Managing director Laurie Dalrymple welcomed members old and new to the first full Wolves Fans Parliament meeting of the season and spoke of the ‘positive place’ the club were in.
First of all, addressing the current format of the Fans Parliament, he stressed that the club were 100 per cent committed to the Parliament concept and intent on finding ways to get the best out of it. He also thanked outgoing members for their contribution over recent years, seven of them having accepted the invitation to return for a farewell after the group were slimmed down over the summer.
He repeated his desire to see smaller groups meeting independently to discuss subjects such as the match-day experience group, which had collaborated with the club successfully during the course of the latter stages of last season, and so far this season.
The top table contained a considerable number of Molineux or Compton Park department heads and Dave Wood was introduced to members as a ‘strong conduit between club and fans’ after his appointment as supporter liaison officer following nine years in the ticket office. Parliament chairman Paul Richards expressed the usual wish for any social media posts about the meeting to be delayed until after the written account of proceedings had been published.
Most of the first half of a two-hour meeting in the International Lounge was devoted to questions for sporting director Kevin Thelwell, some of them via Twitter. On the subject of loan players, Michelle Turner asked why little had been seen so far of Leander Dendoncker, considering he was ‘meant to be a star’. Kevin cleared up any possible confusion by saying he had been bought, not loaned, adding: “He is a Belgian international and a very good player.” Thelwell said that Dendoncker had been bought for the long term and whilst the starting XI had been playing consistently it was difficult for any newer player to break into the team - adding that it was ‘a nice problem to have’.
Kevin Eggington asked whether the club would set a limit for the future on the number of players they waved off on loan, as an awful lot seemed to have been sent out. Kevin Thelwell said the side’s very steep transition had resulted in a number of players being unable to play in the senior age-group teams, so match time elsewhere had been seen as a good option. “You will see a leaner model and fewer players out on loan in the future,” he added. To a question about Jonny Otto being signed permanently, Kevin praised his early form but said no decision would be made on his future until January at the earliest.
There was also an enquiry from in the room about the purchase and subsequent sale of Benik Afobe – a matter the sporting director put down to circumstances. “He did very well last season,” he said. “We made a decision in good faith to sign him but circumstances change very quickly and it was considered to be in the best interests of us all to do something different.” Jon Babb described Bright Enobakhare’s loan club (Kilmarnock) as remote and asked whether he and others so far from Molineux were monitored a long way from home. Kevin replied: “We have Seyi Olofinjana as loans pathway manager and talk on a daily basis. If they play well out on loan, they can bounce back to us, but we have found the loan system in England frustrating. Sending players out is a way to build their experience or build their value. The partnership with Jumilla is a good relationship. It’s something we will look at long term with them or elsewhere. Many other clubs do it.” Clive Smith asked what the standard was in the Spanish second division and was told it was between League One and Two but was competitive and very much senior football. Kevin explained that efforts to create some synergy between the technical staffs were being made to try to ensure Wolves benefit as much as possible. Jon Babb was told the Wolves players out there were being given good game time at a club who are around ninth in their table, a couple of places off the play-off positions.
Kevin Thelwell answered a query from Kevin Eggington by saying Wolves were developing lads as people as well as in the playing sense and agreed that those going abroad were having a good life experience, citing Ryan Leak as one who has embraced a different country and impressed enough to graduate to the Jumilla first team. “They are our assets, so let’s care for them,” he added. Clive Smith asked whether Wolves were developing players for the first team or as commodities to sell on and was told: “Fosun came with a mentality to develop the first team and the Academy - that was great news for Compton. We have been hugely supported by Nuno, who says he wants 18 or 19 senior players who all feel they have a significant chance of playing. He also wants the best out of the Academy or under-23s. He is breaking the mould and made it happen, hasn’t he? I thought Elliot Watt was outstanding at Sheffield Wednesday. We have to develop players who can get in on a more regular basis and Morgan Gibbs-White is in that bracket.”
Paul Richards expressed the view that more fans wanted to watch under-23 games and wondered whether there was an option for streaming. The club’s head of media Max Fitzgerald was present and said: “We are looking into it. It would be a case of seeing how many people watch and decide how to go forward.” Laurie pointed out that live-streaming wasn’t possible at some of the venues the side go to, adding: “But we want to give a greater degree of exposure because they are such a talented group. They are at home to Manchester United soon and 1,000 tickets have been sold. Our lads are top, playing brilliantly, and I would hope that this game at Molineux will gain strong support.”
