Wolves Fans’ Parliament members were welcomed to the first meeting of the Fosun era last night and were introduced to a distinguished 'top table' featuring Jeff Shi, new managing director Laurie Dalrymple, who thanked Jeff for his attendance during the latter stages of his current stay in England, and sporting director Kevin Thelwell.
Clive Smith kicked off proceedings and asked what the drill had been when choosing a head coach in the summer and how Walter Zenga's name had come to the top of the short-list.
Jeff said: "As I think everyone now knows, we had spoken to Julen Lopetegui and but we never reached any agreement. He joined the Spanish national team, so I asked a lot of people in our contact network and after one week's hard work, we had two or three names on our list and finally I made a decision. I talked to Walter twice. He has been at a lot of clubs across the world, including some very big clubs. He also has a great and distinguished playing career. I talked with him and he's a very open and passionate guy. I found out that, in some cases, the owners of his previous clubs were not patient enough."
Jeff added that Walter has worked across the globe and dealt with players of different nationalities and cultures, which is what we now have at Wolves. Laurie was delighted that Walter and first-team general manager Andrea Butti had come straight from a highly successful signing session with fans in the Molineux Megastore to voluntarily and informally address Parliament members for 20 minutes or so in the International Lounge of the Billy Wright Stand before the meeting.
Jas Bahia enquired about what ambitions the Fosun Group had for Wolves and was told by Jeff: "It's long term. You need time. We may sell one day but not for at least ten years. We need some time to get out of this league and some time to have the players to stay in the Premier League. There is no magic. If you work hard and smartly, you will get what you want.”
Kevin Thelwell, the club’s Sporting Director, added: "At first (after the takeover), it was all about the first team but the wider culture – and Jeff is pushing on this – is developing a club. That is music to my ears because we have put a lot of time into developing our academy. Hearing that Fosun are going to be very supportive is wonderful and to have two features running parallel is as exciting as it comes from my point of view.”
Simon Wade was keen to know how the emphasis had changed from scouting players in the UK to the wider outlook now, especially with the Jorge Mendes connection. Kevin replied: "You are still accountable for the players you sign because everyone soon has an opinion on them – and rightly so. We still build that dossier to decrease the risk and increase the certainty with signings. That process hasn't changed. A lot of my work is about who we don’t sign through doing the diligence on targets. It's more important now because we have the opportunity to reach players we haven't had the opportunity to sign before."
Michelle Turner turned the focus to off-field matters by asking whether there were any plans under the new ownership to rebuild more of the stands. Laurie responded: "The priority is to get out of the Championship. The intention is that we will be playing our football in the Premier League and for a sustained period of time. The draft proposals (from previously) are still very much in existence. But I repeat: The priority is to get the team performing at the level required to get promoted."
Steve Page described himself as feeling 'delirious' the day the takeover was completed and said the financial backing in the early weeks of the Fosun Group era had been fantastic. "I think of owners as being interested in a financial return," he said. "I really hope this is a long-term thing. What's the master plan?" Jeff replied: "In terms of investment, it's very easy. I don't see much difference between a club and other companies but one of the unique things is that other companies aren't so public. At football clubs, there is pressure from the fans.....everything is exposed to the public. I'm trying to learn about that. It's a new challenge for me. We will never change our plan....Fosun will keep investing. We need time to make our team strong enough. Every loss makes me more determined to make us stronger."
Parliament chairman Matt Grayson said there was, as ever, a balancing act between a longer-term vision and the need to get results in the Championship, which everyone knows is a really difficult league.
Patricia Stokes said she presumed the group had looked at other clubs as well and asked what had attracted them to Wolves. "From a business view, most of the Premier League clubs were too expensive," Jeff said. "They may be very good clubs but they are not good investment targets. So another idea was to invest in a second-tier club with the ambition and space to grow. Some associates of mine recommended me the club, so I went to the home of Steve Morgan and the deal was very smooth. I started to learn a lot more about the club when I went to the stadium, the academy and the museum."
