Saturday, May 12, 2012
The Club held its first Fans' Forum for several years at the Pilot Field on Friday, May 4, with supporters invited to put questions to a panel comprising Chairman Dave Walters, his fellow Directors Simon Rudkins and Dave Murphy, First Team Manager Sean Ray, Assistant Manager Mark Stapley and new Reserve Team boss Glyn White.
There follows a summary of the evening's debated issues, and although it is hoped that the views expressed on the night have been represented accurately, anyone who feels that this is not the case should please email the website accordingly.
Q. Are there any plans for the Club to sign a proven twenty-five goal striker?
A. Whilst this kind of player would be a welcome addition to the squad of course, the playing budget simply does not stretch to acquiring individuals who command such high wages. In any case, it is expected that goalscoring responsibilities should be shared much more evenly throughout the entire squad, with all three strikers in particular required to take advantage of the opportunities that come their way.
Sean Ray confirmed that no approach had been made for Carl Rook, after his release by Eastbourne Borough, nor for Matt Crabb or Matt Smart, both of whom were believed likely to be joining Lewes. For the cost of signing any one of these players though, the Club could perhaps sign as many as four others, albeit that they would be less established.
Q. How can the Club afford to reintroduce a Reserve Team when funds are in such apparently short supply?
A. Glyn White will be tasked with assembling the very best local, young talent, spearheading the Club's new Development Squad, which will also incorporate sides at Under 18, Under 16 and Under 15 level. The Reserves intend to enter the Suburban League, which will provide a better standard of football that the Sussex and Kent Reserve Leagues ever used to, with the Under 18s continuing in the Ryman Youth League.
The Development Squad is being funded by local businessman Metin Dogrucan Sen, who was introduced to those present, and challenged others in the community to do more to support the Club, rather than just bemoaning a perceived lack of progress. He has already provided a minibus to transport the teams to games and various training kits, but all four sides will be looking for sponsorship, and each will benefit from a manager and a coach, with trials already underway for the Youth squads.
Q. The Club appears to have good connections with Charlton Athletic and Leyton Orient, so is there any chance of obtaining loan signings earlier in the season than has previously been the case?
A. Good contact is maintained with these teams, and former United boss Steve Lovell, now at Charlton, has been kind enough to organise several loan signings. The Club also does its own scouting at FA Youth Cup fixtures, and has put in requests for specific players in the past, but it can do no more than that.
It is understood that Charlton have agreed in principle to send a mixed strength squad to the Pilot Field for a pre-season friendly this year, while Ray confirmed that he had already spoken with Bradley Goldberg, upon his release from The Valley, about returning the Club next season, but the young striker naturally has offers from elsewhere to consider.
Ray also confirmed that he had spoken with Rye United's Sam Adams, shortly after taking the manager's job, but that Sam had expressed no interest in rejoining the Club at that time.
Q. What will the playing budget be next season?
A. It is really too early to say for certain, but the Directors had already discussed the financial situation with the Club's accountant, and had met with Sean Ray and Mark Stapley that very day to talk about the funds likely to be made available. A large amount of educated guesswork goes into setting the budget, and the Club has lost money in each of the last two years due to a drop in its two main sources of income, the turnstiles and commercial revenue.
The recession has hit all local businesses hard and there once again remains significant concern about the prospects for achieving renewal Business Partner income this summer. If turnover does remain at consistent levels though, there is no reason why the playing budget cannot remain at last season's level, as the Club is still free of debt. The lack of a main sponsor is not ideal of course, yet this was offset to some extent by the Arsenal friendly last season.
This year, Brighton & Hove Albion have confirmed that they will send a First Team squad to the Pilot Field in pre-season, and Dave Walters called on supporters to promote the game as much as possible once full details have been publicised. One thing that would not be relied upon is prize money from the FA Cup and Trophy, which have been a continual source of disappointment for several years now.
Q. Will there be an increase in admission prices next season?
A. The short answer was yes, but this became the biggest debating point of the evening. The Club has frozen admission prices for the last five or six years, during a period of ever increasing costs, and turnstile income doesn't come close to covering the playing budget. The issue of concessionary discounts had been the subject of much discussion amongst the Directors, who were agreed that they were hard to justify on an old age basis, when a high percentage of the Club's supporters are senior citizens, who are not necessarily the age group hardest hit by the economic downturn.
The heavily subsidised White Rock Theatre offers little or no concessions for its older patrons, and nor should the Club, which receives no Local Authority handouts other than rate relief. But why offer free admission to under 18s then? Because they are the future of the Club's fan base, and are generally on very low incomes in these austere times, with youth unemployment at a very high rate. The Club feels that it can justify offering an incentive to the younger age group, as they will typically spend more money on refreshments, and while the intention is absolutely not to disenfranchise older supporters, some of whom may well be less well off than others, the anecdotal evidence points to a change in pricing strategy going forwards being entirely logical and fair.