Peter Abbott spoke about the Checkatrade Trophy and prompted Kevin to say: “We are playing in senior stadiums against senior teams. We were disappointing at Mansfield but played well at Scunthorpe. This is part of their development and they are learning to play at a very high level. We’re saying: ‘Come on…match our ambition. Enough is never enough.’ We want them to raise their standards. It’s a great competition and I’m delighted we’re in it. The players will learn hugely from the experience.”
Dave Quarrell asked whether there was a call-back on Rafa Mir, who joined the club last season and is now on loan at Las Palmas? Kevin responded: “No. The plan was always to leave him for the full season. Nuno thought he needed a good run at settling into a season but he has come to prominence through scoring so many goals and we are monitoring him closely.” Jas Bahra asked Kevin how many air miles he had and whether the club were lining up signings for January. Kevin joked that he would happily receive his own plane if anyone thought he needed one and added: “Fosun want to invest in class. We are getting reports on approximately 5,000 players a month. It’s becoming a big process. We are not just crossing our fingers and hoping we can get the very best out of him or make something out of someone. It makes it very exciting to be searching through a high quantity of players. We are still some way from making hard and fast decisions (about January). The windows are very tough but I’m not complaining.” To a question about whether the club would be able to keep Nuno, he said: “He can achieve everything he wants here.”
Peter Bradburn asked what was happening with Rui Patricio and whether there was a price yet. Kevin clarified: “He is a Wolves player and he has signed on a long-term deal. The remaining details are probably not appropriate to share at this time.”
Robert Grocott wondered whether it was just luck that Wolves had had the same team for each Premier League game so far or whether it was due to the training. Kevin replied: “Antonio (Dias) on the sports science side has developed a different philosophy. The sports science department and medical team are almost hand in glove. We have up to about 98 per cent availability for the first-team squad, which is highly commendable and a great testament to work done by Antonio, Phil Hayward and the rest of the team. Touch-wood it continues.”
The off-field section of the session kicked off with Parliament chairman Paul Richards raising the subject of the match-day experience and addressing the concern raised about delays in getting served in the North Bank bar. Managing director Laurie Dalrymple pointed out that this was a facility used by season ticket holders only and was one therefore with high volume on a match day. “One of the key issues we are aware of is that people tend to congregate at the bar and not move away,” he said. “I have discussed the logistical issues with the catering team to ensure greater speed of service and as always we endeavour to ensure the staff are continually trained to deliver strong service. However, in this case we need the fans to help their fellow fans. We are policing it as hard as we can to make it easier for all concerned.”
The subject of contactless payment was raised, and Laurie confirmed that the idea was being piloted in the Stan Cullis Stand and had been since the start of the season, adding: “it is not inexpensive to install, and there is a legacy of people wanting to pay cash. We are going to monitor it and it will be introduced throughout the stadium at some point in the near future. It’s just a matter of time.”
Paul Richards spoke about the possibility of getting fans into the ground earlier on match days and Laurie responded: “We have had initiatives aimed at delivery on that objective, several of them drinks initiatives for example. It is the holy grail of all clubs to get fans in earlier. On the subject of match day pricing, we comfortably fall in the normal (catering) price range of clubs in the annual BBC survey but whether we measure up to places in the city is a different matter, although there operating model is very different to that of a football stadium. Fans are creatures of habit, and it certainly presents a challenge with us being so close to the city where this subject is concerned. Fans want to stay in their local for longer, I appreciate that. My biggest request at the moment is to see you in your seats at 1455 and create the right atmosphere that we are trying to build for when the team come out.” Clive Smith remarked that a lot of West Ham fans were still drinking at the stadium well after Wolves’ win there earlier this season. Laurie said: “I thought it was a fantastic iconic venue. As an environment, it was unbelievable, especially around the 92nd minute! But it also has it’s draw backs, for example it’s an area with not much else to do in it, therefore ensuring a longer dwell time at the ground. We would willingly look at keeping bars and kiosks open if we thought fans wanted to stay and use them.” The MD was also asked about TVs on concourses losing footage – a complaint he answered by saying: “We are aware of this issue, and we are working to ensure it is resolved. It’s a glitch we are working hard to eradicate as quickly as possible”
The subject of having WIFI in the stadium was brought up again and Laurie explained: “To install it would be very expensive. We are looking at multiple options that are available to us. However, I must stress, we don’t want to supply data usage or WIFI, which means people’s attention isn’t on what we want them to focus on. If it’s there to enhance the fan experience by telling of travel news, or stadium information, Megastore offers or to review the new app, I am 110 per cent in support of it. We are looking at several options to see which is the best and the most effective.” The MD denied that WIFI provision necessarily had to be a measure taken after any major work that may be done on Molineux’s structure.
