A large array of senior figures from different club departments were present as the Fans’ Parliament met for the second time this season in Molineux’s International Lounge.
Wolves’ recently-installed head of media Max Fitzgerald (from West Ham) and new head of marketing Russell Jones (from Aston Villa) were introduced from the top table, which also included chairman Jeff Shi, managing director Laurie Dalrymple, sporting director Kevin Thelwell, head of operations Steve Sutton, head of community Will Clowes and head of ticketing James Davies.
Parliament chairman Paul Richards kicked off the debate by requesting an update on Financial Fair Play from Laurie, who said: “We are very comfortable with where we are. We have always maintained that we were going to have to make strong investment in the squad to improve it and add more depth.
“We have managed to do that through a clear plan and have invested to put the club in the best place to succeed and get to where we want it to be. Have we put ourselves in danger? No. We are comfortable that we are going to comply with the rules that are in place and achieve that goal, whilst remaining cautious and humble enough to know we have nine key games left in which we have to perform.”
Much of the meeting was devoted to questions submitted in advance by members and, in front of an audience of around 45 of them, Paul next asked about booking fees and whether there were likely to be any changes in the near future. Laurie answered by saying that some of the associated costs with purchasing tickets at the club were ‘a bit of a legacy’, adding: “I’m aware that it’s a bone of contention with fans. There are costs to us as a club with regards to the fulfilment of supplying tickets so we have to make sure they are covered. Additionally, there were some legislation changes that came into effect in January as well and we have complied with those. We will continue to review this matter along with the early bird prices. The subject of booking fees and our ticket price strategy is amalgamated into one subject and it should be fair and appropriate across all areas - not only the season ticket prices but all the associated costs.”
The sale of away tickets was discussed after comment from supporters about how seats for last Saturday’s game at Villa were made available from 9am on the Saturday of the trip to Preston last month. James Davies said Saturday mornings were a convenient time to launch a sale because that is when his department have the most staff on duty, but he said he would be mindful if it were the day of a long trip to somewhere like Sunderland and Ipswich and many fans were going to have problems. Laurie added that the club had no intention to provide obstacles in the way of making ticket purchases but pointed out this was the first time such a problem had been reported and the process would be evaluated on a game-by-game basis. Dave Benton said the degree of difficulty to supporters depended on where they lived and he had a substantial drive from South Warwickshire just to get to Molineux. James said online sales were much quicker than those by phone or in person, with the club able to process 2,500 on the internet in an hour. James answered a question from the room relating to the current quantity of away season ticket holders by confirming there were now 1,100 in total.
Tony Grocott and Dennis Green mentioned loyalty points, partly with a view to disabled fans, and Dennis said they might be calculated separately for wheelchair supporters, a lot of whom travelled to many away games. James said the club would look at the possibility. Peter Abbott was told that even the recent Villa game saw only an 85 to 90 per cent take-up among away season ticket holders and he said he hoped season ticket holders would purchase early in future, so more time was potentially left for unsold ones to be redirected to other groups.
Laurie said there was currently a relatively modest fee for becoming an away season ticket holder and referred to the volume of conversion as being high in terms of those who have one and then regularly attend away matches. “These are genuine fans who want to go to away games,” he said. He put forward the idea of possibly inflating the cost of an away season ticket but then reimbursing via the price of match tickets. Dennis Green remembered this principle being used in the past and said he thought that model was better. Neil Dady believed some fans wouldn’t necessarily go to every away game in the Premier League because of the greater variation in kick-off times but Laurie said he believed demand would still be extremely high, if we were to reach the Premier League. “We are sensitive to pricing and giving fans the chance to get behind the team and support them away.” Jon Babb agreed with a point made from the floor that the club could lose traceability on tickets if they were bought by supporters who then resold them if they couldn’t go.