Full adult prices will therefore be increasing to £10 for next season, with concessions charged at £8, and free admission being offered to under 21s, in an effort to encourage even more of the younger generation to attend. Season ticket prices will also rise to £168 for adults and £134 for concessions, which represents a 20% discount over the course of a full season's home league fixtures. Season tickets will no longer be valid for friendlies though, nor will they be valid for Reserve and Youth Team matches, for which admission will remain at £3 for anyone aged 21 and over, this being scarcely enough to cover the expenses of the match officials.
It is essential for the Club to increase income and to reduce expenditure, as it does not have the luxury of being funded by the type of benefactors involved at the likes of Lewes and Carshalton Athletic, where the playing budget is perhaps four times greater than the U's. This is seldom sustainable in the long term though, as the Club has found to its cost in the past of course. A proposal to offer reduced admission to members of the Youth Section was considered unlikely to be popular, although such an incentive did serve to increase the attendance numbers at the last game of the season. Sean Ray observed that parents do pay a lot to fund their children's involvement in the various Youth Teams, and that to offer half price admission may further enhance the chance of attracting the better local young players.
Dave Walters admitted that the Club does not want to alienate anyone and that there was a clear need to find some common ground. Gate receipts do rather need to improve though, especially given the fact that VAT is at a higher level these days, and a large percentage of turnstile income is often lost in expenses to the referees. As much as 26% went to the officials at the Lowestoft Town home game, for example.
Q. Is the number one priority over the summer to find a replacement for Josh Jirbandey?
A. Josh will naturally be extremely hard to replace, but the Club has known of his plans to move to the United States for a long while now, and even if he wasn't leaving for that reason, there is every chance that he would have stepped up to a higher level of football regardless. Sean Ray has every intention of continuing to play, and Scott Manning will hopefully return as well, and the Club is also in talks with at least one potential new signing.
Q. How much does Dave Walters earn from his role the Club?
A. Dave invited this question himself, wishing to set the record straight once and for all. Again, there is a short answer, nothing, although the Chairman acknowledged that some people will not want to believe it.
In an effort to convince some of those who would doubt his word, Steve Toulson of Deeks Evans, the accountants who process the Club's wages, was invited to say a few words. He confirmed that, in common with the vast majority of limited company businesses, a small Director's emolument is paid for tax reasons, but that this is invariably invested back into the Club once again. In addition, no commission is paid in respect of advertising revenue, and no dividends or bonuses have been paid from historic profits, all of which have been used to boost the playing budget at the time.
Q. What is being done to find a suitable location for training?
A. This remains a big problem due to the general lack of facilities in and around the town. The 3G surface at Horntye Park is meant for hockey, and not for football, and at £75 per hour, it is rather expensive too. Claverham Sports College has a better surface, but no floodlights, and the current thinking is to use Buckswood School, which is both affordable and more football orientated.
Q. Why was the First Team coach, a feature of previous seasons, withdrawn last season?
A. At the start of the campaign, the best deal that the Club was able to negotiate on coach hire was a package covering a minimum of ten fixtures. Dwindling demand from supporters for seats on the coach has resulted in the cost of running one to every game becoming unjustifiable, and more so with several players making their own way to matches.
It was suggested that the Supporters' Club could be more proactive in raising interest amongst its members, but such initiatives have met with little success in the past. The minibus will more than likely be utilised when necessary next season and there was a also a feeling that communication between supporters could be much better when it comes to car sharing.
Q. What is the long term future for the Pilot Field and how are relations between the Club and Hastings Borough Council?
A. It is now five or six years since the Club first approached the Council with the idea that funds generated by the proposed sale of the land at The Firs could be put towards the construction of a new stadium that would benefit the town as a whole. This has maybe ceased to be viable from a financial perspective, but Dave Walters and Simon Rudkins have held recent talks with Council Leader Jeremy Birch, in which they outlined the Club's ongoing stadium issues, and the potential future problems, especially with respect to the main stand.
Up until 1999, under the terms of the Pilot Field lease, the Council was responsible for maintaining the stadium, but when the Club entered administration, it took the opportunity to create a new lease, switching that responsibility to the Club. Councillor Birch was asked to overturn that decision, if only to reclaim ownership of repairs to the main stand, but even though he assured the Club that he had no interest in seeing it fold, he was not prepared to uphold the request. The relationship between Club and Council remains fine, but this is a project that is too big for the Council to take on.
Q. What size First Team squad is the Club looking to maintain next season and will there be room for a second goalkeeper?
A. Ideally, the Club will have two keepers in both its First and Reserve Team squads, giving plenty of options from which to select. The overall First Team squad is expected to number fifteen players altogether, with a sixteenth man to be chosen from the Development Squad for each game. In addition, two members of the Under 15 or Under 16 sides will be invited to join the First Team on matchdays, hopefully gaining valuable experience of what they can expect in the future.
Q. What are the priorities when it comes to strengthening the squad this summer?
A. Sean Ray will be looking to strengthen in every position possible, but in reality, he will retain nine or ten of the current squad and seek to add four or five new faces. He has no doubts about the quality of his squad, but the team has been frustratingly inconsistent this season and has clearly not scored enough goals. There are concerns about the lack of experience in the squad, but experience costs, and that comment took matters back to where they had started earlier in the evening, a good point to bring things to a close.