Tony Grocott said that some press reports suggested that all the new arrivals were coming through one agent and enquired as to who else had an input into signings. Kevin insisted: "That is fundamentally not the case. We signed 12 or 13 players in the transfer window and they were from several different agents. There was no side story to the main task of identifying players who could make us better. The scouting team covers all the main divisions across Europe and if a player is from a leading league and 26 or under, we will have some fairly solid reports on him." Laurie asked whether supporters viewed it as a negative that the club would do considerable business with Jorge Mendes, given his reach and contacts. The MD pointed to Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Jon Dadi Bodvarsson as examples of Wolves’ long-term scouting but also the wider relationship had now seen players such as Helder Costa sign and play well. The group collectively agreed that the current approach and contacts by association was appreciated and seen as a positive.
Steve Galloway said there was a mistrust surrounding agents, adding: "When you see a 'superagent', it's the press attention that comes from that. There can be a stigma attached to it." Clive Smith added: "The agent has a different agenda......he is working to place his players. One agent feeding us might not be in our best interest." Jeff Shi responded: "We can't rely on just one agent but I am very good friends with Jorge. We have a very close relationship and he's trying to help us."
Kevin explained that Wolves had reports on Helder Costa and Ivan Cavaleiro in the past but wouldn't have been able to target them. "It helps us reach further and make the team better and I can only see that being a real benefit," he added. He also knew of a Premier League club who had been interested in Ivan but had been unable to tempt him.
Mark Griffiths secured what the top table described as a 'scoop' by pointing out that Wolves had often toured Ireland and asking whether Shanghai might ever appear on the club's list of destinations. He also wondered whether there was any plan to open a Wolves shop and have TV rights in the Far East? Jeff said: "We are in the process of negotiating to purchase some broadcasting rights in China. That will be on ‘live’ there. We are planning to introduce some of our merchandise to China and have ambitions to design a summer tournament in China, maybe even inviting teams from Portugal and France.”
As the meeting started to digest the revelation that Wolves might also be involved in a Far East tournament at some point, Laurie added: "The journey is going to be brick by brick but I'm not aware of any other Championship clubs negotiating broadcasting rights in China. There's a genuine desire and appetite to increase our profile over there....that accelerates enormously when we are promoted but we want to start it now. Matches broadcast live through one of the biggest broadcast channels in China is another game-changer for us."
Jeff Bagnall asked whether the club expected to be as busy in the January window as they were in August and was told by Kevin: "I don't think so. The team needs some opportunity to evolve and if you lump on another load of new players, it becomes a bit mixed. Some players have to get used to the tempo, a new language, different weather, the Saturday-Tuesday routine. There will be some opportunity to sign but not to the level of August."
Jeff added: "Individually, they are very good players but we have to make them like a team. I don't think we are (any) worse than Newcastle. We needed some time but when we gel the team, we should be one of the best in the League. We just need more time."
Roger Phillips spoke about being anxious to preserve Wolves' unique traditions, saying: "The Cardiff owner changed the colours, the Hull owner wanted to change their name......." Jeff said: "The colour of the shirt is very beautiful and I don't want to change that."
Laurie said: "The history, heritage, crest, colours and stadium are some of the things that appealed to Fosun. We have to run the club sustainably as much as we can but we want to keep those things fully intact, absolutely. Jeff told us he thought they were amazing colours.....you can put together all the detailed documents but we have these iconic colours and name, which are extraordinary."
Steve Galloway raised the Richard Stearman question and reflected that, in this same room 12 months ago, Kenny Jackett had justified why the defender was deemed surplus to requirements. "What went on?" he asked. Kevin answered: "You have to make the right decisions at the time and we're at a different place to 12 months ago. We have brought in a lot of players from Europe but here was a player who was desperate to come back, still speaks to staff and players here and still lives in the area. We were at the end of the window, Ethan Ebanks Landell had an issue with his foot and Walter is still deciding whether Dominic Iorfa is a right-back or central defender. At the time, it was the right decision in my opinion. Richard has been ultra-supportive, whether he is in the team or not."
Still on defenders, Mark Griffiths asked Kevin whether he could quash the rumour that Mike Williamson would never play again. "I'm not surprised at the rumour because he's slightly older," he was told. "He came with an injury and hasn't recovered. He's extremely experienced and valued and a great pro who works very hard. I don't think you go away from that too soon. He will get fit and should be evaluated like everyone else." Mark followed up by enquiring whether it was the same injury – a question to which Kevin replied: "We probably underestimated that people are different.....he had an injury and we thought he was protecting himself at Newcastle and thought he would be able to kick forwards. Unfortunately, you can't get all these decisions right."