To members wondering when the early bird prices would be announced, Laurie asked for patience. “Please put your faith in the club,” he added. “It is obviously dependent on a variety of things; where we are, who we are playing, who we are investing in and what we are doing with the infrastructure of the club as well, but we have done our homework and have analysed a number of factors that will be relevant with regards to pricing, whilst at the same time protecting the principles we laid out last year to have a fair and appropriate pricing strategy for all. The announcement will be coming soon. What I will say is, that when evaluating what is an appropriate price, it’s important to look at a number of factors, the ability of our playing staff, management and coaching staff, we are in a good place - but we are still going to see all forms of income to the club as critical even if we are promoted.”
Simon Wade asked what potential there was for the current season ticket holders total of 21,500 to be increased in the event of promotion being won and was told there was little scope for any significant uplift on that figure due to us having to comply with the regulations with regards to ticketing allocations. Laurie said that within our current capacity, there were also about 1,500 corporate customers factored in.
Laurie kicked off the discussion on stadium redevelopment plans by saying he didn’t know where some of the recent rumours came from with regards to relocating to an alternative site and stressed: “This has been our home for well over 100 years and part of the tapestry of the club, so I can’t see that changing at all. We see ourselves as firmly staying put. But, it should be noted the ground we are on is a bit restricted and, unlike at Anfield, we can’t simply acquire all of the surrounding areas to develop for example. There are main arterial routes here, a superstore and a university which means vast expansion is restrictive.
“We have to meet our short-term goals and the first and main one is to be promoted and playing consistently in the Premier League. The team has to come first and does come first, but as previously stated, we are having discussions with architects and planners and those discussions would obviously begin to accelerate if we go up. There’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes.” The MD stressed that the order of any stand demolition and rebuilding would be influenced by the need to minimise the time spent with a reduced capacity and, as a result, said the Sir Jack Hayward Stand could be the first to be redeveloped.
Greg Asbury enquired whether toilets and kiosks in the older three stands could be improved in the meantime and was told by Laurie that that was possible but it had to be balanced against the knowledge that it would be expenditure on a stand that might be redeveloped further down the line. “There are things we can do around kiosks, though,” he added, “like having some specifically for beer sales or just for food – moves that would increase speed of service. Also, as stated before we are looking at how fans are able to transact inside the ground and specifically giving them the chance to pay via a mobile or a credit card. We are now in the process of completing a tender process on this project, however it is a significant piece of work and it will take time as well as a lot of infrastructure development. It’s also very costly, but something we are trying to get complete as quickly as we can for the start of next season or just after.”
Neil Dady said there was still serious congestion in the toilets in the Billy Wright Stand and head of operations Steve Sutton said the cost question would again be a factor when deciding whether and how to make some doors entrance-only or exit-only. Steve added that the Billy Wright upper toilet development was previously done as a result of being reactive to previous complaints and suggestions and that it was nowhere near as congested as the Steve Bull or Sir Jack Hayward Stands. He also said there was not a concern on a safety level with the level of congestion. Keith Bickley said it was too congested to get from the stand on to the concourse at the South Bank end if fans didn’t do so within five minutes of the half-time whistle going.
Paul Richards asked if there was any update on safe standing. Laurie replied: “Our stance hasn’t changed. We are more than happy to explore it. I think it’s something fans would be happy to explore, especially those in the South Bank”. Thomas Byrne asked if the club could take the lead and lobby the Government on this matter, but Laurie described the situation as ‘chicken and egg’. “If we were to redevelop in the next six months, we would be more proactive and say we would be happy to exploring the options to pilot a safe standing solution, however when development is still some time away (12-18 months potentially) we are happy with our current position”. Rounding off on redevelopment matters, the MD said the reopening of the Graham Hughes Stand – not currently fit for purpose because ‘fairly minor’ work needs to be done – would definitely be done if Wolves reach the Premier League.