Paul Richards moved the discussion on to a subject that has been in the public domain for some time, partly because of Wolves’ capacity crowds and excellent form. “Let me give you as much of a transparent update as I can do, with the information that I have. We have been in consultation with the architects for several months and are now comfortable with the objective of having a phased development of the stadium,” Laurie said. “We wanted to be comfortable that we have the ability to go up to 45,000-47,000, or even the mid-50,000 or higher. We wanted a plan that could potentially support the genuine ambition of the club. The latest plans give us comfort that we could get to those levels and importantly, this all with a view that, subject to the appropriate planning approval, would permit us to stay at Molineux.” Laurie reinforced the point that the council are 100 per cent supportive of what we are striving to achieve. Additionally, he said the club had engaged with other key consultants in the process, including a prominent QS practice, and a stadium consultancy who can advise on how big the stadium should be from a business perspective and would allow Wolves to build the business case to design the stadium that would suit their needs now, and would future proof for the future. Laurie reiterated to the Parliament that the club would be committed to ensuring that at an appropriate time, the club would welcome feedback and contributions from fans with regards to the delivery of services and experience within such a stadium, citing a (bigger) single tier South Bank, running into the east stand, as one concept that had already taken into account. To the question of whether all fans would have to vacate their seats for weeks or months while construction was taking place, he said the lion’s share of work could continue behind the stand while it was still in use. “That de-risks the likelihood of this eventuality, although the final details of the development were not something that could be commented on now,” Laurie said. “We would like to be in a position to push the button next summer, which as you can imagine puts significant pressure on us but that is what we are focusing on. We wish to be in a position whereby we have all of our plans and approvals in place. It then becomes a decision for the board and the owners as to when we proceed”. Laurie also confirmed that as it presently stands, “Phase one is to redevelop the South Bank.” The MD told Peter Abbott that the planning could stretch from three to six months, but at that point, there would then be some strong transparency about what we are seeking to do and I would like to be in a position in the new year where would be able to share more openly with you the plans. “Whilst I should reiterate, this project is obviously at the owner’s discretion, we are all in agreement that we want to be operating in a better facility with far bigger capacity,” he added. “Every home game is full, we have in excess of 15,000 members (5,000 only 18 months ago) and 2,500 on a waiting list. But I want to see that waiting list become much higher.” John Taylor asked whether a reconstructed stand would be built like Liverpool’s and was told: “Yes, the principle would be similar in as much as construction could go in during the season, with a view to join the two stands in the off season.” Sam Payne enquired about car parking, describing that as a major issue. Laurie responded: “I know of other plans (to help this) which I can’t divulge because they are not ours to disclose, however, I am aware of discussions that are being had.”
Peter Bradburn asked how far away safe standing was from being introduced and was told that it was now being reviewed more seriously at government level, with an official review of the evidence being commissioned to provide a review to government to then take a decision on the most appropriate steps from there. Laurie assured him that safe standing would not take more space than seats do, but its implementation involved a significant increase in cost. Head of operations Steve Sutton said that there is a belief that safe standing could allow more fans in the same space as seats, however that was nullified by the exit capacity of the area - in the case of the Jack Hayward Stand there would be a need for wider gangways. Laurie summarised by saying the club remained open-minded on safe standing and fully committed to discussing all avenues, and had even met with suppliers of an alternative seating option for stadia. If we are not due to change our Southbank seating configuration till the summer of 2020, that left an 18-month window in which we would continue to monitor the situation, although Steve provided further context, when he shared that he had been at a Premier League meeting and a Safety Officers Association meeting last week and safe standing was a high priority at both. “The general feeling is that, following the review of evidence, any policy review could be two or three years away and is very unlikely to happen while there is anything going on surrounding Hillsborough.”
Answering a question about loyalty points for corporate guests, head of ticketing James Davies said that seasonal hospitality holders have their loyalty points recorded in a manual manner which is then used to give priority for away games. He confirmed the club will also extend the plan to reflect loyalty points if season ticket holders wish to purchase cup tickets or even for a friendly in a hospitality area.
Davies then confirmed there are 1,100 gold and 500 silver away season ticket holders. Stuart Alves asked whether five or so loyalty points could be awarded to those attending an under-23 game. Laurie promised to consider all possibilities but felt there were some who may suffer as they can’t make the additional commitment to get to the under-23s, but follow the first team religiously. The MD reminded Parliament members about the imminent age-group game against Manchester United, for which tickets cost just £2. “If lots of people come to games such as this, then it would give us something to take away and think about,” he added.