Richard Perkins was keen to know how far Nouha Dicko was away from the first team. "When Jon Dadi isn't playing, we look a bit lightweight up front and Dicko could be key," he said. Kevin commented: "Nouha is very close. He is working hard and hopefully isn’t far away.”
Michelle Turner said she knew of ten fans who think Jon Dadi is 'God' - a point Matt Grayson underlined by saying: "It's great to see others generating the excitement because for young kids a year or two ago, it was Sako, Dicko and Afobe."
Jas Bahia said there had previously been talk about a Parliament member sitting on the board and wondered whether this matter had gone any further. Matt reminded the meeting that Jez Moxey had said this wouldn't happen and Laurie Dalrymple followed up: "I can't see anything changing for a couple of reasons. This is a really strong forum for fans' views and there is a mandate now that clubs have to engage fans. The requirement is twice a year....I think we do four. Secondly, we already have representatives of the fanbase within the board in long serving directors John Gough and John Bowater. Some of Jeff's answers tonight have been fantastically transparent and you might, for example, get Walter at a future meeting. If there's a strong desire to do anything a bit different with the Parliament, we will look at it."
Clive Smith said he considered it a high-risk strategy with having so many players who didn't know the Championship but Kevin said the question of signing all domestic players was becoming much more difficult, especially at the top of this division. "The marketplace is crazy," he added. "You can spend a lot of money and not get much better. So you take advantage of the opportunities – and they don't always come in the UK."
Jeff Shi said: "Every new signing is for a long-term career here, in the Premier League as well as the Championship. It's not a good logic just to sign players who can get us out of the League if we then come down again." Laurie said the club had (existing) players whose form had been lifted by the new players coming in. "There are also younger players here we believe are earmarked for great success," the MD added. "It's not entirely based on an influx of overseas players."
Clive Smith said he felt the side were completely bullied against Ipswich and also referred to the last 20 minutes versus Barnsley, using the phrase 'Physically, we were stuffed.' Kevin responded: "We are aspiring to a different style....to build out of the Championship and into the Premier League. We still have a lot of strong players. I think we have a fairly appropriate blend to get out of the League but it's Walter's job to decide whether we need to alter the style on occasions."
Richard Perkins commented on the high number of loan signings and asked: "Do they all eventually go back and we start again?" Jeff remarked: "We have buy-out options on some of our loan agreements. I'm confident we can have them for the next one or two seasons."
Dave Quarrell raised the subject of trying to fill the ground and thought attendances had been very disappointing. "You can't underestimate how much last season killed off so many people.....it was so boring," he said. "The last thing Jez seemed to do was put the prices up and there are some things we could do. We need more aggressive pricing......lower on the wings, lower prices at the start of a selling period and going up the closer it is to a game. We don't use the quadrant....why not have prices that get people back in it? Also, if I buy six tickets, I have to pay six booking fees. Address little things like that and you get the fan base on your side."
Laurie answered: "We are always reviewing what we do. I'm not 100 per cent convinced that reducing prices is immediately going to drive people back through the door. We have done research that shows a reduced ticket price would not necessarily increase crowds. It's a journey, a slow process. When we start winning consistently, I firmly believe the fans will start coming back and we do have initiatives in place. I think this season will be much better than last. Our season ticket base is still strong compared to other clubs. We have to show as strong a financial model as we can. The key is getting the team playing more consistently."
Matt Grayson pointed to the wide range of initiatives the club are engaged in with a view to attracting more fans, such as four designated Family Four games, two designated adult-member games, the Under-12 Season Ticket which amounts to 23 games for £23 and inter-action with schools and various commercial partners."
Simon Wade felt the club needed (fringe) fans to fall back in love with going to games and reflected on the successful experiment of the home game against Derby two seasons ago when 28,000 turned up for a televised Friday night fixture. He continued: "I was really surprised with Saturday's attendance....where was everyone? Why aren't they buying in?"
