EGM Fans Blog
June 19, 2014
By Nathan Bees.
I am sure every Supporters Club member that headed to the Mem last night was hoping the EGM would provide them with answers as to last season’s on-field catastrophe. Who was responsible for our relegation to non-league football? Why did we not do more to improve the team throughout the season when it was patently obvious we were lacking in attack? What happens now to give us the best chance of bouncing back? All pertinent lines of enquiry given the severity of our situation and worthy of open, insightful responses.
We were returning to the scene of the crime though and whilst it was inevitable that the feelings of May 3rd would come flooding back it was important that as a room we didn’t dwell on it – it would have made for an exhausting couple of hours. The point of the EGM was to ascertain what was being done by those at the top to address our failings and to plan for a brighter future; that’s what everyone needed to focus on.
Questions were being asked with a degree of justified frustration and the early replies from Chairman Nick Higgs and his fellow boardroom representatives Barry Bradshaw and Toni Watola did little to calm the atmosphere. There were moans and groans every few seconds and as I was updating the Supporters Club Twitter feed I feared the worst.
Thankfully, however, everyone seemed to settle down and engaged much more sensibly after the initial tension. That’s not to say there wasn’t disagreements between Gasheads and those at the top table, because there was, but individuals were given a chance to speak without being interrupted, allowing for a much slicker and fairer Q+A process.
A range of topics were covered over 3 sections: evaluating/reviewing our relegation from the Football League, sharing ideas on how the supporters club can best assist the club moving forward and understanding our strategy and plan to bounce back at the first attempt.
In regards to section 1 there was, as you would expect, a lot of answers from manager Darrell Clarke, who made clear he “accepted responsibility” for our League Two exit. The general consensus from supporters was that he should not feel accountable as he was put in a difficult situation with just 8 games of the season remaining. John Ward had informed the club last summer that he wasn’t prepared to manage for the whole of 2013-2014 but it was only upon his request to “move upstairs” in February/March that a switch took place. He, according to Nick Higgs, insisted that the squad was too good to go down and that persuaded the Board to agree to change the managerial setup. In hindsight the 63 year old couldn’t have been more wrong.
Clarke conceded he may have tried to change things too quickly when he took over but pointed out he was having to change mindsets as well as tactics. He thought we were unlucky in games at Bury and Portsmouth – and having gone to both games I absolutely agree – but felt that overall we were not good enough to survive and got what we deserved. A couple of supporters suggested Ward was being made a scapegoat for our failings but what we heard confirmed what the majority suspected several months ago: Ward had run out of ideas.
Higgs and Toni Watola made clear that money was available to recruit a striker in January but for the most part Ward stubbornly rejected the opportunity to improve the squad. He wanted to play a certain way and was not interested in adding to his attacking options. Understandably this shocked the room but having heard he had lost his love for the game it perhaps explained why he was so lackadaisical about the situation. Unfortunately it contributed to our relegation.
Elsewhere, the answers of Clarke, in particular, were hard-hitting and brutally honest. He is not an advocate of defensive football and disagreed with the way we played last season. The key for him is having a team that plays with freedom and a desire to attack. He also made no secret of the fact he opposed the way the club had offered contracts in the past; he is now implementing a new recruitment policy centring on incentive-based deals. Both Jamie White and Matty Taylor have signed 1 year contracts with a 12 month option in the club’s favour and Clarke says this will ensure the players work as hard as they possibly can to earn extensions. A win-win.
One issue from recent months has been our spate of long-term injuries and Clarke was quick to dismiss that they came as a result of anything that was done in training. In fact, he went as far as saying the players “weren’t worked hard enough” on the training pitch and that, for the most part, we were victims of bad luck. The Board stated that every player undergoes a physical examination before signing to ensure they have no underlying problems that would make them prone to sustaining injuries.
This topic led to one of the night’s lighter moments when a disgruntled supporter quipped ‘nobody can tell me Garry Kenneth ever passed a medical!’, which led to huge laughter and even raised a smile from everyone at the top table. It was an expensive lesson to learn, obviously, but Clarke explained that this is one of the reasons he advocates incentive-based contracts. It is pleasing to hear we are finally moving away from our infamous 3 year contract offers as it has clearly done us no good.
In off-the-field matters Watola confirmed the financial losses we would suffer from relegation – up to £500,000 in the first season alone – but bizarrely indicated that he had not calculated the cost of dropping out the league. Apparently the club did not “anticipate” it becoming a reality because we hadn’t been in the bottom two at any time before the final day. Needless to say this was met with widespread disapproval. Higgs went on to say “the (UWE) stadium is the future of this club. It will be the impetus to further investment in a big way” but reiterated that building work would not begin until later in the summer as 5 legal agreements needed to be finalised.
Both the Chairman and Barry Bradshaw said they were very keen to utilise the Supporters Club moving forward and feel regular interaction with them is the key to achieving that. The positions of Brian Seymour-Smith and Ken Masters as Directors are not token gestures and a “one man one vote” policy ensures they get a say on all boardroom matters. Both men were in agreement and called for greater communication and for the club to get things right on the pitch to give fans something to cheer about again. Their speeches were well thought out and well delivered.
Higgs didn’t announce any findings from the internal review that is taking place but was quick to imply this would come at a later date once the evaluation had concluded. This was somewhat disappointing given it is now 6 weeks since relegation but if anything truly significant is going to be changed it is inevitable that it will take time. We will have to see over the coming weeks if anything comes from it.
As far as preparations for next season are concerned Clarke emphasised that every player at this level is replaceable and that we wouldn’t be held to ransom. Both Lee Brown and Michael Smith are considering their offers but the latter is under contract for next season anyway and will only depart should we receive a “huge” bid. Clarke said he wants Brown to stay but wouldn’t panic if he rejected his contract because any player in the lower leagues is replaceable.
His priority now is to complete his work in the transfer market. He hopes to get a few more players signed on before pre-season training begins on June 30th but is also open to using the loan market later in the summer. Alan Gow will be training with the squad in an attempt to earn a new deal and Clarke will also be casting his eye over several trialists with a view to signing “2 or 3” of them.
As you would expect nobody at the top table guaranteed promotion but everyone was making it abundantly clear that it was our aim. Clarke assured supporters his expectations are as high as ours are and that his team will fight tooth and nail to be in the mix at the top of the table.
These optimistic and rousing words from the man tasked with masterminding our comeback brought the meeting to a close and ensured everyone left feeling a little more positive than they were when they arrived. The evening was a success – to the credit of those who organised the event – and the format allowed for every submitted question to be answered, which is all anyone could have asked for.
People will have their own opinions about the Board and will undoubtedly draw their own conclusions on the answers they gave but overall there was a clear message: last season wasn’t good enough and promotion back to League Two is absolutely essential.
Let’s see if those involved can walk the walk and instigate the change in fortunes we so desperately need.
Up the Gas.