Not for the first time, it was suggested that some fans are selling away tickets to supporters who aren’t season ticket holders. James Davies replied: “It’s very difficult to police and we genuinely think it’s a very small number. We keep an eye on social media to see what’s being said.” Jon Babb said he presumed the club knew who had bought tickets and Laurie reiterated the feeling that the problem concerned ‘low numbers’, adding: “The best thing for fans to do if they can’t use a ticket is to sell it legitimately via the official ticket resale scheme. That is why we introduced it, and what we would encourage you to do.” To a suggestion that overseas fans were struggling for tickets at Molineux, James said they could obtain them through becoming members and a set number were put aside for each home game for fans from abroad.” Laurie summed up: “Understandably, due to the fact that we are performing much better as a team, it’s now much harder to get tickets. The loyalty scheme has to work for the vast majority of fans. There has to be a system that rewards loyalty”. Specifically, about the game at Arsenal on November 11, Stuart Alves said: “We were allocated 96 seats but they are in the open and we will get wet if it rains.” Jon Babb said all tickets for away games were going to sell out, so why were they not sold on the basis of best first? James said that if fans have a specific request ticket office staff would try to provide what was requested. James also told Jack Finch that we were still waiting to have confirmation from Spurs with regards to the likely venue to host the away game over the festive period.
Laurie was again asked what the club were trying to do to grow support within the city, the assumption being that stadium redevelopment was dependent on an increased fan-base. “Being seventh in the Premier League obviously has a massive impact on our intentions to grow our fan base,” he replied. “It’s clearly the biggest factor. And so is attracting quality players and continuing to ensure that we do so. It makes us highly marketable. Our marketing and media team produce excellent content, tailored to different audiences and get the fans of tomorrow into the club. Our junior fan-base has seen significant increase but brand-new fans are extremely critical, which is why we have and will continue to work on ticket initiatives, such as the one versus Leicester in the League Cup, where kids effectively were able to come for free.”
On the subject of merchandise, the managing director explained that 26-27,00 shirts were sold last season – “and that was a really good year.” “This year,” he added, “we have sold nearly 40,000 as of today. We had eclipsed last season’s figure as early as the start of August.” He answered a question about delays by saying that this was as a result of taking the strategic decision to ensure we found a shirt sponsor that we were entirely comfortable with, a significantly higher demand for the shirt than in previous years, which was also made harder by the fact that the shirt was revealed on social media ahead of the clubs intention to reveal it. This in turn, put a high pressure on our mail order process, and in turn onto the Megastore. Furthermore, Laurie explained embellishment to the front of the shirt after it arrives from the manufacturers can take between two to three weeks. “I think it’s fair to say, any club or business for that matter would find the sort of increase in productivity that we have had challenging. We were selling 1,000 shirts per day on a regular Wednesday or Thursday and that is enormous uplift from where we have been previously. We are confident that we will have enough shirts for the remainder of the season. We have many thousand still to come into the store, ahead of the festive period, with training wear due to be in stock by the end of the month. Again, we have doubled our training wear orders from the last season, such is the demand. All of that said, we have to make sure we are committed to reduce fan frustration next year. With regards to 2019/20, I would like to say we will work closely with our technical partner Adidas to ensure we fulfil the demand, I don’t think we will be in the same position next year.”
Responding to a question regarding the online retail store, the MD said. “We know the online system isn’t good enough and there is an imminent refresh due”. Laurie also gave his full commitment that “we will improve it for next season.” He also recommended supporters to stay away from fake shirts not manufactured for the club and only purchase through wolves.co.uk or in the Megastore. Other routes to purchase Wolves merchandise are being explored for next season.
Head of marketing Russell Jones backed up the promise that the effectiveness of the online store would be looked at and answered a question about the official website by saying the whole operation was being reviewed. He answered Tony Grocott by saying the (new) app could be acquired on a tablet and Laurie continued: “The app is a wonderful example of how we are trying to improve the club and find better ways of connecting with you. The app project was ongoing for 9-10 months. A huge amount of credit is due to Russell and his team as we weren’t quite happy with it, and at the very latter stages went back to the technology partner to change it. It takes that amount to time to bring some projects to fruition. We will be getting to other areas but there are only so many hours in the day, albeit the team is expanding quickly to meet the growing needs of the club.” Russell said a new Wolves TV console was also imminent.
