Neil Dady kicked off the first Wolves Fans’ Parliament meeting of the season by welcoming the club’s supporter liaison officer Dave Wood to the chair for the first time.
Neil, the parliament committee chairman, took the opportunity to thank Paul Richards for his work with the parliament, describing his commitment to it as ‘second to none’. “And it would be remiss not to thank Laurie for reconnecting the club with the fanbase and helping create the ‘feel good’ factor”.
Dave Wood, having apologised for the postponement of the planned July meeting, referred to the ‘tremendous array of talent before us’ in the form of department heads. “It is very positive and will help create an exchange of ideas rather than a question-and-answer situation,” he said. “We want to keep the meetings fresh.” He welcomed the new members in a large turn-out.
Sporting director Kevin Thelwell was congratulated on his elevation to Wolves’ main board and was invited to provide an overview on the playing strength following the closure of the summer window. He said the starting 11 or used match-day 14 was considered to be in very good shape but mentioned the permanent signings of Raul Jimenez and Leander Dendoncker and said building work had continued with the attracting of young and hungry players with potential; ones who would keep the squad balanced.
Having said the club were generally very pleased with the business done, Kevin was asked about the fitness of Bruno Jordao and said: “We would like to have him back for Villa but that might be a bit too soon. The other injury, to Meritan Shabani, is far more serious.” Jas Bahra enquired whether anything more could have done to keep Rob Edwards and was informed: “I don’t think so – Rob was treated very well here and we tried hard to keep him but he felt that moving to the FA was good progression and his mind was made up. He’s always going to be a friend of Wolves. Who knows whether he will come back in the future?” Mark Kennedy was said to be in a good position and doing a very good job so far in place of the outgoing man but a strong group of interviewees for the post was expected.
Gary Egginton asked for an update about Jordan Graham and Harry Burgoyne. Kevin responded: “Harry has been hellishly unlucky. He went to Plymouth and broke his ankle in training, then he recovered, went to Bury and they dropped out of the League. He’s a fantastic kid of high potential as he showed in the first team in the Cup at Liverpool. He has to get his mind around being with the under-23 group and is in the last year of his contract, with a year’s option in our favour. Jordan went to Bulgaria with Lokomotiv Plovdiv and they are third in the table and a good side.”
To a question from Peter Abbott about the departures of Helder Costa and Ivan Cavaleiro, Kevin spoke of them both having been quality players who were now doing very well at good clubs elsewhere. He told Peter Bradburn that Nuno had decided it was right for them to go but Michael Clarke said he had been surprised to see Ivan leave and some fans regarded the club as being thin on the ground considering they were playing on a lot of fronts. Kevin continued: “Nuno is adamant that his structure is built round a much leaner squad than average and, after the season we had, I am happy to believe him. He and his medical and sports science teams integrate better than at anywhere else I have ever seen. It’s clear for everyone to see what the spirit is like. We have a leaner squad supported by younger players and they are desperate to do well in the Premier League and Europa League.” To Peter Abbott’s concern that predators would come over the hill at some point, Kevin countered: “There are only a couple of players close to us having need for a contractual chat, however I don’t get the feeling any of them are in a rush to leave. Wolverhampton Wanderers is an exciting place to be.”
Kevin said some of the senior under-23 players would go out in January in the wake of Ryan Giles and Niall Ennis, who have so far done well at Shrewsbury and Doncaster. “There are generally recall clauses,” he said, adding that he didn’t think a loan would suit Morgan Gibbs-White. “We see him as a very young player who will add more game time this season with us in Europe. I don’t think he has stalled at all. He’s in the right place with Nuno. He’s a top talent and going to be a fantastic player.” Kevin agreed with Peter Abbott about the impressive impact made by Maximilian Kilman and said his case proved there was also an opportunity to bypass the loan process and go straight in with Nuno.
Kashmire Hawker was welcomed at the start of the night as the first parliament member who had previously been on the junior parliament and asked how Brexit would affect transfers. Kevin said: “The simple answer……I have no idea and make no excuses because I don’t think the Prime Minister does either. It makes it hugely problematic for clubs. We must just sit tight and see how it plays out.”
