Official Meeting Minutes
Transfer targets, squad size, player sales, flags, Fit & Proper Persons Test, Costa, tactics, away fans, Doherty, contracts, form, Fan Zones, Beer and Batth... that will be the topics covered at the last Fans’ Parliament then!
Indeed these were just a smattering of the items on a bumper agenda facing the panel for well nigh three hours, around the time Gareth Southgate's men were succumbing to the Germans on a field in Dortmund on Wednesday evening.
The evening kicked off in sombre tones with the news that regular minute taker and long-time Wolves' author and journalist Dave Instone's father had recently passed away. Chairman Paul Richards made a point to pass on the Parliament's condolences to David on his sad loss. (NOTE: In David’s absence Bill Howell, a well-known Midlands’ journalist with over 20 years experience in the media, took the minutes).
Chief Finance Officer Rita Purewal took questions for the first hour with a fascinating insight into the pressures Championship clubs have in dealing with what was once Financial Fair Play, but is now Profit and Sustainability.
Alongside Rita were Managing Director Laurie Dalrymple and Sporting Director Kevin Thelwell, both of whom more than came into their own as the evening progressed with their insights provoking a healthy debate.
The Annual Financial Results were revealed at the end of February were the last year under the ownership of Steve Morgan and showed a pre-tax profit of £5.831m to May 2016, compared to £700,000 in the previous 12 months. Richard Stearman's sale to Fulham and Benik Afobe's to Bournemouth were key to this rise in profit. Conor Coady, Jed Wallace, Michal Zyro, Joe Mason and Mike Williamson were added to the squad but what also aided the profit margin were the release of part of the exceptional onerous contract provision made in 2013, where the club took a £15million hit after the relegation to League One. This figure was only £2.6 million in these latest accounts compared to £6.7 million in the year to May 2015.
Rita explained certain key points: “Turnover increased despite a 10 per cent drop in attendances, largely due to increased central distributions from the new TV deal. It is also important to point out that this will be the last set of figures which will include the Premier League parachute payment.”
She added that Wolves budget for three home and three away televised games but actually saw the benefit of seven home and seven away televised. A net asset value of £55 million and net current liabilities of less than £2 million.
The first question of the evening, submitted by Dave Benton, centred on the summer takeover: Section 25 - Seems to suggest Fosun loaned the company £21m following the takeover, does this cover the money we have spent on players? (We have spent £17.1m on players since May 31st, though not sure whether this would include Marshall and Costa. Presumably not as these accounts were approved at the end of November?
“Yes it does include those purchases (from last summer),” said Rita. “It doesn't include Marshall and Costa as they were purchased in the January window and these accounts were signed off in November.”
Rita then dealt with a question about company structure, explaining that WW1990 Ltd was the parent company of the football club WWFC 1986 Ltd. “It is also the parent company of the sister company Wolverhampton Wanderers Properties Ltd. These two companies are 100 per cent owned by WW1990 Ltd and this is 100 percent owned by Fosun.”
Rita then tackled a follow-on question concerning a £21m loan by Fosun, explaining it was loaned to the Club via the parent WW1990Ltd under-taking.
Another submitted question from Dave Benton followed. ‘The PSC statement indicates that Fosun don't own us completely and that some shares are with Guo Guangchang, is this correct? “No, Fosun have 100 per cent ownership of the WW1990 group. The ultimate parent company is actually Fosun International Holdings Ltd and Chairman Guo is a majority shareholder of this company,” explained Rita.
Neil Dady had submitted the following question: “As the accounts recently released relate to the previous ownership can the club now explain how debt is going to be managed between the parent company (Fosun) and Wolves going forward. Are Fosun under writing and guaranteeing all debt?
“A very short answer to this: yes” replied Rita. “Fosun have agreed to under-write the debt. Our auditors Deloitte are in the process of reviewing our interim accounts for 2016/17 and are totally satisfied on a going-concern basis that this is the case.”
Next question. Can the club explain our position in respect of financial fair play and how the club are structuring its finances to stay within the rules.
This was not such a short answer. Financial Fair Play was brought in in 2013 and Wolves have “always passed it by a comfortable margin”, explained Rita. But over those years Wolves have benefited from a Parachute Payment and the release of the onerous contract provision.
“Going forward we are facing a challenging financial climate,” said Rita. “We have invested quite heavily in the squad over the last ten months, so it will be challenging. It is something that a lot of other Championship clubs are facing at the same time, certainly those without parachutes.”
Financial Fair Play has been replaced by Profit and Sustainability by the Football League to make it more aligned to the Premier League model which was introduced by UEFA six years ago. And, whereas FFP looked at financial results on a season-by-season basis, this new model looks at a rolling three year period. “In summary, you are allowed to lose £5million every year for each of the three years,” explained Rita. “That's £15million losses allowed over three years. However, a club can also lose a further £8 million each year.” But Rita explained that the extra £8 million of losses per year has to be in the form of an equity injection or secured funding. “Just to put that into context ; £39million of allowable losses compare to the Premier League model of £105millionof allowable losses,” Rita added. “They can incur losses of £35 million in each of the three years.
