Three years on – interview with Fleet CEO Damian Irvine

Three years ago this week, in February 2020, the Fleet’s owners began the process to push the club in a new direction off the field with the appointment of Damian Irvine as CEO. Dennis Kutrieb followed later that summer to kick-start the same process on the field.

Within a few days of arriving, Damian had given his first interview about his plans and ambitions for the Fleet to BBC Radio Kent’s Charles Webster – and three years on, to mark the anniversary of that, he sat down with Chas once more to reflect on developments in those years and what the future might hold. View that interview, conducted on Tuesday night at Chippenham Town, below…

Cast your minds back those 36 months and the club was struggling towards the bottom of the National League, having just been dumped out of the FA Trophy one round short of the quarter-finals – at home by Royston Town. Successive winding-up petitions had been in the public domain for the previous year or so, culminating in a transfer ban that delayed the debut of new signing Michael Timlin, and the reputation of the club within the game and amongst our own and rival supporters lay damaged.

Storms were on the horizon – literal ones in the case of storms Dennis and Jorge – and figurative ones as Covid loomed large. The club battled to get both games played on a muddy and sticky pitch and embarked on a run of crucial wins over Chorley, Maidenhead United, Hartlepool United and FC Halifax Town to clamber out of the bottom four for the first time that season.

Such circumstances as the season ended in lockdown could not have been foreseen by the new administration at the Fleet who, after assurances that our place in the National League was safe, then had to suffer an immediate about-turn as promotion and relegation was once more permitted and the club was demoted by 0.002 of a point.

By then, new manager Dennis Kutrieb had been recruited after an exhaustive search across northern Europe and an almost entirely new squad was rebuilt in a short window. Many of those players recruited in that first season have formed the cornerstone of the team’s promotion challenges since – Bingham, Cundle, Chapman, Paxman, Poleon and Solly.

That first season of 2020/21 threw up innumerable challenges with games behind closed doors, much-reduced income, no fans, constant disruption of a season that ultimately never finished and the inevitable postponement of wider plans the club would have had in any ordinary campaign. Indeed, since Damian Irvine and Dennis Kutrieb came into the club, the pair have only been able to complete one full season to date, taking the Fleet so close in that promotion final at Dorking.

Nonetheless, over the past three years the club has made huge strides on and off the pitch. Quite literally on the pitch, that muddy, degenerating surface from 2020 has been transformed through hard work, constant upkeep and careful investment. Supporters’ numerous concerns since then have been heard – the club has reconfigured the PA system, overhauled catering and bar facilities in-house, added new bar and food zones around the concourse, introduced online ticketing, maintained and reintroduced printed programmes after lockdown. Furthermore, the issue of better segregation favouring the home fans at the Swanscombe End is much improved and ongoing.

One of your main concerns we heard in 2020 was about supporters feeling distanced from their club and the people in it. Firstly, we ensured those people were fully looked after during lockdown – every one of our staff was paid in full through the pandemic, not at the 80% level of furlough but at 100%. Secondly, the club has prided itself on open and honest communication with supporters – be it informally around the ground, through our various media channels but also in regular club statements through lockdown and via online Q&As and dialogue since. Our door is always open and ideas – while not always able to be implemented there and then – listened to.

With Dennis Kutrieb and his squad regular attendees in the bar pre- and post-match, together with free entertainment and the opening of the hospitality area to all fans, the club is delighted to have broken the divide and restored that connection between supporters and players/staff that is the lifeblood of the game at our level.

Commercially, our average attendance has increased from around 900 to 1,300+ this season and our targets are beyond that for the remaining matches. Matchday posters distributed by our ever-willing and loyal volunteers are displayed in pubs and premises around the locality, while the Ebbsfleet International hub is a huge visual statement for the club to locals and commuters.

We have fantastic new relationships with partners including Kuflink, Virtue Energy, F&F Construction Ltd and Carpet Design Centre, with more in development. Our much-valued season-ticket holders and lounge members have increased hugely in numbers since 2020, through a combination of attractive but sensible pricing for our level of football.

And speaking of football, our recruitment process in terms of players and the essential support staff that keeps them in peak condition has been overhauled and fine-tuned to the point now where we have worked hard to be top of the table – without ever forgetting we have more hard work to undertake to stay there. It’s a pragmatic and sensible economic approach that takes care of the club ownership’s investment.

The commitment of that ownership cannot be understated and supporters can be grateful for the continued unwavering support of Dr Abdulla Al-Humaidi. With the exciting new stadium development plans in motion as well, both the history and future of this club is of the utmost concern and priority.

Football governance is another area touched upon in the interview above by Damian Irvine and he and the club are active members of the Fair Game UK organisation that aims to change the game for the better in the wider interests of clubs and fans together.

This exploration of the past three years is not to blow our own trumpet. The job is not done and we don’t foresee it ever “being done” as the work to improve and develop is constant and ongoing. But as an illustration of where we have all come this past three years and how much work we – staff, players, management, volunteers and supporters – have put in, it’s an indication of where that investment in time, effort and development can take us in the next three years.

Thank you for your amazing support week in, week out – home and/or away. It’s your club, it’s your investment, let’s keep it that way and keep aiming ever higher! See you Saturday!


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