Kieran Newey enquired whether the structure of the club had changed after Laurie Dalrymple’s departure and was informed that Jeff Shi was going to take more responsibility. “I am pleased he is doing so,” he added. “I think he’s going to make an incredible difference here. These heads of department alongside me have been doing tremendous work for years. I have a slightly broader remit and am learning a lot more about business from some really top people.”
Head of marketing Russell Jones said he had been attending meetings on this subject and explained that the three stands under consideration for rebuilding each had five phases to them. “I and two colleagues are working on the Steve Bull Stand almost daily with the council,” he said, outlining that the club want to do it ‘properly as opposed to quickly’, and that the chances of development starting in May 2020 were small.
Russell promised Anita Midha that the club would do everything possible to keep ‘communities’ of fans together during any upheaval and pointed out that the space between the stand and pitch would enable the lower tier to be built first – a factor that would lessen the need for mass displacement. He stressed there was a commitment to ‘do it really well’ and assured Jas Bahra that the council were supportive.
Ian Siddall and Simon Bennett spoke about the considerable concerns of match-day parking and were told by Russell that one of the surveys was focused on transport.. Stuart Alves said the university car parks near the KFC restaurant were completely empty and suggested the club and council might work with them, even if there was a charge. In reply to Kashmire Hawker, Russell said the rebuilding of the Steve Bull, Jack Hayward and Billy Wright Stands in turn would take the capacity to 38,000, 43,000 and 50,000 respectively.
Jon Babb asked for clarification on the reconstruction of the Steve Bull Stand and was told the bottom section would ideally be complete for the start of a season, if started as soon as possible after a season, and the top section would still be in place at the same time. To a question from Jas Bahra about where visiting fans will be located in the redeveloped stadium, Russell said the plan was to create an away section in the quadrant so that away fans do not stretch across the entire stand. Peter Abbott talked about the recent publicity surrounding the subway and the bridge and Russell said: “It’s a non-story for now and no-one needs to get too upset. There’s a lot to do before we get there.
In answer to a complaint from Sam Payne about the PA quality in the Stan Cullis Stand, Russell said it was a new system and the club continues to find a solution to a tricky problem. Head of operations Steve Sutton pointed out that the North Bank wasn’t included when the system was upgraded because that stand was only a few years old. Parliament chairman Dave Wood said: “Rest assured…you would hear if there was an emergency announcement.” Jon Babb remarked that, at Manchester City, he could hear every word and Steve Sutton said the problem could sometimes be down to people not holding the microphone in the right place. Neil Dady joked that what he most enjoyed hearing at the Etihad were the words: Manchester City 0 Wolves 2.
A review was given on the club’s highly successful involvement to date and Steve Sutton outlined the stringent preparation that went into games. “The process started in May when we held meetings with our safety advisory group,” he said. “The qualifiers were fairly kind to us in terms of not presenting problems. The home games have been really good, although Torino was quite challenging because you don’t necessarily receive quality information from other clubs and it seemed two factions of their supporters didn’t get on.” Steve said they looked at issues such as airport facilities, choosing a hotel, how to get to the hotel, which route to take to the stadium and segregation facilities. He said problems had arisen with promised shuttle buses not operating as expected and, on one occasion, with only two turnstiles being used for Wolves fans instead of six. All recce information is compiled in reports, with input from police representatives and the FA, and he added: “What clubs tell us initially is not necessarily what we see on match night. There have been challenges but it’s rewarding as well. Seeing our fans at the end in Istanbul was phenomenal. I have been at the club for 30 years and standing there thinking where I was and what we had done was incredible.” Steve also said the former City of London commander they had been assigned – a man with huge experience in major events – had proved invaluable.