Managing Director Laurie Dalrymple added: “For a number of clubs in this league it is about to get extremely challenging. Clubs will be aiming to operate within those financial models and still compete financially against each other to get the best players into the squad and try and generate the right levels of income and to comfortably stay within those margins. There are several clubs that I would predict are going to be posting results in a year's time that are going to be putting them in a more precarious position. Maybe not right on the £39 million but certainly going to be over the £20million mark. We all just need to be aware of the fact that we are not in the Premier League, we don't have the broadcast income that Premier League clubs have. The clubs with the highest turnover in this league, which will fluctuate somewhere between £20m-£30m, I'd imagine, are still going to be restricted in how freely they can operate. To have genuine ambition to build the strongest squad to compete for promotion, makes it extremely difficult to operate in this league. Just as it is for everyone else in this league, it is going to get harder for us and harder for the reasons that Rita has outlined. Key income sources over the past three or four years have now ceased to exist, so we are wholly reliant on maximising all of our commercial opportunities. A massive part of how we generate income will inevitably come from player activity, and whether that is players coming in, but crucially players leaving the club as well.”
Unsurprisingly Helder Costa's future was thrown into the domain. Laurie replied: “I'm never keen to be drawn out on players, I know Helder is going to be drawn out because he is one of our prize assets and we have gone quite some way to invest in him, but ultimately player trading will become a fundamental part of how we can sustain our model. Without question, getting to the Premier League is going to massively ease that. And at some point, in my opinion, the Football League is going to have to take a long, serious, hard look at how the model works, particularly for clubs outside the Premier League. It is not sustainable whilst we are only being given a central broadcast payment of between £4.5m to £5m. TV income is vital but whilst there is such a huge chasm between what the Premier League retain in terms of broadcasting rights and what the Championship retain, it makes it very hard for Championship clubs to be sustainable and competitive. Add to this, the value and market conditions of player trading is that top strikers are not going for less than £10m-£12m, and three years ago they were going for £3m-£4m, yet we are still being managed under the same rigid parameters of financial management….I can't see how that is ultimately sustainable.”
Rita interjected on the point made about broadcasting income. “To put it in context, for example, Wolves receive £100,000 up to £140,000 for every home televised game, or £10,000 for an away game. Premier League clubs get £1.1m for every televised game and also have a minimum ten-game quota.
Jon Tummon asked the implications on transfer policy with regards to those economic warnings: “Have we got to sell before we can buy?”
Laurie answered this by stating that the squad was already a large one: “We are going to be looking at altering the squad, and the size of the squad, so we will inevitably see out-goings as well as some in-comings. Players going out is going to be part of our trading activity going forward, no question. If we want to get the players that we want, and if market forces are dictating that the value of players are going up and up all the time, then we are going to have to make some player sales if we want to compete.”
A follow-up question suggested that might be ‘Big Sales? Players like Costa and Cavaleiro?” “Not necessarily” was Laurie’s reply. “You could go through the entire squad, such as Carl Ikeme? What about Danny Batth? Or Morgan Gibbs-White who is an absolutely thriving young talent who arguably could be worth a very high sum of money in time? I wouldn't want to be drawn on any particular player. I could say: 'He's going nowhere' but, as with all players at all clubs, I don't know what is coming down the line in four months. Just as Liverpool may not have known what was coming down the line when they had Luis Suarez. Their initial stance was, “he's going nowhere” then low and behold twelve months later he left. We've got a squad of players - the ones that we have invested in and the ones that we know we want to keep to develop the squad - but equally I can't sit here say 100 per cent that every member of that squad will be here this time next year. I just couldn't do that, but we know the ones that we want to develop into the future and there will be people leaving during the summer. Partly to find football elsewhere, but partly to help us trade and bring players in.”
Simon Wade asked if the financial fair play penalties were still the same. Rita answered: “Not really, we are waiting to see what teeth they have, because it has still to be demonstrated. A whole raft of sporting and financial sanctions are on the table, anything from a transfer embargo, points deduction, fines. A disciplinary panel will decide on a case-by-case basis.”
Laurie Dalrymple added: “We all follow the Football League, we all know which other clubs are going substantially aggressive in terms of their player activity in the transfer market. It is an all-out risk strategy and some teams won't get out of the league this year that have gone hell for leather with expenditure and at some point clubs will have to start altering their approach under the current rules. The transfer fees that they paid and together with the wages won't be sustainable and it will be hurtful.”
Tom Byrne posed a question about how far Wolves could push sponsorship to lessen the effects of financial fair play constraints. Laurie answered: “A lot of people have pushed the boundaries and the league and the central bodies are wise to it. In a sense, if something doesn’t smell right to the authorities then it raises serious questions. But it is also more definitive than that. There are guidelines and a process in place for what they consider a fair and justified investment, or what might go above and beyond that level. There are obviously areas where we can potentially invite greater degrees of investment and I'd be lying if I said we aren't exploring every single opportunity to maximise our revenue opportunities.”
Laurie stated that sponsorship has risen 40 per cent in two years: “and it will continue to grow again this year.” Plenty of talks with 'strong, commercial partners' are already lined up.
A submitted question from Clive Smith read: “How can we afford to buy Helder Costa for £13m when that equates to 37,000 Stan Cullis season tickets alone? Laurie admitted he wasn’t too sure about the motivation behind the question but went on to talk about the deal and a sign of the club’s intentions to bring in quality players. “It's a bit of a chicken and egg,” he said. “The owner's priority has massively been around investing in the football area of the business, certainly in the past nine or ten months, and that will continue to be the primary focus. There's clearly some areas of work we still need to do, so making an investment in someone like Helder is quite a large statement in terms of how we are looking to take the team forward and how we are trying to bring quality players into the team. We have got to make the investment into the squad if we are going to take it forward.”