ANY OTHER BUSINESS
Paul Richards raised the topic of the club’s carbon footprint and handed the mic over to Steve Sutton, who said: “We have looked hard at energy management and efficiency. We are looking at plastic in the stadium as well, with some ideas around hoping to begin to significantly reduce the problem”. Steve added, “we work with a waste management company who have told us that at least 85 per cent of our waste material is recycled. It’s ongoing and constant.” Wolves’ head of foundation Will Clowes added: “Our school engagement team have been working across the city on encouraging people about the need to cut down on plastic.”
Paul Richards continued to relay pre-submitted questions by asking whether the club could be more supportive of Wolves Women. Laurie said: “We take the team very seriously as an integral part of the club. Recently, they have trained at Compton Park and we endeavour to put a strong focus on their achievements. We have recently conducted media work with them through Max (Fitzgerald) and his team. The website has a dedicated Wolves Women page, with bio’s on the playing squad. They have been recognised at the end-of-season dinner and were incorporated into this summer’s kit launch. It’s an area we want to continue to support.” Will said there were 91 registered players from all age groups and 38 staff to support them. “Behind all that, there is huge work via the Foundation, encouraging females to participate - it’s the fastest growing participation sport, so we work with the county FA and Premier League.” Stuart Alves enquired whether it was true every woman had to pay £400. Will said: “That’s the model for women’s football in England, it’s not just the process at Wolves.” Laurie said the (subscription) amount was not £400 and added that the club were committed with their support for the women while acknowledging: “There needs to be a sea change wider than Wolverhampton Wanderers in supporting and driving the woman’s game forward.”
Laurie was next asked to give an overview on the situation regarding the road closures of nearly 12 months ago and reminded members: “The original reason was with everyone’s safety in mind and the club was very comfortable with supporting it. It was an initiative that was driven in partnership with the council and the safety advisory group. Safety is our primary concern. Part of the problem for fans getting out is that we now have 32,000 at games, not 22,000. Overall, whilst acknowledging that it has required patience from fans, it has been a success and is widely considered as something you have to factor in with games now. We are not alone in doing this, as other stadiums we visit, deploy the same match day restrictions.” Neil Dady asked about the pinch point created by vehicles strategically positioned at the junction of Waterloo Road and Newhampton Road and was told by Steve Sutton: “They have been deliberately placed so we can see how people filter through. It was a trial of the width. When the gates go in, there will be a funnel, so we are monitoring the flow rate.”
Sam Payne said he knew of older people at the North Bank end who were asking for a bus stop nearer Sir Jack Hayward Way, calling it impractical that they had to arrive by 1.30pm for a Saturday afternoon game if they wished to disembark close to the stadium. Laurie answered: “It’s a conversation we can take to the bus company, through the council.”
Michelle Turner reported a complaint about the match-time on the two screens being too small while Peter Bradburn asked about the lift in the Billy Wright Stand and the possibility of its presence being publicised for the sake of older people in particular. Laurie explained: “It’s operated by the ticket office on an application basis. We have 120 people using that process, so it has to be done on a merit basis and ensuring we manage the flow of spectators through the main reception in the Billy Wright stand.”
Kerry Harris spoke up for the playing of Sweet Caroline at games and Laurie said: “The marketing guys, through consultation with fans, have produced a significantly enhanced pre-match experience and I feel quite proud when we travel because some of the other clubs are well below our standard, in my opinion. We review it on a match-by-match basis.” There was praise from in the room for Molineux’s pre-match package and reports of some away fans saying how good it was. But Peter Bradburn said the half-time entertainment wasn’t good enough and all fans were invited to suggest improvements/requests by feeding any ‘innovative’ ideas through the Parliament and match day experience working group.
Greg Asbury enquired about financial fair play and asked if Wolves might be held back by its implications. Laurie explained that the permissible losses in the Premier League and Championship were £35m and £13m respectively, adding: “We are governed by the regulations, we are well aware of them and are aware of the challenge they present. We have to continue to comply with the rules as they stand. However, until such time that we get to the turnover levels of the bigger clubs in the league, it is always going to be a consideration for us until our commercial revenues increase significantly.”
As the meeting drew to a close, there were complimentary words for the new murals in the Molineux subway and Dave Benton, one of seven retiring members at the meeting, thanked the Parliament for inviting him to one final meeting. He said how much he had appreciated being listened to by the club and been well treated.
The meeting was concluded and the date for the next parliament was set for 24th January 2019.