On the subject of road closures, Laurie reminded the parliament that these were a necessity to ensure the health and safety of high numbers of people in a concentrated area. “There were a couple of relatively minor teething issues and some frustrations at the start with routines changed but the process happens now largely without any issue. I know leaving car parks involves more congestion but, again I would like to remind everyone that it wasn’t a single club decision, it was done in parallel with the safety advisory group on which the council and police have a significant voice, too.” Steve Galloway said he had heard of difficulties for some fans getting on buses and Steve Sutton said the club were in touch with transport companies to ensure they accessed the relevant roads as soon as they could.
Michael Clarke and Jon Babb raised the subject of motorists who were turning right into Waterloo Road from the top of Newhampton Road on match days, partly amid concerns that the positioning of the programme seller at the foot of Whitmore Hill was a possible safety issue. Steve Sutton said it was noticeable that the traffic and the car parks were much quieter on Tuesday night for the Reading game. In answer to a question from Dennis Green about whether the disabled fans’ car parking plans would be reviewed, Steve Sutton said he needed fans to tell him how the arrangements were working across the 65 disabled car spaces provided. Laurie confirmed again that the road closures were a permanent measure.
Paul Richards then responded to a question regarding the recent Barry Bennell case and the Offside Trust and said the club’s safeguarding policies were multi-dimensional. “We work with a lot of agencies,” he added, answering a question from Jack Finch by saying a review of the club’s safety measures in this regard was carried out twice a year. “They say whether they are good, bad or indifferent and tell us if we need to sharpen up. We are also reviewed by the police, so we are really comfortable with it. I am, and have been in the past extremely vocal in supporting the Offside Trust. They want us to be one of the clubs who support it and they were going to be here at the Reading game that was postponed. We are very engaged with actively supporting them even if we don’t shout about it. We also supply a lot of data to the Football League, so we are completely comfortable with our current process. That’s my job every day.” Paul encouraged any members who had any questions about the subject to ring or email him directly.
On the subject of WolvesTV, Laurie reinforced the point that Wolves, along with approximately 10 other clubs, had come out of a central agreement to develop their own more innovative website and admitted the TV part of it had not been without its teething issues because it was ‘extremely complex to supply and deliver live images to fans all over the world’. However, he added: “Wolves TV has developed over the season to become strong and our viewing figures vary from 900 to 1,600 per game, predominantly around Europe, Australia, America and Asia. It’s important to point out to everyone if we are promoted, we won’t be allowed to live-stream and that Wolves TV will be again reviewed and there will be more player and club content to engage all of our fans – both domestic and globally.” He said Wolves TV in year one was launched as more of a service provision than a revenue generator and pointed out that the live streaming of away games could vary depending on the age of grounds and the provision of service available to the visiting club. “It was for that reason that we invested in the EFL feed at away grounds as well as the three-camera offering we have a Molineux.
To a question from Paul Richards about what inroads the club continued to make in China, Laurie said: “The Football League isn’t a product with a huge reach there or in other parts of Asia. We are elevated because of our ownership and we know that would increase significantly with promotion. The team in Shanghai is already expanding so that we will be in the best position to leverage a stronger marketing and commercial reach. Additionally, we have been visited by Chinese Football Boy twice this season, and have live-streamed several under-9 matches against them to millions of people back in China, and we are making strong headway, but the big catalyst in growing our presence there is getting promoted.”
Sporting director Kevin Thelwell was asked about what deals might be under discussion for Willy Boly and Diogo Jota but replied: “We are not focusing on them with nine games left. We are focusing all our efforts on these matches, then we hope to be in a good position to decide who we want to go with us and who we don’t”. Clive Smith asked whether Wolves had exclusive rights to buy any borrowed players and was told: “Yes, with every single player we have on loan, we have the exclusive right to buy them this summer for a pre-agreed price – we cannot be gazumped.”