Greg Asbury wanted to discuss whether the £13million price tag speculated about Helder Costa was with a portion of that amount amortised over the length of his contract. Rita duly confirmed that the fee was indeed amortised.
Jas Bahia made the point, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, that Wolves need an 18-month financial year. Rita said: “I think clubs will no doubt try every way possible to try and avoid this stringent ruling, but the long and short of it is that it’s extremely challenging for all clubs in this financial climate. As a result of Financial Fair Play in 2011, Premier League club debt has gone down from 65 percent to 40 percent so there is evidence this is working”. Rita added: “As a result this, the ruling won't go away, if anything it is going to get harder and more challenging.”
Peter Abbott questioned loan deals and how they appear in the figures. Dave Benton questioned how director loans might appear in the balance sheets, or indeed pure cash injections. Rita explained that the Football League would start to take a closer look at any club once owners starting pumping in money, asking for future predictions to prove that clubs were regaining control without reliance of additional funding. “They have asked that if they start to feel uncomfortable with the level of losses... they don't wait for it to reach £39 million... they get involved between £15million and £39million and want to see future cash-flow predictions to make sure at some point in the future clubs take corrective action. They also require evidence of secured funding.”
Steve Page made the point that Wolves appear to be in an extremely healthy financial position taking the last three years into consideration. “I'm not really getting the debate about the constraints of Financial Fair Play because we are in such a healthy position,” he said. When Steve questioned why Wolves couldn't spend big on the back of two years of good finances, Laurie responded: “And if we don't get out (of the league)? We could be annihilated in one year. You are also making the assumption that we are going to continue to break even when it is a very difficult trading environment.”
Rita was then asked another question about Wolves' company structure and which one was responsible for the footballing side of business? “A lot of football clubs are structured in this way,” she replied. “One is a trading arm, they then have a sister company for properties, housing the capital costs of the structure. It is structured in that way so that if the club got into difficulty, the assets would still be intact.” Laurie denied suggestions of any current wish to sell-off any land and Rita answered Jas Bahia's comment about the possibility of Fosun injecting further equity over and above the £39m by stating: “That is not allowed.”
At this point Rita left the room to a round of applause and matters moved onto the footballing sphere.
Michelle Turner made the point prior to the start of the football section of Wednesday's Fans' Parliament meeting about the recently released Season Ticket prices. “Whoever came up with the lowering of the Season Tickets for children to £50, I could kiss everybody. Thank you so much.”
The first submitted question came from Tom Byrne, and had also been asked by Steve Galloway: ‘Some supporters are concerned at the rewarding of long term contracts to players mid-way through what many feel is a very poor season, whilst they are assets given the performance this season it can be seen as rewarding failure.’
Kevin Thelwell spoke of a 'really difficult balance' with regards to contract extensions that were handed out in the first half of the season. “You're looking at the performance of individual players before making any sort of decision in terms of asset management. My particular view is the people whom we have given improved contracts to, are players that we want to see at the club in the medium to long term, and players that have been at the club and done well before and in my opinion will do well again. In all of those instances those players were getting inside the last 18 months of their contracts so from my position as a sporting director, you get to a point where the balance of power starts to shift away from the football club towards the player and his agent. The longer you let the contract run down, your bargaining position becomes a lot more difficult, especially if the player starts to do really, really well. We've always been pretty clear that we've kept a lid on the contracts in terms of the size of the salaries and we were able to do so again. I don't think anyone will deny some of the young ones: Harry Burgoyne, Bright Enobakhare, Morgan Gibbs-White and Connor Ronan. Those contracts speak for themselves. From a senior perspective Danny Batth, Carl Ikeme, Nouha Dicko, Ethan Ebanks-Landell - who has been doing fantastically well at Sheffield United - Dave Edwards - who is obviously doing terrific - and Lee Evans, who has been part of some outstanding performances in the FA Cup and in the League recently and also did well at the start of the season. It is about looking at the individuals and asking: Can they play a part in our future going forwards? Do we see them as an asset? Can they bridge the gap between Championship and Premier League? How long left is on their contracts? Then it is about making informed decisions which we do as a group.”
Dave Benton made the point that Paul Lambert had said Wolves were 'awash with players', and yet were still handing out contracts. “I hope generally that people feel that the players who have been given those contracts, they have a value to us as a football club on the pitch and also as an asset,” Kevin explained. “Paul isn't talking about individuals, he is talking about a general situation. I'm sure in the summer, as Laurie has alluded to earlier, we are all pretty clear, that the squad is going to be too big. We will need to reduce the size of the squad, and we need to be very focused on the players and promote some younger players.”
Another submitted question from Tom Byrne read: ‘How do the club rate their own performance in the January window and why wasn't a striker brought in given our issues at that end of the pitch?’
“There are a couple of things there,” said Kevin. “Everybody seemed generally pretty pleased about the significant amount of money that was spent on Helder Costa. The priority from our perspective was to make sure we secured him, for obvious reasons. He has scored a huge number of goals and then it was about being canny in the transfer market in terms of what was then available. Andi Weimann now looks like a good bit of business as a loan with an option to buy, of relatively sensible value for a player who is starting to prove he can score goals from a striker position, even though he has played wide predominantly for Derby. I've been watching Andi since he was 18 since he broke through at Villa where he did his best work as a striker. It's only in recent years that he started to play wide. Ben Marshall can not only play at right-back but also left midfield, right midfield, as the 10, and has great quality and a strong assist record. He's already proved he can score and help to score. So it really was about Helder and then who we could bring in to fill the gaps around the strikers. Let's not forget Nouha Dicko has scored 15 goals in this league before and in my opinion it's only a matter of time before Nouha gets back to his best in terms of scoring more goals. Perhaps this is not his moment but I am certain that his moment will come, and then you've got all the others available at our disposal. Cavaleiro played off the front on Saturday and proved he could get a goal. He's up to five now, even though he has been in and out a little bit. Scoring five from central and wide, I'm certain in one season he can get to 10. Listen, would we have wanted to sign a £10 million striker on top of Costa who could guarantee us 20-odd goals? Yes, of course, but the priority was Helder and then adding to the rest of the group.”