Mark Evans asked if anything was planned by way of a fan park in Bratislava for fans who can’t get tickets for the game and was told by Dave that the match was being shown in the North Bank, with places costing £5 and food available. Dave said the club had done what they could in a difficult situation and acknowledged that the visit to Braga was going to be popular, with many fans keen to go. Wolves are awaiting ticket details and will share that as soon as possible. Jack Finch enquired about the worry of racist chanting with Slovan’s fans, to which Steve Sutton replied: “There were concerns with many of the clubs we might face.” He said a translator was always on hand and Stuart Alves remarked that he had never felt as safe as he did in Istanbul. “It was absolutely spot-on,” he added. Dave Wood congratulated Wolves fans for going on such trips with the idea of embracing the culture and experience because it was not something supporters were used to.
Parliament members heard from head of ticketing James Davies that the first priority in preparing for Europa League home ties was ensuring prices were right and Molineux was full, with a great atmosphere. Referring to the small selling window, he said that 79 per cent, 81 per cent and 85 per cent of sales for the games against Crusaders, Pyunik and Torino respectively were online. The corresponding figure for the Braga game was 84 per cent. James spoke of the hoops that clubs had to jump through with UEFA and sponsors, revealing that 200 seats had to be made available to the visiting club near the centre of the Billy Wright Stand. A full take-up of that entitlement means 150 Wolves season ticket holders can’t have their own seats and have to be offered the best alternatives available. For the away legs, James continued, the club consulted with Arsenal and Manchester United and followed the United model of establishing collection points at away games and operating a scheme centred on the production of photo ID. He said Wolves were reliant on the host clubs to make this work, adding that the collection points had proved successful, although some fans hadn’t collected their tickets at each venue.
As an indication of the massive extra workload this season, James outlined that 140,000 tickets would be sold in a normal Premier League season. From July until the end of September, 120,000 had been bought this time already. But he did ask for continued patience, saying: “As you can imagine hundreds of people want to contact us at 10am on a Monday morning but we have a set amount of resource and appreciate it can be frustrating.” Kieran Newey credited the work James and his staff did but highlighted gripes with fans who didn’t have away season tickets and heard of the system being abused by those who buy them in order to gain priority for the biggest matches and then missed many away fixtures. He asked for stricter rules, to which James replied that as a result of similar discussions at previous meetings the 75% usage ruling had been introduced to away season tickets. James added the right to withdraw wouldn’t be implemented lightly and the club would ask absentees if there was a good reason for games being missed. Peter Abbott said the problem was likely to be greater this season because of Europe and the fact fans might not be able to get enough time off to go to all away League games. James answered a question from Dave Quarrell by saying there was a maximum match-day price of 45 Euros for ties while, on the subject of buying tickets for the three Europa group games on the smart card, Peter Bradburn said a lot of fans had not seen what they should click as it was not very obvious. James is establishing whether this could be made clearer. Dave Wood said the club were thinking of launching a social media account dedicated to helping supporters and asked members for suggestions on what could be included on it.
Gary Egginton earned applause by saying: “Everyone I have spoken to has been delighted with the ticket operation. Almost 50 years ago, we queued up the road in the rain and cold for tickets for ties against Juventus and Ferencvaros. The vast majority are delighted with what the club have done and that should be placed on record. After this meeting, we all realise the planning that goes in – the club should put more on the website, so more fans appreciate it.” Dave and James acknowledged the appreciation amid the sentiment that the on-field success was a scenario beyond what could have been dreamed of three or four years ago.
There was also praise for the Wolves App and a question as to whether anything similar could be done with ticket alerts. James said all members were emailed anyway about tickets going on sale, with cup information going to season ticket holders. Dave asked fans to email him if they were having ordering problems, stressing that that was a significant part of his job remit. Kieran Newey wondered whether using new methods to inform fans was merely duplicating what they announced through Twitter or Facebook anyway, but head of media Max Fitzgerald explained that Wolves’ main social media accounts had a vast amount of overseas supporters who would find an increased stream of Molineux and ticket news a turn-off.
A substantial section of the meeting was taken up by discussion and explanation about the club’s switch this season to a new food and drink provider, Levy UK, after more than a decade with the same caterer. And, in addition to the various other department heads in the International Suite, four key figures were present to answer these questions.
