We have written up very extensively the procedings from last night’s Q&A meeting for the benefit of those who could not attend. The evening began with an address from Garry Hill, with he and Dave Archer then fielding open questions from the 100 or so fans in attendance.
Garry Hill: The Q&A night is important. There’s not many who might fancy it sitting in the league in the situation we’re in. But these are good for everyone as long as it’s constructive and handled sensitively. I called this meeting. It’s important to share with supporters at any football club. You can read rumours or hear certain things, so I said to Dave I’d like to do this as soon as possible. I don’t just want to come out when the sun’s shining and you’re at the top of the tree, it’s easy then. The only way I’ll get respect is to earn it. I’ll try and answer questions in the best way I can but I’ve still got to be respectful in terms of individuals in giving my answers.
Q. Garry, if results don’t improve, what’s your plan?
GH: It is a results business, at any level, we have to be honest. But Rome wasn’t built in a day. As some background, people have to take into consideration that a lot’s gone on last year, before I arrived and since May. I didn’t want to lose players, I didn’t want to lose Michael Cheek. He scored 15 in 21 games for me. I couldn’t say to some players you can have a free transfer and you lot can’t. It had to be across the board. So from June I had a little bit more freedom with the budget because of the movement of players and I couldn’t bring anyone in early due to the funds committed to players who hadn’t or couldn’t go anywhere else. I didn’t expect to lose Ebou Adams and Corey Whitely as late as I did at the end of June, so we are behind where we need to be. Potential players were low on confidence in signing for us because of the well-documented financial issues, that understandably made it hard for players to commit and made it hard for me and Dave Archer talking to them. We’re short, but we’re getting there and to answer your question, I will do everything within my power, my efforts, my workrate within the financial structure we’ve got. There are still funds available within that. If results don’t change, if things don’t happen quickly, I might have to make one or two more changes before I get changed. That’s the name of the game but all I would say, I tried hard to answer that question with honesty straight away. If you said to me, do you think the players aren’t good enough, I would go through all the players in this squad, they’re not inexperienced. They’ve had success from play-offs, into the League and above. Nathan Ashmore, Lawrie Wilson, Aswad Thomas, Jack King, Bondz N’Gala, Alex Lawless – just a few names who have won things at one or more clubs. I’ve tried to get proven experience and stability at the club with good characters on and off the pitch.
Q. Is this your toughest start to a season?
GH: Ever? Yes it is, without a doubt. I don’t think I’d be managing if I had any more of them! We all need a little bit of luck if you assess the games we’ve played. You can’t coach against sendings-off or errors. It’s hard when you’re playing catch-up in this league and you find yourself one goal down and I think it would be the same for any team at the moment.
Q. Why is Ayo Obileye playing in midfield? Is he not a central defender?
GH: He’s a bit of both, he played certain games at Maidenhead at the back and in midfield. When people saw him in pre-season, he was getting forward and heading balls in, scoring goals. Yes, it’s a valid question but I’m not here to make statements about individual players which can get twisted or fabricated outside this room and it affects a player before Saturday.
Q. Are the financial problems of last season now gone away? Are we likely to see those again?
DA: It’s been in programme notes and I’ve had meetings with the Trust and Fleet Heart and I’ve said we’ve been 30%, 50% through it at different times. Today I’m about 95% done. There are one or two loose ends to conclude over the next two weeks. The owner now has a less onerous amount of funding to put in on a monthly basis. He was uncomfortable with the size of the investment he was putting in. I was asked to reduce that level of funding but keep us competitive. I submitted that, the business plan was accepted but the budget had to come down lower. The resubmitted plan was accepted and it was my role to implement that. We are now in the first month when Dr Abdulla has had to put funding in under the new budget – because of historic pay-offs, agreements, cost-savings that are now done. We have money left in the player budget. We have one signing today, there will be more movement. More importantly, the owner is now comfortable with the amount of his contribution. What I would say, although that is reduced, it’s still substantial, a lot for anyone to put into a club. Garry is quite comfortable with the playing budget and I am quite comfortable with the remaining elements off the pitch. We run on a very small team, with only three on a full-time basis off the pitch. We have Garry and Ian on the management side, a part-time goalkeeping coach, a scout/opposition assessor. They’re all part-time roles now compared to nine salaried on the team management. We’ve cut our cloth there and in the playing budget. With player negotiations, myself and Garry told them what had happened in the previous year at the club, football’s a small community and they’ll have heard stories of course as well. Some of the feedback we got from players about contracts offered was that what we are offering now, even on a reduced budget, is in line with most other clubs at this level. The previous funding from last year has been paid. The owner was due to lose £2.1m on last year’s budget, that eventually went up to £2.3m, that will be on the accounts. Next year, it’s completely different but he’s still funding the club to the tune of £900,000 per annum. That’s not insignificant.