Jeff Bagnall enquired about Andi Weimann's loan arrangement from Derby County. “They can't renege, we have the option to buy,” said Kevin. “We decide if we do or we don't by a specific date. They don't have the option to renege. So if Gary Rowett wants him back and we want him, we can have him.” Laurie added: “The value is agreed in the loan deal. They can't suddenly go: 'He's had a great three months with you he is now worth another £5m.”
Michelle Turner questioned a newspaper report that suggested Wolves had made a bid of £1.5m for Weimann.Whilst refusing to talk about a particular amount, Kevin said: “We are fairly comfortable with the buy-out option and that it would present good value for money if we decided to do it.”
Neil Dady said he bigger challenge for Wolves in the summer would be moving out players, adding: “We went down to League One with a 'bomb squad', a load of players who were isolated from the main group and training on their own.”
Kevin Thelwell again addressed this point: “Again it is about whether you feel they have got no value to anybody else. We loaned around 14 players, including development players, in the last window, with the majority going with a significant contribution to their wages, if not all of their wages, some even with loan fees. I'm not so sure they haven't got a value. Sometimes players may not have a value to us and people in this room but I think they've got a value to somebody else and actually the ones who have gone out have generally performed pretty well. There's a definite need to reduce the size of the squad, there's no doubt. Player trading out is a lot more difficult sometimes than player trading in. On that basis we are going to have to work hard to do that but we all recognise that that is the job in hand.”
Pete Bradburn asked if the players not required could be bought out of their contracts, but Kevin Thelwell replied: “Not really no, all the players have still got a value. In a worst case scenario, let's say player ‘X’ is wanted by a club in League One on loan and they will give full contribution to his wages, it's far better doing that than paying him up.”
Dave Benton admitted at this point that he had submitted the question about the lack of a striker being bought, adding that Wolves had: 'got out of jail'. Cavaleiro's return had coincided with the return to form after 'dreadful' performances against Rotherham and Burton.
Kevin Thelwell said: “You are sort of damned if you do, and damned if you don't. We take Cav out of the firing line because we realise he has got an issue with injury, understanding he will have a period out of the games but we know if we get his rehabilitation right he can come back in. So when he comes back in the feeling is we were lucky but actually if we had bought a striker and put him on the bench and not played him at all because Cav is back, then people would be asking why we bought him. It's a difficult balance. We have to make an informed decision about the financial situation and also about the players, about when we think they can come back. For the next game fingers-crossed Mason will be back, Jordan Graham and Zyro will both have played one game for the U23’s, and then maybe one of those will have had an impact on the end of the season. So do we have further expenditure in January knowing that we have players coming back into the group that are far better than anybody that we can identify and recruit? You continually evaluate and you have to weigh up when looking at who is available. Do they make us better are should we stay with the ones we have got? That we are confident are going to do it? Players that are in-built into our culture and are coming back into the team. Some might say that's a gamble but the other view is that it is sensible planning.”
A submitted question from Tom Byrne followed. ‘In the current structure where does the ultimate accountability sit, we've had two under whelming seasons in a row and it only seems to stop with the manager. Fans are concerned that there isn't accountability at a higher level and that things have become too comfortable for some at the club.
Kevin responded: “We are all ultimately accountable. I've been Head of Football, then Sporting Director for a number of years now and to say that the football staff 'are comfortable'? I don't think that anywhere near touches it. Everybody is under a huge amount of pressure, quite rightly so, because what we have achieved over the last two seasons hasn't been good enough. If you take a balanced view, putting it mildly, there have been some difficulties and some difficult circumstances but ultimately Steve Morgan and Jez Moxey would have made the decision about how individually accountable the football staff were, and I'm sure going forward Jeff Shi will make the decision about how accountable the football staff are. I have seen this talk about a ‘cosy club’ and I need to put it to bed. These guys have been here a long time and there's a reason why a lot of the football staff have been here for a long time: because they are very good at what they do. There are a lot of those staff that could have moved to different jobs where finances were more attractive and chose not to because of the emotional bond they have with the football club. They want to see the football club succeed just like you guys do. Those guys played a really important part in helping us get promoted to the Premier League, staying in the Premier League for three years and also, when we did go down to League One, getting us back at the first time of asking. That is something that is easily glossed over but is very difficult to do. Coventry City and Sheffield United fans would be clear about that. The other point to make is that we have had lots of managers or Head Coaches, who bring in one member of staff or maybe two. In my time they have then been given the opportunity to review and evaluate all of the staff and if, at any stage they got to a part of the season and said: 'this isn't working for me with guy ‘X’ then of course we'd have to do something about it. I can promise you, that's never happened. To my mind there's a reason why it hasn't happened: because ultimately these people are very good at what they do.”
