Week 7: w/c 14th January 2013

Hitchin away / Arlesey at home

Hitchin have opted to play their midweek matches on a Monday night, presumably an attempt to combat the threat of clashing with Champions League football on the television and having the crowd decimated as a result. I am a little surprised that more clubs have not attempted that, though you do still face the competition of Monday night Premiership football on Sky (in fact, it is almost impossible to avoid coming up against an easy alternative for the armchair supporter such is the way that football on the gogglebox has expanded – 3.00pm on a Saturday is the only time you can be sure of avoiding a clash).

I guess that one of the reasons that more teams do not opt for a Monday night midweek date is that it breaks up the routine of Saturday, Tuesday, Thursday (training) which seems to offer the optimum recovery time; as well as being more evenly spread and easier for players, managers and all involved to fit around their other work schedules.

Monday night football: A good idea in theory.

But it backfired this week.

The first winter snow began to fall on the South of England and there was never any chance that the game was going to go ahead. Ironically, by Tuesday night we might have been alright, slightly warmer air, the snow had stopped…but it was not to be, a second successive match postponed and, with the forecast for the week ahead, it is not going to be the last.

With no football to watch, attention again turned to the managing and running of the club. Wednesday was a big night with our first youth section managers and coaches course being held down at the club, whilst next door in the Boardroom we had a board meeting taking place.

The coaching session, held in the The Chess Suite, was hosted by First Team Manager Andy Leese (UEFA B Licence coach, working towards his UEFA A Licence); Under 18’s Team Manager, Gary Breeden (FA Level 3, FA Youth Module 1 Qualified) and Goalkeeper Coach Rhys Tom (FA Level 2 Qualified and FA level 2 Goalkeeper Qualified). The purpose of the evening was to use the expertise and experience that the club has at senior level, to help the managers and coaches of teams from the Under 7’s through to Under 11’s feel that they have somewhere to turn for assistance when it comes to running their teams.

It seems such a sensible and obvious thing to do, and it is a credit to Andy Leese and the other senior coaches that they were prepared to go to such lengths to help out the youngsters in the club. Getting the kids involved is such an easy goal to set, but doing something about it, and actually meaning it, is something completely different. To get this workshop up and running, and so professionally, is a huge step forward and hopefully not just a one-off that never gets followed up.

I headed straight for the club from work on Wednesday, arriving at about 5.45pm for a quick catch-up with the Bar Manager before helping Martin Woolnough and Dave Jeffrey set up for the workshop. At 7.00pm Martin W and I went through to the boardroom for our meeting.

This was the first time since October that a full management committee had met for a board meeting, the last two meetings have been for “Directors only”, supposedly dealing with the more confidential finer details of the club’s finances and strategy.

I am sure Chesham is not unique, but somehow when you have as many as ten people in on a Board Meeting, you can bet your life some of the more confidential contents ends up being whispered around the terraces and across the bar table during the course of the following week. It is difficult to explain completely why, everyone in that room should have a vested interest in all that is going on and treat the information in the right way; but it never pans out that way.

The way we are now, there are no secrets, but some things are still dealt with and treated “outside of board meetings”. For me the reason is simple – if we are not going to find a solution in this forum, then let’s not bother spending too much time talking about it. I have sat in too many board meetings listening to lots of opinions, but not a solution in sight. I am not interested in that, I’m really not.

At the very start of the meeting the Chairman raised the fact that it had been nearly a year since Roger Payne had agreed to take over the club, and I had signed a document saying that the £15,000 he gave to the club last February (which took the total up to about £35,000 for that season) would be on the basis that a majority shareholding would be given to Roger at some stage.

I went on to speak to the Trust about gifting shares to Roger Payne and drafted an agreement that the Supporters’ Trust members had agreed to…Until today it remains unsigned. Oh, what a mess.

It is a period in the club’s history that will forever be contentious, passions running high and many strong opinions on the outcome, and many people upset at the outcome.

I lived it and breathed it.

In the daytime it bugged me; at night it kept me awake.

Was it wrong to give the shares to Roger?

Of course, in many people’s eyes it was.

In fact, not many people know it, but there were other options, but not really viable.

Not to me.

In the shorter term there would have been a lot of pain, and through that pain was a requirement for me to commit to remain Chairman for a certain period – I couldn’t do that, my time was done. I beat myself up every day that I may have done the wrong thing; but the horrible reality is, when it really, REALLY, comes to the crunch, there are not many people that truly put the club first. This was the future of Chesham United we were toying with…and I didn’t like the options.

You have no idea how many meetings, clandestine meetings, conversations…The hours and hours that went into getting the right solution for Chesham United. There was a weight of responsibility that nobody will ever understand, certainly never sympathise with.

Roger becoming major shareholder and having the security we needed was the right. There will always be disagreement. If we could have just added the financial security to what we already had, that would have been an ideal outcome. But it doesn’t work like that.