Q. A lot of stuff has happened on social media. Are players signed up to a social media policy now?
DA: Yes. It was the first document Garry and I put together before we signed anyone this summer. There’s a whole new club disciplinary code. New players sign five documents to do with personal details, medical, bonuses and now a code of conduct which they must sign otherwise the deal doesn’t happen.
Q. Is there enough incentivisation now in the playing budget?
DA: Yes. The incentive scheme is based around 7th position and above. In the past, it’s been 10th but we believe it should be 7th because that rewards success. Tenth doesn’t in our view.
Q. Have we signed more players today?
DA: We’ve signed two, but only announced one. Frankie Sutherland as announced is officially done, one more is awaiting on one document so we can’t release news on that until it’s done.
Q. How’s Cody McDonald doing?
GH: He’s coming on well. He was a little behind but our physio Calum Green is working with him daily. He’s now starting to kick a ball which is a big plus and a big relief for him. It’s a depressing injury and it feels like you’ll never get back out there and you’re watching the other lads out there. I can’t put a timescale on it because that’s down to Calum and to Cody how he reacts. But it’s encouraging and I’d say sooner rather than later, hopefully before Christmas.
Q. What area of the team do you think needs strengthening most urgently?
GH: I would like to have a forward up there with pace who can get in behind. The boys at the moment are a little similar, strong lads who face up, hold up play, lay the ball off. So we’re lacking that person who gets in behind which is why we originally brought Cody in, to get down the sides and with a good goal record. People will say we’ve got to stop conceding, and rightly so, but you can’t coach against individual mistakes. But nobody’s a bad player, nobody’s a bad signing and I don’t look at it and think we won’t improve. We will. There’s no point bringing someone in for the sake of saying I’ve signed someone if he’s not the one that’s going to be that player who’ll get down those sides, behind teams, we lack that.
Q. If we get poor results, we’ll get poor attendances and that won’t help the budget?
DA: We’re well aware of that and we’re working day and night to try and overcome the poor start. I can only cut a budget to what the benefactor of this club is happy to pay. The owner’s accountant has shown him that in the time he’s owned this club, he’s put in excess of £20m and there’s not many clubs where that’s happened and the owner is still backing the club.
Q. Will the Dr be willing to put more money in for capital investment, the stands, etc?
DA: Not at this stage. Our current capacity is in excess of 4,500 and attendances at the 1,200 mark, rising for the visit of big clubs. He wouldn’t invest in future stadium structure at this point.
Q. But if the public don’t see the club with redevelopment going on, they’ll stay away and consequently without results, they’ll stay away…?
DA: It’s a good point, people like to see continual development. The idea was four phases, I accept that. But look at what the owner has put in with probably very little reward; that level of funding would in most owners’ opinion have got them more. So what I’m saying is, teams have gone into the League – which remains the doctor’s ultimate ambition here – on far less investment. So it is a balancing act. I wouldn’t say the stands here will never be built but there are other priorities at this moment in time and I think that’s a reasonable answer as we stand.
Q. Would the club be open to crowdfunding or joint funding exercise whereby we could get a terrace back in the Plough End or segregate half of the Swanscombe End? If we made a proposal to fund, say, half would the club be interested in matching it?