Tom followed up by asking if Kevin was happy with where the club have been over the last two years?
Kevin said: “No... nobody is. But if we are talking about some of the individual staff then in my opinion and in the opinion of Steve Morgan, Jez Moxey, currently in the opinion of Jeff Shi, in the opinion of Stale Solbakken, Mick McCarthy, so on and so on, they feel that the quality of the staff has been very good. If we are looking for solid reasons why we have not been successful over the last couple of years, there's one clear elephant in the room and that is we had Bakary Sako, Benik Afobe and Nouha Dicko who ultimately scored 43 goals and we never replaced them. Those are really solid reasons.”
Tom Byrne felt that recruitment could have been better and stated that Anthony Knockaert had gone to Brighton for 'not a huge amount of money' and, as fans, there was the feeling that the club hasn't gone anywhere near where it should have done.
Kevin answered this point thus: ”Are we happy with the two years we have had? No we are not, are there clear reasons why that is the case? If we're talking about Benik, and we're talking about players, we bought Benik for a very small fee in terms of what he is worth and we sold him for a very big fee. We didn't spend all that money on a replacement. We sold a £10m-£12m striker and replaced him with somebody who was a lot less than that. We let Sako go for nothing who in the current market is surely worth something around the Benik figure. We didn't replace him with anywhere near that value. What was the reason for that?”
Tom Byrne named players who he believes have not worked out and said the club have signed 'bloated players who aren't necessarily good enough'. He asked 'who is accountable for that mess?'.
Kevin again did not shy away. He said: “I'm trying to be as honest as I possibly can here without beating anybody up, ultimately the accountability is driven by the owner. He has got to determine what the strategy is. If we make £10m-£12m on Benik Afobe what do I do with that money? Do I plough £10m-£12m back into the group? Or do I sign players who ultimately cost a lot less and were a lot less proven. It is difficult, but we are all working for the owner of the football club.’
'If the owners keep making mistakes,' countered Tom Byrne, 'shouldn't you be better at advising them?'
To which Kevin answered: “Without question Jeff will say: 'What do I do about this situation?' and I will give him my advice. Whether he chooses to take my advice, or doesn't, is down to him. I can't get him in a headlock and say: 'Jeff you are doing this' because I don't own the football club. In my time in the Championship I've been promoted with Derby County and also with Wolves and also played a part in the League One promotion. What the owners decide to do, they decide to do.”
Laurie came in at this point and said that the delay in Fosun acquiring the club so close to the start of the season, having had to undergo stringent Fit and Proper Person tests, did not help the summer transfer process. He spoke of the 'learning process' that the new owners have experienced and are still experiencing. “There are some areas where we would collectively say we didn't get it quite right but equally there have been some areas where we have got it right. If we were having this meeting in January or indeed two weeks ago, it would be a completely different meeting than we are having now, to a degree. That's not for one second to intimate that we as a collective management team are happy with where we are - far, far, far from it. We didn't expect to be in this part of the league but do I think the learnings from this season will be positively taken into the summer process, bearing in mind we have started our strategy for next season in January of this year? Will, the learnings of this season be taken forward positively? Yes, I think they will.”
Andy James questioned why Danny Batth was awarded a four-year contract to which Kevin replied: “Who knows what is going to happen in two years? But you had the club captain who was coming into the last 14/15 months of his contract. Is Danny Batth an asset to this football club? For example would there be a market for Batth? Are we protecting an asset? Potentially. He has already proved he is capable of playing at this level."
The subject changed to a submitted question from Tom Byrne. ‘Could supporters have more of an input on the kit, such as colours and the design/template, could options be polled online?
Laurie picked up this one. “Possibly, although I think this is more a question that is aimed around possible offence taken with regards to our current away kit.” Indeed, there was some frustration in the audience as to why Wolves wore their change kit at Fulham. Laurie explained that there were different reasons for wearing the away kit and it was partly down to the referee. For example, the referee in the recent victory at Brentford had forced Carl Ikeme in to a change kit that both we, and he, were “not too enamoured with.” Laurie had this to say: “But we have to bear in mind that we have to have an away shirt. If we didn’t have an away shirt, and we went to Hull away we would be snookered. If we drew Cambridge in the Cup we would be snookered. So we have to have this. We have thousands of these shirts to sell and thousands of supporters buy one. If we never wear it, it is going to be a bit of a problem for those who have bought one, and rightly so.
“We are well into the production phase for next year's kit. The other point I'd make is that last year's aqua blue outsold any away kit we have had in recent years and virtually, if not, matched the home kit. So it's not, in my personal opinion, an objection from moving away from what people perceive to be the historical white or black away kit. I just think there's a general view that more people than not don't appreciate the green one. I actually quite liked it when I saw it at the start of the season, following on from the aqua shirt, albeit, I wasn’t directly involved in the choosing of it. I firmly believe the kit that we will be launching for next year will be well received, I genuinely believe that. In fact, all the kits will be well received. In terms of moving forward this will be the final kit with Puma under this current contract, so we are currently going through the process of understanding how other kit manufacturers are prepared to work with us. So from the end of next season we may be in a Puma kit again, or we may not be. We are looking at all of the various ramifications of staying with Puma, or changing from them. Within those discussions there are a number of factors that determine how we take a partnership forward, and within those parameters we have varying degrees of how we can slightly tailor the kit that we have. Some manufacturers will come into the club and almost go: 'pick a shirt, we've got three or four to choose from'. Others will give you a roll of fabric and a piece of paper: 'You design what you want'. All of that has to be balanced against the commercials and ultimately what will the fans want. So it's a possibility that we can seek fans’ opinion. I hope people are getting to know me and realising that I will try to be as engaging and as flexible as I can be to give the fans and supporters as much influence as we can accommodate.”
