
Karl said it’s not something that Abdallah feels comfortable with doing and with speaking English, he wants to ensure that he doesn’t say anything that will come across in the wrong way as it is his fourth language.
It was acknowledged that there were a number of negative comments on social media but it was seen as not a high number of negative comments in the grand scheme of things. Karl appreciates it wasn’t a polished interview but felt that Abdallah conveyed the message around younger players (the average age of our squad is circa 24) and that in itself increases our ability to sell these players on.
We asked as we have so many players on 1 year deals, how we can expect to turn this into essential revenue for the club?
It was acknowledge this issue but the club are hopeful this seasons recruitment is the start of change in quality. Karl noted Abdallah tried to address the recruitment issue and on who picks the team. Karl agreed Abdallah could have been more specific on the actual mistakes that were made which we had requested to be included from our last meeting, this was so that fans had tangible points to compare to, so any signs of progression could be seen fully.
We questioned Karl on the content of the David Wheater statement that was released by the board on 3 November 2020 (link below)
Given the social media reaction to this statement (amongst others), PTB have offered to view material before it is released to supporters to try and prevent any ambiguity and to offer a viewpoint from a fans perspective should the club be interested in this option. We advised Karl that the statement didn’t make it clear what the situation would be when David Wheater is fully fit again, i.e. would he be made available for selection when he is fully fit. Which is why we advised that the statement itself seemed to contradict the statement released by the club on 21 September 2020 where it states that both Gary Woods and David Wheater were “no longer part of the first team plans”
Karl advised that there is always two sides to every story and the club had tried to be totally honest about how his injury was obtained and what the current situation was. When questioned whether David Wheater is fit again and would he be available for selection on the basis that he will be fit and the payment dispute will be resolved, Karl advised that the Head Coach has a decision to make and no one else that he is aware of. Karl went on to state that Harry Kewell is helping David on his off days to get him fully fit. It was Karl’s understanding that David Wheater will be available for selection when he is fully fit again.
We also explained that the Wheater situation and #FreeWheatz is not just about David Wheater himself, it’s about the long list of players who have been expunged from first team duty in the last few years (we then named players such Jack Byrne, Chris O’Grady, Zak Mills, Giles Coke, Ousmane Fane, Craig Davies etc who have been frozen out under the current regime). We don’t want to be in a situation where there is another player further down the line who is subjected to the same treatment at the detriment of the playing squad.
There were then open discussions raised by Karl around social media interaction and the effect this can have on the players, especially younger members of the squad. While they are advised to stay away from reading comments prior to a game, the club has younger players who will go on twitter and see negative, derogatory comments aimed at the team and this doesn’t help the confidence of players.
We were asked about what PTB wants from the club and our response was that we want a club that’s run within its means, has a solid commercial backing from local businesses, ensure staff are paid on time, open and honest engagement with fans and have a squad fans associate with and feel proud to back. We don’t feel this is a lot to ask. We are aware we may badger people and we may pester people but this is purely because we don’t want the same mistakes to be made in the manner that they have in the last few years. If we can sit here in 12 months time and acknowledge there have been no negative stories, no late payments, no player disputes and we have a stable and successful team on the pitch, this would definitely be considered progress, but we aren’t going to sit here and not speak for fans when they need a voice more than ever.
Falling Attendances & Fan Disengagement
We advised the number of fans that we speak to and contact us to say they have been a season ticket holder for ‘X’ number of years but they can no longer bring themselves to buy one. Karl mentioned that he has followed the club he supports for a number of years and despite less successful times and poor players being recruited, he has continued to get a season ticket and attend games. We tried to flip this argument to ask “what must it take for a season ticket holder of 30 years, not to renew their season ticket?”. Around a 1000 people have ‘chosen’ not to renew and this is such a difficult conclusion to come to as an individual and there must be a strength of feeling behind this.
We advised that it’s the clubs responsibility to find out the reasons why this has happened as ultimately (and we hate this phrase), they are paying customers. Previously the club have seemed unconcerned by this reductions in numbers, despite it being 25% of the overall attendance.
Karl has seen the disillusionment amongst the fans and was disappointed to see the lack of engagement over the kits for next season but he understands the reasons why.
We asked whether the number of unhappy fans could be considered a “minority” as Abdallah alluded to in his interview?
Karl said if you look at the number of fans who support the club overall, it could be classed as a minority, but when this forms part of the match-going fanbase, it’s a bigger problem and one that once the effects of the pandemic have reduced, the club can look to address the reasons why we are where we are.
Karl also advised that there will be a vote on new official badge which should be released possibly next week. We would urge all supporters to have their say on what would be a massive move in the clubs history. When the options come out pick the one that you would want on a shirt, on your phone or computer. It has to represent the club and its traditions. We will be voting, make sure you do as well.
We thank Karl for his time and hope that the healthy engagement between both parties can continue to ensure the supporters really do have a voice.