Wolves Fans Parliament broke new ground by improvising with a virtual meeting to which 12 members were invited.
Covid-19 had made it impossible for any get-togethers to be held at Molineux since February, so supporter liaison officer Dave Wood was pleased to extend a welcome through the Microsoft Teams platform and thank those present for attending.
He also introduced four general managers from the new management structure Wolves communicated in August and asked them each to give an insight into their roles.
General manager for marketing and commercial growth Russell Jones said he had worked in sport for around 20 years, with 15 in football including ‘12 down the road at a claret and blue club!' A Wolves fan by birth, he joined the staff in 2017 and has enjoyed an ‘incredibly exciting three years.’
“I oversee marketing, media, content, membership and sponsorship output,” he said, adding that his main responsibility was growing the fanbase domestically and internationally, installing civic pride and engaging with fans to deliver great products and services.
“The internal teams (here) have been bolstered to support our growing fanbase - from having half a million followers, we now have six million,” he said. “We want to compete with the top six in the country. It’s not just about the football but also having a commercial model that enables us to compete.”
General manager for commercial operations Vinny Clark has been at Wolves for 18 months and was asked to step up to the commercial committee after previously being head of retail. He previously worked in manufacturing, products and sourcing before moving into commercial and strategic events and working for England Rugby Union, Leicester Tigers, the French Open tennis, Tour de France and in Formula One. His first role in football was at Manchester City 15 years ago.
He is best known at the club for his work in the retail department but has ‘inherited ticketing, hospitality, catering, car parking….pretty much the day-to-day revenue streams.’
“The aim is to grow all that, but offer the best fan experience we can,” he said. “I have two bosses, Jeff (Shi) and the fans.” He said the club had overhauled the product offering through tiering – for example having polo shirts in the Molineux (premium) range, at entry level and some in between. “So there’s something for all,” he concluded, saying Wolves were working direct with factories in China, Cambodia and Sri Lanka and both auditing them and making sure they adhere to rules about modern slavery.
A statement about the latter was close to being issued. “We are working to make products bespoke for us and not off the shelf and just ‘crested’ up,” he stressed. Once the club have perfected the product, Vinny said he relied on Russell Jones and his team to drive fans to the stores. “We’re spending more on digital and finding people who can’t find us,” he said. “There’s better availability of products and we were over 100 per cent up on last year’s Black Friday sales.”
To a comment from Clive Smith that he knew of p&p costs being prohibitive to friends in North America and Sweden, Vinny said a lot of work was going on around shipping rates as well, making the club’s items much more competitive to those abroad – it was, he said, problem-solving by removing any barrier when supporters check-out merchandise.
“We (previously) only offered international shipping as an express service, which was hugely prohibitive,” Vinny added. “We are still offering express service but also a standard one at half the price and are committed to working hard to bring it down further. Since we have changed the shipping costs, the rate of finding customers in territories like America has gone up from 1 per cent to 4 per cent.”
In summary, he believed there had been good progress on the delivery side but the club were working hard to improve that. “Our fulfilment and after sales is in need of improvement and we are working hard to improve that. That is not to discredit those working hard in these areas, but we need to implement new systems and processes to help them. This isn’t an overnight fix but we are working hard to improve.”
Fans Parliament Vice-Chairman Jas Bahra asked whether consideration had been given to engaging Amazon to oversee delivery and despatch and was told that such a move would result in less leg work and bring the club a bigger database, but also a lesser share of the margin. Peter Abbott brought up the subject of floor space in the store at Molineux and said the big six clubs had far more, so were there any plans to address this? Vinny replied: “One of the first things I did was look at the shop floor and I found it unshoppable - with three queues and the match-day conversion rate (of visitors into buyers) very low. It was really restrictive and a horrible customer experience. We do have plans and are in the process of making some. We can become smarter with our space, so we are moving the tills and that will allow the queues to start in the next room. We should go from five tills to 12 or 13 and that will help with that two-hour golden period before kick-off because we are leaving some money on the table at present.”
Ciaran Barker asked about the process of selecting the kit and wondered if fans could become involved in future. Vinny said there was an agreement in place with adidas, with whom ‘everything is fairly template, as with Nike.’ But he added: “The selection brands work in different ways and the Retail & Licensing and Marketing team work on kit development together when selecting themes, colours and stories.”