For me, it was a relatively straightforward choice. On the surface I loved being Chairman. Below the surface I was battered and bruised; emotionally torn by living with the financial stress and sense of responsibility and wanting to make the right decisions.

Let’s not forget. The previous owner had left the club in a really strong position and wanted to hand the club’s ownership over to the Supporters’ Trust in small steps. Money the Trust raised to run the club was converted into shares; the idea being that that eventually becomes a majority and the fans run the club, having gained some experience rather than thrown in at the deep end.

Understandably, I guess, not everyone was happy with all money raised going into running the club. Indeed, at an EGM, or an AGM I can’t recall, the Trust members voted to stop putting money in to the club and to stop buying shares.

Fair enough.

Felt like a bit of a kick in the bollocks if I’m honest.

I now found myself Chairman of a club where the majority shareholder had left, wanting the fans to take over the shares; but the fans had just voted that they don’t actually want to take over the shares.

Ok, that left myself and others (that cared) at the helm in a bit of a quandary. Especially when the idea of someone else coming along and offering to take over the financial burden (the one that spoilt my days, and ruined my nights) caused a lot of argument as to whether we wanted that to happen. Or more importantly, whether the share gifting was the right way to go.

That will always be questionable, and maybe I will go on living with the guilt that I was the one that was influential in Roger taking over, but with very little care or support around (I don’t mind admitting that there were days when I drove away from the club literally in tears) it was the only way the club was going to survive where it was; and keep me out of an early grave. I know there will always be people that think I was wrong, and I’ll happily chat through the full details over a beer at some time.

 

Back to the Board Meeting and my finance report kick started the meeting and was pretty straightforward. We are heading to the point where we need £70,000 to get us to the end of the season. It read:

“To summarise the change in pattern since this was last published to the wider board meeting in October; the required additional income based on the budget forecast for the year stood at £38k. As things stand, and the way we are going, that has risen to a quite frightening £70k. If ever there was a need for positive action…

The amendments made recently to the original forecast can be broadly summarised as:

  • £26k less Commercial Income– This is a combination of planned activity/sponsorship and additional income anticipated through the Bar Manager. An urgent review is required to establish how much, if any, of this might be recovered by changing focus or increasing activity over the second half of the year. I suggest that the Bar Manager needs to be included in this.
  • £26k less income from the bar– Again I suggest an urgent meeting is required to review what needs looking at to turn around the income. There have been numerous conversations and meetings, some very detailed, with the Board (the big and small version) about improvements that can be made to improve the marketability of the place – but there has been no action as a result. This must change, or we go back to looking for a part-time bar manager/staff and run it as a much smaller facility. We need a smaller meeting with the Bar Manager to run through the figures and to be able to give some definite answers on what we can and cannot do to improve the place.
  • £5k less income for Sportsman Dinners– With nothing in the pipeline, it seems silly to include
  • £7k more expenditure on Football Wages– This is a bottom line figure encompassing all players, management, bonuses, expenses, etc
  • £4k less cost on other odds & sods

Since October, however, we have gained £28K on the budget from Roger/prize money, hence the increase in shortfall from £38K in October to the £70K on the attached. These figure of course, include £27k of electrics but that (which must be resolved – Ed, that is a whole different story!) would still leave us £43K short of a zero cash position at the year end.

With our latest cashflow showing such a large deficit at the Year End, we took a look at our operating losses if we exclude from the equation “additional donations”, prizes and loans (received and paid back). The below is in thousands:

Receipts 2011/12 2012/13
Football 63 65
Commercial 47 36
Bar (gross) 130 123
Other (S.Trust, Dinner etc) 17 8
Total 257 232
Payments
Football Wages 103 108
Other Football 43 44
Bar 88 83
Running (inc.” Other bar”) 82 76
Total 316 311
Operating Loss 59 79

 

This was the bit that most intrigued me.

Bluntly – getting my own trumpet out for a little blast – we were operating significantly better as a business whilst I was Chairman than we have since. Aside from giving my own confidence and ego a little boost, it enabled me to try and cut any board meeting bullshit short by pointing out the fact that our income is down £25,000 on last season, so we can forget any new ideas that may not have delivered, forget the fact that the Bar Manager has not yet started selling commercial, the stuff we were doing last year, we are not doing as well this year.

Pull the finger out time.

The discussions started to head down some familiar paths, stuff that I am sure I could find in old minutes that have not yet been actioned, and no doubt forgotten about. It really is hair pulling stuff at times…

…Then a break through.

Mr Chairman” I uncharacteristically stated politely “can I suggest that, as well as minutes of the meeting, we draft 10-12 action points that we will keep as a separate to do list, with a name against the action, so that come the next meeting, if that action has not been progressed that person can crawl under the table with embarrassment”.

By the end of the meeting I had recorded twelve action points which I circulated to all board meeting attendees the following morning.