A submitted question from Jack Finch read as follows. ‘Who made the decision for the players to arrive to home games by coach. For some supporters, the chance to get autographs and pictures as the players arrived at the top of Whitmore Hill was a real highlight of the match experience.’
Kevin Thelwell explained the Head Coach and the players believed that an overnight stay aided preparation when Wolves played Chelsea, and this has continued with recent home League games. “They felt that being together the evening before the game was important. They recognised the seriousness of the situation after the Reading game and felt this was part of doing something about it. Dave Edwards in particular went to Paul and said he thought it worked really well and the club supported it.” Kevin admitted a downside was the ease with which autograph-hunters could approach players but also highlighted that Paul Lambert had re-introduced open training sessions at Compton Park, including during school holidays, as he felt that interaction between players and supporters remains vitally important.
Dave Benton had submitted another question on the style of football being witnessed.
What has happened to the style of football Paul Lambert promised, too many games have just seen us hoof the ball aimlessly. When Lambert addressed the Fans Parliament, he said that our style of play would be high tempo, high pressing, and fast-play with passing the ball on the ground. Instead, we have often just been hoofing it from the back and with only playing one up front - this is pointless. When have been passing it, we reach the halfway line and then have no idea how to progress, with little creativity and imagination, especially in the middle. Why do we set up so negatively? Rotherham at home, in particular was dreadful, no recognised full backs and no recognised striker, we seemed to be set up to try not to lose. Also the formation was baffling, with Saiss playing behind the back four for some, not all the time and the back four unable to keep a disciplined line.
Kevin admitted it was a question really for Paul Lambert but said he could offer his opinion. “My view on the Rotherham game was it was a completely freak game. Rotherham had nothing to lose. It was a bit like when we were in League One where people, even if they went 1-0 down they wouldn't change their strategy because they'd be happy to carry on sitting back and try and get a goal and a draw at Molineux against 'mighty Wolves'. I think in the second part of the game the players got really nervous, probably because they understood the importance of getting the result. They struggled with the pressure. I didn't enjoy the game and I thought we were terrible but, driving to the stadium, would I have taken a 1-0 win and a poor performance? Yes, all day.
“We then went to Ipswich and played fairly well at what is a difficult place to play then we've had two outstanding performances at Brentford and Fulham. As part of the recruitment team I bet I watch upwards of 400 games a year, the majority in the Championship. And I promise you I see some rubbish games. Some of them are horrendous. Those clubs will either say to me: 'We were terrible but we won', or 'we were brilliant but we got beat'. The league, as it is organised, 20 teams all think they can be promoted and all have very different styles. You'll always get some good and some bad games over the season. My general view is that under Paul we have had some poor games and he'll be the first to admit it, but I also think there's been some pretty good games as well with elements of high-tempo, high pressing, ball on the ground. The recent games have been good examples of that. I think there is enough there for us to see that we can create something based on some of the recent performances.”
Peter Abbott felt that the starting eleven changed too frequently from week to week. Kevin Thelwell answered this one: “All coaches want to do it differently. Some stick rigidly to 14 players and every week you can pick the same starting eleven. Then others do it differently, they analyse and evaluate the teams that we play and pick the best eleven for that circumstance. Sometimes they get it wrong, but sometimes they get it right. George Saville and Lee Evans haven't played a lot recently and there was a lot of twitter talk about the Brentford selection, but ultimately it was proved to be right. Liverpool the same, where those two amongst many played very well. I don't think anyone had it in their minds that Cavaleiro would play off the front on Saturday but Paul got that right as well. Having watched training and spoken to him I think he is very intuitive. Are we going to agree on team selection all the time? That's the beauty of football.”
There was a question submitted about Matt Doherty, as to whether he could be utilised better as a defensive midfielder than a full back. Kevin Thelwell backed Doherty's defensive skills: “As a full-back last season he was double player of the year. And he has done well this season and also popped up with five goals. Like all players, he has got some strengths and he has got some weaknesses. On many of the stat-based websites, up until recently, he was right up there for the season as the number one left back in the division.
“How is Jordan Graham progressing?” was a question submitted by Chris Pardo.
“Touch wood,” Kevin Thelwell answered, “He is doing really well, the rehabilitation for both him and Michal Zyro has gone really well. They're both back in full training and there's a possibility of a game next week if we can organise one, or maybe the week after. There's some possibility that they can play a part before the end of the season but we will have to see how it goes. It has been a long time for both of them. It is going to be great to see them both back on the pitch.”
A question came from the floor asking whether Prince Oniangue, who had been doing well on loan at Bastia, and scoring goals, still had a future at Wolves? “That's a question for Paul,” said Kevin. “We are watching all of his games, as we do with all the loan players. All the reports come in on a Monday morning. Prince has done o-k. I have been out to see him live and I will go out to see him live again before the end of the season. Then we will obviously take a view on it and figure out what is the best course of action.”
To a follow-up about Paul Gladon, Thelwell replied: “Paul hasn't featured hugely, either under Walter or Paul. It very much depends on what we decide to do in the summer. It is difficult to say this, and please don't beat me up about it, but because of our position in the league it is difficult to say that 'we are not that far away' but another seven or eight goals and we'd out-score everybody in the play-offs. Fine margins are so tight. There's a lick of paint between the teams and I just think if we can get player trading right in the summer, it could look very different, very quickly.”