DA: It’s not beyond us but I would say be careful in your assessment of how much funding you’d need. Building regulations, planning permissions, altering current usage it’s not cheap. I’m not saying it’s beyond us or that fans aren’t generous, but we’d need to do a lot more researching exactly how much those projects would cost. It could be a way forward but inward investment, I’ve searched avenues for that, on elements of ownership and investment, but the owner is comfortable with the model in place currently. Even with a contribution from fans, there would be an investment needed by the owner which links to the question of capital investment asked earlier. It’s not the priority having just come out of the financial restructuring but it wouldn’t shock me in the next five years if work was done on the remaining stands. You have to understand, his time and investments are taken up a lot with the theme park. The doctor is a very busy man, the project is gathering pace into next year, he’s doing 18-hour days and still finds time for our home games and a couple away but stadium projects aren’t high on the agenda at present as far as I know to give you an absolutely honest answer.
Q. Has outside sponsorship diminished this season, has it been difficult to secure it in view of what’s happened?
DA: I thought it would be more difficult than it has. I thought I’d lose more. We lost Mitsubishi, not because of the previous problems. You can say, well we would say that, but it was because the main sales manager, Steve Fleming, who’s a personal friend of mine and started to sponsor the club when I arrived, left the company. He’s moved on and he was here last Tuesday v Yeovil and I’ll be meeting him to discuss possible new sponsorship. The remainder, we’ve still got a stadium sponsor, a shirt and tunnel sponsor, the Trust sponsored the scoreboard, one more partnership to renew on Friday. So we’ve lost Mitsubishi, GDM on the back, and it could certainly have been worse.
Q. The corner of the main stand towards the main exit is dangerous going into winter with puddles, lack of lighting, bad surface, etc. I appreciate it’s a small thing but it needs something done.
DA: If it’s a safety issue to put right, we’ll put it right. We’ll have a look at it, I accept the concerns, and we’ll look at it before the colder season.
Q. Couldn’t the Swanscombe End be opened up to split it in half? When there’s 50 people on there when it’s segregated, it’s frustrating and people I know don’t come if they know the game’s segregated.
DA: It’s not about the segregation or the turnstile. It’s about two emergency exits being required, this comes from the Safety Advisory Group, so we’d have to build one more and their concern is that if it’s being used for home and away fans, we’d have to install new staircases. If we do that, both sets of fans would have to exit the same part of the stadium. It is a problem, it can be overcome, nothing’s beyond us. But I think you’d be shocked by the funding needed to do those jobs. It’s not a few thousand, it’s many, many thousands to comply with regulations and the safety measures. And when you add in the incidents we’ve had recently, that doesn’t help when the safety group is mulling any decision to return to terracing or have two sets of fans on one terrace. Those figures aren’t the end of the world when you think what we invested in this stand but at the current time with the new level of funding, we need to inject that into the right areas of running this football club. It’s a worthy wish list to do that work, but perhaps not for right now.
Q. What has happened in regard to the incidents v Yeovil?
DA: There was a place for that flare to have been deposited safely and that should have happened. Which doesn’t condone the fact it was brought in and let off in the first place. We came close again to another FA fine. The club has to defend its policies, write reports, be seen to be firm which is why we have to put out warnings on websites and word them as we do. The latest one came back that because of our proactive stance, the authorities would not be taking the matter further but we are warned about our future conduct. The incident outside the ground was potentially more serious and there will be life bans issued to anyone identified.
Q. Stewards seem more interested in stopping people smoking or standing on the yellow lines. Should they be more proactive and spread out along the Plough End, in a position to spot and prevent occurrences?
DA: I have raised that and also with police when we have them on duty. They tend to hold back, it’s called ‘intelligence gathering’ I’m told. Both stewards and police do that. From that, they know exactly what they’re going to be doing this weekend with certain individuals. Our stewarding company work with Charlton, West Ham and Tottenham so they are experienced. I would like to see a more proactive stance but asking the question of both stewards and police, the more modern football stadia safety techniques are around intelligence gathering for future action rather than going straight into the incident at the time. I know that doesn’t fully answer your question, I asked it as well, but that’s the situation. I know 99.9% of Fleet fans don’t need to be searched but it’s one of those modern-day things through the behaviour of one or two people.
I want to avoid the fines we got last year, not just through crowd behaviour. We had five mass brawl fines on the pitch last year. The last one at Halifax, the player involved thought it would cost £500. I said £11,500 – Halifax only got fined £1,500 for the same incident. But it was their first offence, it was our fifth and they go up in increments. We paid £25,000 in fines last season.