Laurie said the club regularly looked at different offers and considered doing one for the Norwich game this weekend. "You have to be strategic and take the whole of the season’s fixtures into consideration," he said. "We also anticipated Norwich bringing a strong contingent."
Anne Bott introduced herself as representing Yorkshire Wolves and said many schemes were Wolverhampton-centric. "Are things in place for people who come from further afield?" she asked. Matt Grayson felt the club were very sophisticated in data capture and tailoring different needs, including the awareness that some fans just came to night games, maybe because they worked in the area and didn't have to cut into their weekends.
Dave Quarrell asked what crowds had been budgeted before the takeover and said there was a perception it might have been 16,000 or 17,000. He added: "When was the £2 increase implemented?" Laurie said the price rise dated back to before the takeover and commented that the home games against Reading and Brentford, for example, had provided very good value for money. "You go to other grounds and it doesn’t reflect the same value," he said. Matt pointed out that Wolves were very much mid-table in average prices, based on figures submitted by all clubs to the Football League for this season. Jeff Bagnall reflected back to 40 years ago when he would play on a Saturday morning and then he and many team-mates would go to Molineux in the afternoon."
Keith Bickley told the meeting that he had been in the four-strong group, including supporter liaison officer Paul Richards, who went to Celtic recently to observe their safe-standing arrangements. Matt promised much further debate on this subject, including a report back at the next meeting, but said the plan was not permitted (yet) in this country. He also said: "The gradients in the South Bank, for example, wouldn't allow us to rip seats out and put terracing in. You could do it places but then there are gangways and egress issues. You'd basically have to do a rebuild."
Dave Quarrell asked whether anything was going to be done with the video-walls as they were an eyesore. Laurie was keen to know what value fans saw in them and said in response to Michelle Turner's suggestion about replays that no contentious incidents could be shown due to league rules: "It would be mainly commercial," Laurie said. "It would get into an advert when there is anything remotely controversial. The two screens would cost in the region of £750,000. Do you want a new loan signing or two of those video screens? Similarly, we are investing significantly in other areas within the club, that we feel would drive value and benefit to the fans, the details of which, we will be able to share in due course. We couldn't use these two anyway because the technology has moved on so much. Maybe at some point this sort of facility could be integrated into further stadium redevelopment." As an aside, Matt Grayson made the group aware of the existence of the Safety Advisory Group, and that any safety concerns raised by Parliament members would be considered by the Safety Advisory Group.
Dennis Green proposed that screens to protect fans from foul weather would be more useful than the walls. Greg Asbury said he had campaigned hard (and successfully) for a digital clock in the ground and now hoped a second one would be installed so he could see it from his seat at the back of the Steve Bull Stand!
Keith Bickley said there had been a long debate at the spring meeting about The Money Shop and Jeff Shi said: "This happened before my coming. The contract is signed and the first thing to do is back it. Now is definitely not the time to say 'no' to the sponsor." Laurie said: "If you go to the club shop now and try to buy certain sizes of home shirts, you can't. More are coming in next month. We are pleased with shirt sales. The deal was done in January and is a three-year deal with the ink dry. We have worked with The Money Shop for eight years and they are investing significantly more now than they were previously. Laurie stressed the point that the club was sold in a nine or ten month period, and part of the reason for that was the commercial viability, of which the backing provided by the club’s main sponsor is an integral part. It's the biggest sum we have attracted for a shirt deal in the Championship and they are keen to continue the partnership on promotion to the Premier League. Fosun saw a club in a really strong commercial position when they were looking at us. Judge The Money Shop in May next year and the May after that because we are developing ideas with them. I know we are not going to convince everyone but for us, this is a really strong relationship."
With the meeting drawing towards a close, Laurie asked how excited fans were feeling generally and everyone in the room said they were enjoying the early part of the Fosun era, on and off the pitch. Dennis said the consistency of the victory at Newcastle performance was the target to aim for. Jeff thanked the fans for their support and said: "There will be some disappointment but I think we are working hard in the right direction.....please trust us. If you stay patient, it will be very good in the end. By Christmas, I think we can be more stabilised and we can get close to the play-offs. Gett