Paul Richards asked whether the reason for the relatively little action at Molineux during the January window had been a club choice or a problem with specific targets. Kevin explained that the club were happy they had at least two good players in every position ‘so we could sort out a problem straightaway’ but added: “In just one position, we needed a bit more strengthening, which is why we went for Rafa Mir and Benik Afobe. We did a lot of good business last summer and that’s why we needed to keep a tight unit.” Jon Babb expressed surprise at why there were three central defenders on the bench at Fulham and enquired: “Couldn’t we sign anyone permanently in January?” Kevin said: “We needed to sign someone to hit the ground running and who we felt could also go to the Premier League with us. Getting those ducks in a row is not easy and loaning means you have the advantage of trying before you buy. We had an opportunity to take Benik and that for us was better than spending about £15m on someone we didn’t believe was as good. Nuno was entirely happy with it.”
Jack Finch had observed Donovan Wilson’s regular presence on Port Vale’s bench since joining them on loan and Kevin said: “The loan system for young players drives me up the wall. We work hard to try to find the right club and try to make it successful but there are hundreds of cases of players whose first loan or even first two or three loans haven’t worked. There is a move towards us looking for a leaner, meaner under-23 group to create a strong level to work beneath the first team and have the need for fewer loan players.” Ben Smallman asked about the ratio of UK and foreign players – a point the sporting director answered by saying: “We have had the right blend of young and experienced players this season and also between UK and foreign. Eight of the 25 players in a Premier League squad have to be home-grown, so there would still be a strong British group if we go up. Jeff Shi said Wolves were under no pressure to help the international team and that Wolves has to come first. “The focus is to compete in the league and you have to look round the world,” he said. Kevin added: “We have to think about the price and the quality. It’s a big plus if a player is English but not a priority.”
Thomas Byrne said he wouldn’t swap Ruben Neves for a single midfielder in the England squad named by Gareth Southgate yesterday and asked whether Wolves would be able to attract the right players in the Premier League and whether the club were going to bring players through or buy them. “Fosun have the ambition to buy and recruit the best players,” Kevin continued. “We try to get the young players through our academy. Morgan Gibbs White, for example, is 17 and has huge potential”. Greg Asbury commented that Wolves had benefited through getting players signed early last summer and was told by Kevin: “We are in a really good position to identify the players we think are capable of going to the Premier League with us. The culture in the window is to wait until the last three days but I hope we could get deals done earlier. The target is to get as many of those involved in for the start of pre-season and all those who aren’t part of it out.” Jack Finch wondered whether international players signed following the World Cup might cost twice as much after the tournament if they impress in it. Kevin said: “Go strong and go early to make the group as cohesive as possible but that’s not to say we won’t take a player who has impressed in the World Cup.”
In response to a point from Simon Wade, Kevin said the different transfer windows across the world could create difficulty because of less organisation time but players generally wanted to come to the Premier League and the top Championship sides. There were also clubs overseas who needed to generate money through sales. “They see England as a good market,” he said.
Clive Smith asked for an update on Carl Ikeme and was told by Kevin: “He’s based in Manchester, close to the hospital, and is there Monday to Friday and home for weekends. He’s very up and down and there are days when he is very tired but the situation around him is very positive. He has to go through all the treatment and hopefully comes back to us fit and well and with a clean bill of health. We always let him know we are thinking about him here. A few of us have been up there and had a bite to eat or a coffee with him, and he appreciates everybody’s support and love.”
Clive also sought an update on the injury Diogo Jota suffered on Tuesday. Kevin responded: “It is not ligament damage but there is heavy bruising and some cuts. We are looking at four to six weeks but he’s young and the medical team here are as good as anything I’ve worked with, so let’s hope it’s a bit sooner than that.”
Back on to wider club matters, Laurie Dalrymple said plans were on-going for Wolves to implement contactless payment methods up to a modern standard without fans needing cash. “It could be by the start of next season, it could be later, but we are working on it,” he said. “Wifi will come in when there is stadium development because of the significant cost. We are doing our homework on it.” Paul Richards asked about the chances of the club’s telephone numbers going back to a more local rate and was told by Laurie: “I know it’s a bugbear and when we’ve evaluate the whole ticketing strategy, it will have been reviewed at that point. Stay with me on that one.”