Q. Is it true we only segregate on police advice? It’s getting a bit much in the Plough End when it’s not segregated and you can’t see.
DA: Definitely that is the case. The police now will tell us you will segregate A, B and C. It shocks me a little bit with games like Salford last season where they only brought 25, 30 to places like Bromley or Maidstone. We always research how many fans are likely to come and we didn’t think we’d need to segregate Salford, we checked with the police and they insisted because they have banned Manchester United fans among their travelling support who are all on a risk group and banning orders. There’s always a reason even if it looks odd. If I had my way, I wouldn’t segregate any games.
Q. How do we get bigger numbers into the ground? I don’t see any advertisements around, are there any considerations towards that?
DA: No-one would like to see bigger attendances more than I would. It helps with plenty, money of course for one thing. In the last two weeks I’ve met with the Trust and Fleet Heart and I’m very grateful for the support I’m getting from both. We’ve started a campaign. The Trust delivered 500 leaflets, FH have a poster campaign starting. Don’t think we haven’t done any of this, we’ve done it across businesses in Gravesham, local and new houses where 7,500 of 15,000 have been built. We’ve gone into the welcome packs for those houses. And of course there’s one way of increasing attendances which is winning football matches.
Q. How many players do we have signed on and will any be leaving or going out on loan as it’s not healthy having six or seven players in the stands?
GH: I wish had six or seven players available to do that! When I came in, we had 27. Now signed on we have 18 or 19, including Cody McDonald, but not including the Academy players. Players coming in potentially that we have our eye on will be short-term contracts so I’ll take a view on that further down the line. What I can’t have is players coming in who turn out to not be up to it and I want to be prudent and get the best players available for the budget. One or two players will move out, that’s the nature of the game, but I need 18 first-teamers minimum.
Q. What is Garry’s preferred formation?
GH: 3-5-2. There’s not many teams who play 4-4-2 in this league, most clubs like to pack the midfield out. 3-5-2 or 4-3-3 are my preferred formations which still leaves central midfield with three players. The 3-5-2 with wing backs, and we have those who are more wing-backs than they are full-backs, it gives them more confidence to get up and down if they know they have more cover in respect of a third defender. 3-5-2 is an awkward formation for an out and out winger, say when we’re not getting a lot of possession of the ball at places like Solihull, then, we need players who’ll give more defensively. But if we do go 4-4-2 at home it can be a little bit different in that respect.
Q. Garry, you said this was your hardest start to a season. Do you feel other teams’ levels have risen over the years?
GH: No, I don’t think so. I know full well our start is poor, irrespective of gelling a squad or not. I don’t think the standards gone up and I’m not looking at my players and thinking they’re bad signings. I’ve noted things about players since the season started, players who are maybe not 100%, they know that too. So what do you do as a manager? You have to make a decision on a player if they’re going through a bad spell. You don’t haul them off after 20 minutes, but you monitor it and you address it. No-one’s hurting more than me. People had Sunday off after we were beaten at Solihull, I drove up to Notts County to watch them against Wrexham. That’s my job, it’s quite easy to feel disappointed and have a couple of pints and watch the telly. But you’ve got to do your job. Before we played Halifax, I went up to Oldham to watch a friendly with Nigel our scout. I got back 2.40am but if I’m not doing my job properly, then that’s not me.
I’ve come in here at 7am to work with Dave, gone into training and then come back here. I don’t think many people know how close this club was to going bust. Not days or weeks, closer than that. I had two opportunities last season to jump ship. That’s not my style. I don’t want to go somewhere else, I want to do the job at this football club. I came here and they’re proper people at this club, everyone I talk to, it’s a proper football club. I feel the same way now and if one or both of those clubs came back to me now, the answer would still be no. I like it here, I’m determined and hopefully with patience from supporters, we’ll see the team turn round. I want that badly. It’s not about money, I didn’t come here for that, I’m not skint. I don’t need money, I need football. And I want to stay at this football club, it will hurt me if I don’t get that opportunity or if things don’t turn round but that’s the nature of the game. But I know whether I last one week, one month, a year or five years that I played a part behind the scenes to make sure you’ve got a club. I’ve done things myself for this club out of my own pocket in situations. I’ll show my commitment and what it means to me to be here and I’ll continue to do that.