Peter Abbott made the point that opposition managers always seem to commend Wolves on their style of play. Brentford officials had told Thelwell that if it was a performance league Wolves would be in the top six. Laurie Dalrymple stepped in at this point: “It is the old adage, the only statistic that counts is the scoreline and we can't duck behind the reality of that. It's fine margins, there have been some games - Wigan, Burton - where we weren't very good and there have been some games where we've deserved what we've got. But in truth, there have been other games where we haven't deserved what we've got. I imagine the opposition managers you are referring to would be Reading, QPR, Ipswich and perhaps Birmingham, were we didn’t get what we deserved from the game, in my opinion.
Michael Clarke asked the panel's viewpoint on the home form. Kevin replied: “There's no doubt there's a nervousness at home. There's a high level of expectation and in my opinion, so there should be. Because this is a club that has the ability to achieve things and should achieve things. We have got to find a way of creating something for the fans. It is not the fans responsibility to shout and dance and sing if we are not performing particularly well. We've got to find a strategy that gets people on their feet. Paul Lambert was clear about that when he first walked in the door. We've got to give the fans something to shout about, and, without question, going forwards one of the discussions that we have had in our department is that we have six out of the nine games left at home. They can't become a disadvantage for us. They've got to be an advantage. Everyone has a part to play to build Molineux into a bit of a fortress. It can be done. In the first few games we had with Paul - Fulham and Bristol City in particular - the place was absolutely rocking, in part down to the way we played. We've got to try to get to that level, that standard again. The onus is very much on us as a team to make that happen.”
Laurie Dalrymple then revealed the club are working on a variety of initiatives to improve the matchday experience for supporters within the stadium. “We are definitely working on investments that we will be making in the off-season. When you come back next season I would foresee that there will be an entirely different match experience from what you have had in recent seasons. I want to get the noisiest, most atmospheric match experience that you can possibly have here, and whilst I totally appreciate the main foundation of that has to start from what we achieve and deliver on the pitch, we're doing quite a bit of work around how we can support that off the pitch. We’ve introduced a number of initiatives around physical attendances to get the maximum amount of people in that we can. I've been to Anfield many times, and before the teams walked out in January I was thinking: 'How can we replicate this? Just a bit of this would be unbelieveable.' If it's flags? If it's noise? If it's drums? If it's music?”
Laurie put it to the floor to sound out from them what suggestions they felt supporters would like to see. The Liquidator, was quickly mentioned. Peter Bradburn brought up the idea of “catchy songs”: Northern Soul or Motown where the entire stadium could join in.
Michael Clarke said there were no homemade flags at Molineux, unlike at Old Trafford. “There was a massive Steve Bull flag when they cordoned off a section of the Billy Wright Stand. It said: 'Let there be goals, and then there was Bull' and it was lovely. But we haven't got anything like that.”
Laurie replied: “So if I paid for them, they are your flags, you fly them, you have them in the stands and wave them and give them back to us and we will look after them and we will create that atmosphere. Would that be received well?”
The room joined together in unison at this suggestion, although Laurie suggested that previously he had received 'mixed feedback' elsewhere, with some people not completely sold by the idea of flags. Laurie concluded “I saw the atmosphere at Anfield and I wanted that atmosphere at Molineux. I am more than happy to make the investment.”
Richard Green made the point that he wanted any such flags to pay homage to the club's proud history: “It would be interesting if the flags built up year-on-year and we looked at some of the history, and brought some of that history out onto the stands of the great players.”
Kieran Newey had visited Celtic Park where homemade flags were handed out to Celtic fans.
Chairman Paul Richards asked why so many fans remained outside the stadium at 2.55pm. “Because the beer is shocking,” said Kieran. “I can't remember the last time I saw a kick-off because I stay drinking in town until 2.50pm. The North Bank has beer on draft and it is better.”
Jeff Bagnall brought up the idea of a Fan Zone having visited the one at Anfield which he called “fabulous”. Manchester City's was also applauded.
Laurie Dalrymple took on the possibility of a Fan Zone at Molineux. “We are working on how we can get people in here earlier, and I think there will be some really well received information coming out very soon.”
The public address system received criticism, before Jonathan Taylor brought up the success of the famous Toaster Wolves banner: 'This is Our Love And It Knows No Division'. “It could be intimidating for visiting teams to look around and see the flags of Billy Wright and how many times we have won the FA Cup, like Arsenal do.” Jonathan also backed a Fans Zone on the back of the success of the one at West Bromwich Albion.
Laurie was asked if he had spoken to Huddersfield Town who have a dedicated flag waving area in their stadium. “We speak to a lot of clubs”, he said. “I thought Fulham got it spot on last weekend. It was lively, their systems were good. It helps that they are one point below the play-offs, there's clearly an atmosphere, it was noisy and vibrant. Similarly Sheffield Wednesday have the England brass band. If I'm being honest I don't think we have got it right so far and it is one of the key areas I want to focus on. We are overdue a refresh as to what we do on a matchday. We are definitely due a change.”
Kevin Thelwell suggested the Huddersfield experience may be influenced by their German coach David Wagner. He said the German matchday model was: 'right up there'. “They have a section for people with flags, identify what they feel about the football club, the history and tradition. And I think we are different to many football clubs because our history is outstanding. People should know about it.”