To questions on next year’s kit and shirt sponsor, Laurie reminded the meeting that The Money Shop signed a three-year deal that was now nearing the end of the second year. “This is also the end of the fifth year with Puma and we have been conducting a review on that,” he said. “I can’t say what that review has yielded but this has been the fastest selling kit we have had in years and years, with 25,000 or 26,000 shirts bought overall. That tells you that the decision we took last year with the style of the kit was good.” Paul Richards, continuing to relay pre-set questions, asked: “Could any future launch be less corporate and more pitch-side?”. Laurie said that last season he had issued the challenge to his staff at Molineux to come up with an innovative launch and secure as much recognition and reach as possible, with the home launch eventually winning awards. “Whatever we do, we want it to make it as wide a reach as possible,” he said. After Thomas Byrne remarked that the launch was at ‘an expensive dinner where lots of fans don’t go’ (the end-of-season awards night), Laurie confirmed that the kit would not be launched at the dinner.
To a question from the floor as to whether some games could be treated as sacrosanct and therefore never be moved for television, Laurie said: “I think the situation has got a lot better. They (the TV companies) committed to an agreement that games being moved would have to be done in a certain time frame, otherwise there would be a penalty, so it’s in their interests to make early announcements. One of the side effects of doing well is that more and more games are picked for TV and that’s why we have offered more free coach travel than ever before and why we subsidised the Leeds match ticket recently for example. We are doing as much as we can to make life easier for fans.” Peter Abbott urged fellow fans not to commit to other arrangements until Sky had decided which matches to screen and move.
On the subject of the Fans’ Parliament itself, Laurie felt the club had an obligation to be accountable and transparent, adding: “This, as a forum, definitely has a place but maybe I would like to see some new faces and I would certainly be in agreement that we could have a review to the format.” Paul Richards said a new name might be an option and Tom Bate considered the word Parliament a bit misleading as it suggested a debate between two distinct sides. Dave Benton said it might be more helpful to form specific working parties from Parliament members to make the feedback more focused. “We are separate entities in here,” he said. Laurie agreed by saying: “These forums are quite generalist. I would be happy to explore it becoming more specific to help drive.” Dave added: “We need to raise the profile of this group, so supporters can feed into it” but Michelle Turner countered by saying she received emails from fellow supporters and had 22 questions on Twitter leading up to the meeting. Patricia Stokes said: “I applied for the Parliament because I didn’t think there were many female members but now I favour smaller target or action groups.” Jeff Shi said the meetings were useful as they gave the club chance to ask fans questions as well as the other way round. Peter Abbott said a lot of issues, like early bird, were being worked on and wondered whether members might have been involved in those discussions earlier. Neil Dady said it was up to members to relay to other fans over an early bird debate update, for example, and explain it had been discussed. But he added: “There should be some confidentiality. The club canvass fans but fans being actively involved in the decision making is wrong…I don’t think it would work.”
It was pointed out that the situation that has come with Leeds’ recent choice of a revision to their crest was an example of how a club should tap into public opinion as fans had a real emotional connection with a subject like that. Laurie recognised that a club had to make decisions but reiterated that the Parliament plays a significant role in helping informed decision making at the club. Thomas Byrne asked how representative the group was, pointing out that he represented (and defended) Molineux Mix and had noted there weren’t many young members. Paul Richards said the recruitment process was an open one and the club disappointingly didn’t have many 17 and 18-year-olds applying, nor enough women or fans from minority groups. “We will be looking again this summer for members,” he said before Laurie underlined that there was no discrimination surrounding which supporters could apply and we want to be as inclusive as possible. In summary, Steve Galloway said: “It’s what we make of it - I’ve had a blast. I’ve had opportunities in here that I would never have had just sat out there in my seat. Being a member has been one of the best experiences I have had supporting this club.”
Laurie Dalrymple closed the meeting after close to two and a half hours with a ‘huge thank-you’ to all fans for their outstanding support, but also by urging them also to keep the faith and to produce a massive effort in the coming weeks in backing the squad to help bring about the promotion dream.