Q. Could we not have white shorts…?
GH: Give me a paintbrush on Saturday, I’ll paint them for you.
Q. What’s the situation with the training ground?
DA: Currently we owe about £4,000. They want it to be a long-term commitment. We’re very happy with the facility. One or two of the players when they were mulling over a move, they drove down to the facilities, saw the stunning gym there, came straight back up the A2 and signed based on the training ground. It shows they wanted that bit of time to be sure and check us out. It is a wonderful facility.
Q. Have you set a deadline when your ‘work in progress’ needs to stop progressing and be the actual team and squad you want?
GH: We have to take into consideration that we’re only building since July. I couldn’t sign players until we’d freed up a lot of the money that was going to the contracted players otherwise we were just putting the club back in the same position. Every player I inherited was paid to June 30th. Out of the players we have now, that applies to only four or five. The season finishes beginning of May and I don’t think clubs should pay at our expense after that time.
DA: The contracts for new squad members this summer were the first in my six years at the club that I’d seen for a 44-week contract. Every single player prior to that was on 52 weeks. When we were offered transfer fees for one or two players last season from other big clubs who had only recently been in the league, the moves fell through not because of their wages or the fee but because of the T&Cs – those clubs pulled out because they only pay 25% of wages through May, June and July and we paid 100%.
GH: Just to go back to the question. I’m always going to be behind this season. I thought we’d have Ebou Adams and Corey Whitely and then they were gone. We’ve had to get players who can buy into the 44-week contract because we can’t afford 52 weeks. But some players want the other eight weeks lying on the beach at our expense so I had to turn those away. What do I want this season? I want to be as high as I can, I want to be in the top half. If I can get there with the past year’s goings-on and the new structure, I think that will be stability going forward which will always be my No.1 consideration. When I came here, I never anticipated how many hand grenades were lying around the floor in here. It’s only now we are starting to do things our way but it is a process and one that sooner, rather than later we can address I hope, especially when we can get those one or two bits up top that we need. Views will be taken if individuals don’t perform to the standards. Managers get judged on results, players get judged on performances. I want to be here, I think it’s important you have a manager who wants to be here but whatever happens I want to walk out of here and be able to shake people’s hands having contributed for you people to have a football club still here with stability.
Q. Can we have a view on installation of a 3G/4G pitch?
DA: I made a business plan about five years ago but people say that if we did go up to League Two, we’d have to rip it up. That’s not a big deal. Central revenue in this division is £107,000, in League Two it’s £920,000. For me to rip up a 4G and put down a turf pitch, that would be the loveliest problem I’ve ever had. It would cost about £200,000 out of the £900,000 you get over the current £100k. There isn’t a 4G pitch in the borough. We wouldn’t be competing with anyone, every local team could come and hire that at £120 an hour, parents and families use this bar. But following a feasibility study a few years ago it was decided not to move forward.
GH: If I ran a football club, I’d have a plastic pitch tomorrow. Not because I like playing on them, but purely to make clubs sufficient. If you have a situation where backers pull out, what happens then to the club? Maidstone have got one, 96 hours a week at £120 an hour. That’s £12,000 a week, £600k a year and all you have to do is maintain it. They have people go in the bars, have something to eat, it’s self-sufficient. That’s the way it is today, you can’t see people surviving any other way.
DA: I’ve done all the research, I know all the costings. Sutton paid £550,000 and they have an extra plastic membrane that in my opinion makes a difference, it has more give in it. Of all the pitches I’ve seen, I’d say Sutton’s is the best by far. On the day we played them last time, they’d had games on it all morning right up to 20 minutes before Sutton and the Fleet walked out. Four games on a Saturday starting at 9.30, all funding for the club. You can get half the funding from the Football Foundation so we would only have to fund half of it. The problem with doing that is you have to give away half of that pitch time free of charge to community groups, which is a good thing in that way, but it does of course reduce your income on the pitch by half.
Q: What do you think of the standard of refereeing in this league, Garry?
DA: We can’t afford the fine, he thinks it’s brilliant!
GH: They’re under a lot of pressure at this level. They’re scrutinised all the time. They do a … good job. Let’s end it there, eh?!