Wolves head of commercial Steve Morton said the club were happy they had found a partner who could meet expectations and be part of the ‘redevelopment journey’. “Levy have worked with Chelsea, who have a traditional stadium, and in a new one at Tottenham,” he said. From the floor, Anne Bott relayed a comment from absent new member John Woodward saying he found the current standard of catering in kiosks poor and would like parliament members to act as mystery customers and provide feedback. But he did think catering in corporate areas had significantly improved. Steve Morton said getting everything right from day one was almost impossible with the extra demands of Europa League fixtures and, through Rod Stewart’s summer appearance, a first concert in 15 years. “It now needs to be right and it needs to be top six,” he admitted.
Mobilisation manager Kirpal Metha entered the discussion with a general address, saying: “We are fans as well and it’s important we deliver what fans want. We are still learning after less than five months. A lot of work has been done and goes into every match-day and we have had a collage of feedback. We are tweaking products and putting new ranges in. We are listening to the fans, who expect a certain quality.” Retail manager Anthony Addison explained the new offers and deals that were trialled at Saturday’s game against Southampton and said that any experiment that worked well would be rolled out elsewhere. Assistant general catering manager Mel Tasker said the club were not at the necessary staff level and were still recruiting. She said there was to be a mystery shopper watch in operation on Saturday to help establish where extra help was needed. Peter Bradburn asked why the hot dog stalls had gone from outside the ground and why the cheeseburger price had risen from £4 to £6. Steve Morton replied: “We wanted to bring a consistent standard of catering inside and outside the stadium.”
To a question from Jas Bahra about how many people had been taken on, Mel said: “We have 430 catering staff, not all available for every game, but we have agency staff also.” Tony Grocott commented that there was no confectionery and was told by Anthony that chocolate was reintroduced since the Chelsea game. He also said it was on the agenda to bring back bags of sweets. Jack Finch enquired how pricing compared with others after the earlier mention of London venues and Kirpal said Levy were also in place at Villa, Leicester and Leicester Tigers. “The prices here are lower,” he said. Sam Payne was unhappy with the £2 hike and with what he said was a 20-minute wait to be served. “Can we do pre-orders like at Wembley?” he asked. Dave Wood said: “Problems with queues is not just a Molineux problem…..it’s an issue everywhere.” Kirpal pointed out that 70 extra tills had been put in, taking the total to 174, and transactions had increased by 20 per cent. Jas Bahra was told that contactless payment had quickened the operation and a question from Neil Dady about whether there was any movement on being able to drink in the stand was answered with a ‘no’. Stuart Alves asked about sellers walking round with refreshment items in bags on their backs, like he had seen on the concourse at Fulham.
Jon Babb worried about the various trials contributing to fans not being in their seats during the game and Gary Egginton strongly argued that the majority would want fans watching the game and supporting the team for the whole game plus stoppage time. “If you don’t want to do this, go to the pub instead,” he said. Kieran Newey said it was supporter choice and Dave Wood confirmed that the trials were based on what fans had asked for.
Michael Clarke said he was delighted with his seats right in the middle of the Sir Jack Hayward Stand and applauded the club for being progressive on safe standing. But he failed to see how it was safer because he felt more squashed in. Steve Sutton said the seats were slightly narrower and there were now 29 of them in the middle block rather than 28. Steve added that it was important Wolves continued to keep the safety authorities at bay at a time when he felt there was a real risk some clubs, in future, will have their capacities reduced on safety grounds. Steve said there were now circa 200 extra seats and promised to investigate Kieran Newey’s argument that there was still a problem with fans standing in gangways in S3 and SL3. Diane Jordan said that her view from the back row of that stand was now worse.
Finally, Michael Clarke said there was a danger from fans walking down Whitmore Hill after games and into three lanes of traffic where vehicles turn right into Waterloo Road from Newhampton Road. “It’s only a matter of time before someone is hit,” he claimed. Steve Sutton said: “The council have been made aware of the concerns raised but are against closing that three-lane stretch of road because of the impact on the rest of the city.”
Dave closed the meeting by thanking, in particular, those members who were now leaving the parliament and telling them their feedback would still be welcome.