General manager for football operations Matt Wild started in football with Cambridge United almost 20 years ago and had a previous brief spell at Wolves in 2004/05, working with Richard Skirrow. He then served Rushden and Diamonds, Peterborough United and Hull City before re-joining the staff here in February 2017. He explained to members that he combines the club secretary role with providing the core services that a player requires...good pitches, the chance to eat well, personal security (especially in the Premier League), good player-care function and generally sound support.
“I also look at finances at Compton as budget-holder and maintain relationships with governing bodies, such as the Premier League, FA, UEFA etc,” he said, adding that the squad’s travel, hotels and pre-season tours also came under his remit. “It’s a busy and varied role but Wolves is a great place to work,” he continued. “Kevin Thelwell left last February, so we have formed a committee to oversee negotiation on contracts.”
General manager for football technical Scott Sellars was a player for 20 years, then went into coaching and came to Wolves five-and-a-half years ago as under-23 coach, but with instructions to develop the football programme, having done a similar job at Manchester City.
“I have gone from academy manager to general manager on the football side, so I am still on the conveyor belt of development,” he said. “The goal is to get players in the first-team and we accept that is difficult around such high-class players who have hundreds of caps in between them. Part of my remit is working with the recruitment team, one with the first team and one with the academy.”
He referred to the current difficulty of getting people (scouts) into games elsewhere but said there was a video team accumulating data nonetheless and he worked closely with the analysis staff. “We have to ensure Jeff and Nuno have a list of players capable of coming into the first team,” he said. “We make sure we are consistent with how we play and analyse why we are good. We’re very proud. Usually, you just analyse when things are going wrong.”
Scott said he also has a role in renewing contracts to ‘keep the top talents at the club’. Peter Bradburn enquired about the bubbles and was told by Matt Wild that the Premier League protocols restricted the number of relevant persons in them to 75. They have to be tested once a week, having previously been checked twice a week. “If they test positive, they go out of the bubble,” he added. “And when they are away from the club, they are the same as the rest of us.” Matt explained that treatment and cleaning protocols for training sessions were among the necessary current measures.
Discussion turned to PPV and Project Big Picture. Matt said: “The brief was to find a solution to allow season ticket holders the chance to see games and we were somewhat disappointed with what came back. It was presented to us with no real advance notice and we felt obliged to accept the proposal in the absence of any real firm alternatives. Clubs soon began to change their minds and we would have come to a different conclusion after further consideration.” Neil Dady was given an update on Raul Jimenez and was told he was making really good progress from ‘a complex, serious injury.’ “Only time will tell how it recovers but he needs loads of rest and space and is recovering well,” Matt added.
Anne Bott enquired, with Brexit so close, what effect it would have on the club with regard to bringing new players in. Matt said there were headaches with existing players. “We have a lot from overseas and are making sure everyone has their status,” he said. “Not just them but also their families. That has been the priority.” He also spoke of the new Governing Body Endorsement criteria agreed with the Premier League and FA and said the club did not foresee any problems with that. “We are quite happy with that and under the new regulations on January 1st, there wouldn’t be anyone who has slipped through the net. We don’t think there will be any issues with recruitment.”
Scott said it was more difficult at academy level and Wolves wouldn’t be able to sign anyone from Europe who is under 18: “We will have to fit quite a high criterion. Different leagues will have different points.”
Back to on-field matters, Ciaran Barker asked how the club represented the views of Wolves fans on VAR and was told by Matt: “We have the opportunity to feedback to Premier League after each match round on any VAR issues. (The key point is) we either use it or we don’t, and clubs are always of the view at meetings that they would rather have it than not have it.”
Peter Abbott said every one of the ten Premier League games every weekend had a different kick-off time, with no overlap. “Has there been any indication whether this is set in stone for when fans go back fully to games?” he continued. Matt responded: “They want to revert back after round 19. We want to get to being as normal as we can which will hopefully mean some more Saturday 3pm kick-offs.”
Clive Smith commented on how much he had enjoyed watching the under-18s and under-23s online, calling it a real bonus. But, to help those unable to watch games live, he went on: “Can they be stored so we can watch them at other times or have access to a highlights package?” Head of media Max Fitzgerald said such packages should already be on Wolves TV or YouTube and urged anyone having trouble accessing them to contact Dave Wood at the club. Dave said a meeting about such content might be useful, extended to cover footage of women’s and under-23 matches and it would be good to hear ideas from devoted followers of the under-23 and women’s teams and other like-minded supporters.