My name was against more actions than I would ideally have liked, but in a way I guess (toot that trumpet) that shows my worth.

The Board meeting itself was a good one, one of the best in a long time. The ideas were flowing, the ideas were minuted and actions were attributed. It seems so obvious, but…

 

Once the official part of the meeting was over Dad and I sat down with Roger to discuss the point my Dad had raised in the meeting: “This all sounds very good going forward, but we do have an immediate short term that needs dealing with…

Dad and I had already discussed this during the day. For all the good talk, even with the increased focus put on action points, we need money now; somewhere in the region of £10-15,000 to get through the next few weeks. In recent months I have got a much better understanding of what Roger wants to get out of the club, he wants to be able to enjoy the football, and make a difference. Money can do that to the team, that is very obvious. Unfortunately, the running of the club needs more than just money, which is why the board needs to be stronger to make sure that the club looks after itself, and Roger gets to make a difference.

Sat in the boardroom with a number of meeting attendees still hovering, my Dad presented the facts. What we need, and what we need it for. Credit to Roger, he showed no intention of washing his hands of the problem, but his mind was racing for where we could delay payments, win some time…The kind of practice that my Dad had been carrying out for some months now, but, as I have pointed out to him on numerous occasions, there is a difference doing it when your son is Chairman as opposed to when we have a wealthy benefactor in charge.

Having established that the brewery bill must be paid, we cannot delay on the Tax and National Insurance payments and the groundsman cheque was delayed as long as we dare push it, we put our preconceived plan into action.

How about” I chipped in, looking at my Dad as though this was an idea that had just come to me “if Roger was to take on paying the players wages for a few weeks, and you look after keeping the club ticking over, where would that leave us financially?”

“Well, yeah, that should just about work” replied Dad.

We both looked at Roger. Bingo. It sounds sneaky as I write this now, but it was a winning conversation all round. Dad does not have the worry of finding the money each week and Roger’s money is going exactly where he wants it to go, into the playing side – our progress is in his hand. If he wants to cut the budget, he can. If he wants to increase the budget, he can.

For the next month or so at least, we can concentrate on getting things moving behind the scene without going through the weekly dread of trying to scrape together the players wages. (The sad reality is that the worry about finding the money still seemed to only rest with my Dad, the Chairman and myself; and to be honest, having relinquishing the Chairman’s title, even I was not going to lose any sleep over it…not anymore).

After the meeting I popped into The Chess Suite where there were a lot of glowing faces and an excellent vibe about the place following the coaching workshop. I stayed and had a quick pint to catch-up with people from the workshop, and update others about our board meeting. It had been a good meeting.

Driving home I had Lamb of God’s ‘As The Palaces Burn’ album blasting out on the stereo. It seemed apt. For the first time in nearly two years I left a meeting feeling genuinely good about the club. Good about the future of the club.

By Friday the forecast snow arrived bang on time, and with it came the inevitability of another abandoned game on Saturday.  By Friday evening a large number of League One and League Two games were off, as were Conference Premier, North and South; not to mention Ryman League, Northern League…but not a single Southern League match was off yet. Why is that you might ask?

For some totally bonkers reason the Southern League will not accept any postponed games until the day of the match, even if the pitch is under two foot of snow, it’s still snowing and sub-zero temperatures.

I confess that Friday evening I got involved in some humorous tweeting, joined by a number of other clubs and supporters who were totally dismayed at the ruling – I even got a Direct Message from the official St Neots twitter account, they were suddenly concerned because they had announced their match as postponed already, and they feared the wrath of the Southern League. I hope they do not get punished for calling the game off too early, despite enjoying the irony of them calling a match off too early when the week before Christmas I was cursing the same club for leaving it far too late to have our match at their place called off.

The reality is that nearly every game in the Southern League had already been postponed, it is just that nobody had dared to tell anyone, just in case the League found out!

We are fortunate that our Chairman at Chesham is also on the Southern League Board. He has often been on the end of my verbal tirades against some of the actions of what I see as an antiquated organisation, but it is also very useful at times for getting an insight into what goes on!

I saw a copy of an email that our Chairman sent to the league Secretary, basically suggesting the use of common-sense in tune with the rest of the leagues in the country; but by Saturday evening the league’s stance had been defended by the fact that one game (Bideford v AFC Totton) had gone ahead, and it might not have done had they opted to call it off on Friday night. The other 32 games were all postponed as expected, representatives from each of the home clubs having to make their way to the ground to take a photograph as proof for the league – who in fairness had declared that a local referee did not have to be present for the Saturday morning inspections, saving us a few quid at least.

With my boys’ rugby also snowed off, both on Friday and Sunday, it left me time to get to work on some of my action points from the week’s board meeting.

Business Partners invites – done.

A new newsletter especially for our sponsors – done.

2013/14 Corporate Patron Scheme leaflet – done.

A productive weekend, but with the snow still falling outside, my hopes for watching any more football this week are not high.

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