Official Club business matters included whether Laurie Dalrymple believed the Official Away Travel represented good value for money. “In my opinion, yes I do. We have worked with Leon's for a considerable amount of time, they are trusted, we know them and the product they deliver is value for money. You can park your car, safely, at Molineux, get straight on a luxury coach, and be delivered from door to door. If you think there is potentially a cheaper option elsewhere, there may be, but I would start to question the actual items within the product. It is not something we mark up and make a margin on, far from it”. Laurie confirmed that in addition to the free coach travel to support the U23’s in the EFL Trophy, free travel would have been provided for any FA Cup replay at Chelsea, should the team have secured a draw.
Print at home problems were discussed for the Chelsea FA Cup game. Laurie said this must have been by and large an 'individual glitch' as over 8,500 home tickets were printed and used successfully. He also said that tickets were not automatically uploaded onto Smart Cards for the cup tie as not every Season Ticket holder purchased their own seat and it was felt sensible to use a paper stock of tickets.
Laurie was then asked if there was a plan in place should the current form drop off and the club fall into League One. He said: “Firstly, let’s be clear, we're focusing on getting to safety, and getting there as quickly as we possibly can but yes there is a plan. It is a discussion we are not sweeping under the carpet. We are taking it very seriously. If that happened, then we'd have to cut our cloth accordingly. The squad would be too big and too expensive, and our income would also change accordingly. But we are all focused on the team getting the points that are needed to stay in the Championship.”
There was then a question about TV coverage. Only two games in 2017 have been at the traditional 3pm Saturday kick-off, a point raised by Steve Galloway, who said he was questioning whether to renew his Season Ticket after 30 years.
Laurie said he understood the frustrations completely, but we are part of a wider league collective and that broadcasters bring in 'vital money' and there is of course an obligation to deliver as much exposure as possible to sponsors and advertisers. The broadcaster and EFL have improved their communication channels with clubs as to which games they want to show but he admitted traditionalists would be hard to appease. “We lobby as hard as we can re scheduling, and where feasible we resist,” he said, admitting the club had successfully negotiated to re-schedule fixtures to times that the club felt would be more appropriate for fans.
The Friday night game against Birmingham City was mentioned, which had included some instances of crowd disorder both inside and outside Molineux. “ As with all our games, regardless of what we may want, ultimately it is down to the police and on this occasion they were comfortable with it, and coupled with the schedule of games in the Midlands on the Saturday, they sanctioned it,” said Laurie.
Ian Smith asked why away fans were not locked in. Facilities and Stadium Manager Steve Sutton answered this by stating that keeping away fans inside the stadium would be a potential high-level safety risk and that it went against the police's wishes. Paul Richards backed this by saying the police do not favour holding fans back at all. “Holding 2,500 fans back would need something like 3,000 officers. Holding fans back builds frustration and it's like a bottle of pop. It is much better to filter them out and control it from there,” he said.
The issue of possible risk assessment centering around pedestrian safety and possible road closures around Waterloo Road was discussed, having been raised by Neil Dady. Steve Sutton said the club are not responsible for risk assessing the areas outside the remit of our safety certificate and the stadium boundary. A Safety Advisory Group meet regularly but risk assessment of the highway is down to the other bodies as the club do not have any authority in regards to traffic management on the public highway.
The subject returned to the club’s ownership with a submitted question from Clive Smith. ‘Did Fosun have a Fit and Proper Test with the FA?
Easy one. “Yes they did,” said Laurie and it’s a pretty rigorous test too. “It is an extensive search process and it doesn't just stop with the owner. It is completed for all relevant persons, directors within the club. So I have had to complete one for example. We have to submit the relevant forms on an annual basis, prior to the start of each season.”
In answer to a question from Neil Dady, Laurie made it clear that as regards the FA and the police's investigation into historical child abuse within the game, the club has not had any involvement in any enquiry and are not the subject of any enquiry. “Not to my knowledge whatsoever,” he said.
The issue of queues at North Stand kiosks arose, which surprised the Managing Director. “It is the first time I have heard of the issue,” Laurie said. “if there are issues, we need to look at everything and we have to make sure we have the right staffing levels to meet demands. As stated previously, we review everything on an annual basis. All of that said, our spends are up, our spend per head is up, which would indicate we are serving more people in a shorter space of time. And we've got ten per cent more people in the stadium on a matchday this season than last year. However, it’s definitely something we will need to look at”
Simon Wade wanted to know how season ticket sales were going ahead of Early Bird deadlines.
Laurie said sales had tipped 9,000: “That's very good and the aim is to get as much over 11,000 as we can by the early April deadline. Twenty two per cent of that is new applicants and 20 per cent are junior sales, which is an increase. The offer of a part refund if we reach 16,500 – including a certain proportion of adults - is open till the end of May but for people to get the best value, next week is the most important week for renewing. In terms of where we are at I am very encouraged and very thankful to the fans who’ve made the commitment thus far. We're in great shape and if we continue to get the daily sales we are at the moment then we will be in a reasonable place by the 3rd April, to then kick on during April and May.”
Simon Wade brought up what controls may be in place after banned supporters were spotted at Liverpool when only season-ticket holders should have been in evidence. A long conversation ensued, even involving the potential of mobile phone bar codes. Laurie Dalrymple tried to make the point that the club can only do so many checks. Tickets are non-transferable but Laurie added: “there is a further risk that people are then passing it on.”
The meeting finally came to a close after three hours of lively discussion.