Football is an industry where perception and reality can be vastly different. In a world of ever increasing media outlets, the insatiable appetite for news every minute of every day, the internet and the saturation coverage of football, perception can be more important than reality. Politicians have spin doctors, the big football clubs have a plethora of press officers and celebrities have publicists, all to ensure the public have the “right” perception of them. At our level, we rely on the local press (with whom we have an excellent relationship barring the odd healthy spat), club outlets (such as the website and the match day programme) and direct contact with fans and sponsors. One of the positives of small clubs is that it is much more personal.
Richard and I take our opportunity to speak to you directly in the press and when writing these articles very seriously. They are not ghost written! We try to ensure that you know the reality of every aspect of the football operation at the club and ensure that the perception that some other clubs and managers try to create does not change your perception of our football operation. Dave is brilliant at doing that with the business side of the club; we try to give you an insight into the football side, why we do things as we do, the structure, the philosophy, the plan, the future.
I highlight perception and reality because with every signing we make, the perception of what we are doing and more pertinently how much we are spending becomes more detached from reality than ever. It makes Richard and I smile when our competitors who have bigger budgets (and in some cases more than double) and pay their players more than ours (and in some cases more than double), insinuate (and in some cases are more forthright) that we are big spenders. Nothing could be further from reality.
The budget that we are operating within is sustainable. It is more than last season but it is sustainable. The wage structure that we introduced three years ago remains in place. The only difference now is that with the small but important increase sanctioned by the Board in the summer, we have more players at the top end of the pay scale than we could afford previously. That means more quality, more experience and more strength in depth. However, the reason for the assumption that we must be spending huge amounts of money comes from a lack of understanding of how we work and how hard we work. It is also an easy accusation to make. It is easy to sign good players when you spend big money. It is not easy to sign good players without spending big money. That’s our aim, that’s our ethos and that’s where our staff, structure and processes enable us to build and improve a squad in a cost effective way.
The loan signings that we have made this season reflect that. Ben Strang does a huge amount of “leg work” in maintaining constant dialogue with a huge number of agents. Timing is everything in football. Ask a question one day and the answer could be no. Ask it the next day and it might be yes. We keep asking! We try to stay one step ahead. We are constantly doing background work. For example, when we saw all of Crystal Palace’s signings on transfer deadline day, we checked their 25 man squad they must name until January in the Premier League and enquired about Kwesi when we saw he was absent. We knew him from two years previously, watching him scoring goals at Margate. We were persistent and then once Richard has convinced the player, my job is to negotiate with Crystal Palace and his agent to secure the deal.
We think it is right that the relationship between the Head Coach and the player is a football one, and not complicated by contract negotiations or any financial matters. Any loan deal must fall within the cost of our wage ceiling and can also been offset by players going out on loan. Managing the squad, and allowing the right players to get games elsewhere at the right time, as well as balancing the books, is also crucial.
Another example is Josh Gillies. We watched Gateshead on a number of occasions last season and liked him. It quickly became apparent though that he was destined for a Football League club and therefore we had no chance of signing the player. However, as with every player that has appeared on our radar, we continued to monitor him. As soon as the manager changed at Carlisle, we kept an eye on his number of appearances, how often he started games and the likelihood that he may be made available on loan. When we were discussing right wingers last week, his name was on our list, we made the phone call and Graham Kavanagh agreed to allow him to come out on loan. Josh wanted to come; the finances were fine, so it was job done.
That is the reason for monitoring players that leave non league clubs to go higher. Their wages, even in the Premier League, Championship or League One are often affordable because they will have gone for the opportunity to play higher rather than the best financial deal. Players can often earn more at a lower level, which sounds crazy but is true. Obviously it is not true for the big money transfers, but we do not bother to monitor players that we know would be out of our financial reach. Once we know someone is on or close to a four figure basic salary, we move on. And you would be amazed by the number of “journeymen” players that are paid ridiculous wages. Paying players more does not make them better, just more expensive. We have a simple philosophy when negotiating wages. We have a limit, we have a figure that we believe is value for money and we never go higher than either. We also try to have a number of options so that no-one can ever hold us to ransom.
Yet another example is Karl Ledsham. Again, he is a player that we looked at last season. Once Southport told us their valuation for a transfer fee it put him out of the equation but he stayed on our list of players to monitor. Again, with a new manager coming in, things can change. Our Sundays include looking at every starting XI in every club in almost every league from League One down. Richard, Ben and I meet on a weekly basis to discuss potential targets on our various lists of players and our activity obviously heightens towards deadlines like Thursday, the frequency of our meetings become daily and the regularity of our phone calls become almost hourly!
That is why when people ask us about trying to sign players in any particular transfer window it is never something we look at in that way. We are constantly looking for players, not just within a particular window. We are constantly updating our lists. We are constantly meeting. We are constantly talking. And we are constantly looking at ways in which we can improve the squad. The reason we appointed Richard as our Head Coach is that he can also improve the squad by working with the players every day in training. We have a coaching culture at the club, from Richard through to Bonz and all the youth staff. Therefore, we can sign players with potential and make them better. He can also make the collective better than the individuals.
However, there will always be occasions that we will improve the group by adding or changing personnel. That is where our structure, processes and hard work pay off to minimise the risk and maximise the chance of every signing being successful. These three examples also show that although you might not always get your target initially, the work may come to fruition further down the line.
We constantly have lists of players that we monitor. The league above, our league, the leagues below, U21’s at Premier League, Championship & League One clubs, potential loans and recommendations that we need to watch. We also have a scout in Scotland & Ireland that watch games for us and a good contact in the Czech Republic. What underpins these lists is knowledge gained not only by keeping in touch with agents and clubs, but travelling thousands of miles to watch hundreds of games, at every level. Between the three of us, we average around 6-8 games each week. I think Richard then averages that many games every day on WyScout! This is a system that has revolutionised our scouting. It allows us to watch every game in every league, so Richard can study footage of players we identify and see more action of any option before we try to sign them.
It is invaluable. But so is Richard’s experience and knowledge in deciding exactly what we need at any given time to improve the squad. It is one thing to identify options and give an opinion but another thing to proceed with the right one. It is one thing to negotiate the right deal with the player, his club and/or his agent but that is irrelevant if we are signing the wrong player. Therefore, whilst I am sure that Richard would agree the structures in place, our due diligence and processes help us to recruit the players at the right price, his expertise in having a clear picture of the jigsaw in his mind and then selecting the right pieces cannot be underestimated.
On the pitch, the team has a clear structure, players are selected knowing their job, they work hard and have a common goal towards a clear, coherent strategy. In essence, they really are a team. The same is true off the pitch with our football staff. It does not mean that we will be successful but it gives us the best chance. It means that we can overachieve. It means that we can have a squad of greater value than it actually costs. It also means that we will maximise their ability and potential. And most importantly, as fans you can trust that everything is being done to make this club successful without in any way jeopardising the club’s future. In fact, it does the opposite. It ensures we always pursue short term and long term aims in tandem, with one always enhancing the other.
Finally, having played Crystal Palace, Norwich and Southampton last month, our U9’s to U16’s are playing against Tottenham at their training ground this weekend. Just read that sentence again before pinching yourself!
Enjoy the game. You know the importance so please make a difference by getting behind the team, singing your hearts out and raising the roof. I will happily provide Strepsils if you cheer us onto another game on Sunday!