Clive Smith said he had read that Wolves had 21 players out on loan and wondered what weekly contact the club had with them elsewhere. Scott said: “Seyi Olofinjana is our loans manager and he and I speak to them and review their games on video. It’s an area where we could expand, and we are considering that. We need to give even better support and Jeff agrees with me.” On a similar theme, Jas Bahra asked about overseas youngsters, with their different cultures, and wondered how Wolves settled them in, referring in particular to Fabio Silva. Scott said the 18-year-old had a lot of potential and now had an opportunity with Raul Jimenez’s injury. “We have a lot of Portuguese players and a Portuguese coaching team, so it’s easier for him....he has a good personality, a lot of maturity and a work ethic. He showed real quality when he went into the first team.” Among the tasks carried out by the club when signings came in from abroad, Matt mentioned English classes, getting them fixed up with a car, accommodation and helping them open a bank account. “They get well looked and are not just left to their own devices,” he said.
The second part of the meeting was devoted to finding ways Wolves can best engage directly with their fans, and supporter liaison officer Dave Wood reiterated that the club could these days communicate with fans all over the world using technology available. He also reflected on how much the Parliament’s role had changed since the early days over a decade ago and asked members if they had new ideas. Neil Dady felt the Parliament’s profile had been increased over the last 18 months, with the establishment of a dedicated website and much more consultation activity. “As a fans’ group, we also need to be top-six-ready,” he said.
It was felt that Worldwide Wolves had been very successful with creating profiles and the emergence of Zoom and Teams could only be useful in helping other groups gain recognition. Russell Jones said it was an area that could be looked at and continued: “We get a lot of feedback through Worldwide Wolves. I would also like to know how consultation works at other clubs and where it works well.” Dave Wood said: “There’s no shame in things that are working at other clubs being brought to us. You have a direct line to me. Don’t hesitate to share what you hear from elsewhere.” That point was echoed by Vinny Clark, who said: “We can learn plenty from other clubs, what works well and what doesn’t. We’re very open-minded.”
Glenn Aston said he felt fans would increasingly be heard at the FA and said supporters wanted to be consulted before decisions were made. He had also said earlier in the meeting that fan consultation was getting a lot of publicity and that Leicester consulted with fans (on PPV) – ‘and that’s why they voted as they did.’ “The consultation between Wolves and the fans needs to improve,” he summarised.
Dave said there was a difference between communication and consultation and asked about the sort of subjects that needed consultation. Peter Abbott said ground redevelopments were an obvious one. Dave said there was a definite commitment to that and aspects of the match-day experience that fans needed to be asked about. “There is scope for setting up focus groups on multiple topics however we need to be led by fans as to what they are. Not being able to meet up properly for most of this year has been a problem,” he said.
Neil Dady said the club should ask themselves whether they had enough fan consultation to develop an informed opinion on matters, whether that’s Project Big Picture, the return of fans to grounds or PPV. Matt Wild said Project Big Picture had been canned. Tony Grocott raised a concern that one Premier League club apparently didn’t want vulnerable, elderly people among those starting to be readmitted, Dave suggested any concerns could be alleviated by a direct chat with Disability Access Officer Laura Wright who was in regular contact with the Wolves Disabled Supporters Association. Dave said there was a little information to pass on the return of fans as Wolverhampton was currently in tier three but the club are working behind the scenes to be ready if and when that changes. Anita Midha asked if those who didn’t wish to go back initially would still have a valid season ticket the following season. Vinny responded: “Yes, absolutely, 100 per cent. We’re not going to punish people if they aren’t comfortable coming back.”
Jas Bahra asked if the Parliament website could be linked more with the main club one and Dave Wood also reminded members that Wolves Help was available for many items which didn’t affect the Parliament. Neil Dady said the link to Wolves Help could be more prominent on the Parliament website. Steven Bailey asked whether fans groups could be useful to the club in getting the views of the larger supporter base – a matter Dave said he was open-minded about, although certain subjects were not platforms for discussions. “If there any areas you think require consultation, they don’t have to wait until meetings,” he said. “You can contact me.” Ciaran Barker said young fans, disabled etc should be well represented in the process and Vinny said that maybe the Fans Parliament was not something for younger fans to buy into currently.