End of Season Overview
Edward Chorlton OBE, Chairman, Exeter City Football Club
We asked our Club Chairman for his candid personal thoughts and reflections on the 2013/14 season.
It has been an interesting season of ups and downs, highlights and worries.
I would start by congratulating the Trust on passing its tenth anniversary as the largest shareholder and thus the owner of the Club. We are often quoted by others as an exemplar and there is no doubt that our approach demonstrates a successful model of governance for a professional football club. We combine the best of fan ownership with a professional approach in all that we do. There are other supporter owned League clubs now in existence but each one is different and there is no single ‘right way’. I have heard from some supporters that being fan owned club doesn’t feel any different to any other club. I can understand this particularly if we are having difficulties on the pitch as there is no magic wand that the owners can wave to sort things out. I believe that being a Trust owned club is different to being under private ownership. It is different in many ways but is also the same in some others. I will explain my views on this in a separate note which we will publish on the Club website in due course.
We started the season well and were soon in the top three in the league, spending sometime in the playoff places before results started to go awry. In recent weeks, it has been a worrying time, for fans, the Trust and for the Club Board. Believe me, the concerns and worries were felt just as much in the board room as on the terraces. As you know, with just two games to go, any two of eight teams could have been relegated by the season’s end. With such real possibilities existing whilst we continued to plan for next season in League 2, we had to understand the implications of relegation, which were horrendous. We estimate that relegation would have cost the club between £600k and £900k in lost income; and that on a current budget of approx. £3 million. Not only would that have been very challenging but it also seems much more difficult these days for former league clubs to bounce straight back from the Conference. There is a tendency for clubs which have never been in the Football League to be bankrolled by new owners. By paying League One and Two level wages in the Conference they attract players that help them to early promotion.
So it was great to see the improvement in results in the last few games, outplaying Chesterfield and beating Scunthorpe (who finished first and second in the League) and Hartlepool. Only Rochdale, who finished third did the double over City this season. In seven days we went from one of the teams which were threatened by relegation to 16th in the league. A week truly is a long time in football.
Despite the terrace banter, I was sorry to see our neighbours Torquay United relegated despite a revival in their results in recent weeks. Local derbys are always highlights of the year and we will miss our fixtures both with them and the Gas next year. We wish them both well in the future.
Talking of local derbys, one of the highlights of the season for me was doing the double over Argyle. We outplayed them in both games but with one major down side, which was the injury to Matt Oakley in the game at St James Park which, quite possibly, was one of the factors that affected our mid-season form. It was good to see him back to match fitness at the end of the season.
Another highlight of the season has to be the performance of our younger players. It started with the under 18 friendly fixture against Manchester City which we drew 2-2. They went on to win the South West Under 18 League. Well done to them!
I am sure that when the Premier League designed the Premier League Under 21 Cup that they had no expectation of there being a League Two side in the quarter finals of their cup competition. Having beaten Torquay in the local round the Grecian Under 21 Team went on to beat two Premier League sides, Crystal Palace away and Southampton at SJP, this was followed by victory over Championship side Blackburn before going out to a rather unsporting Burnley. It is interesting to note that although Burnley have been promoted to the Premier League, most of their under 21 players that played at St James Park have been released including Archie Love who made gestures to our crowd. It really has been an excellent season for our under 21 team and we congratulate them.
It is not unusual these days for up to five home grown players to feature in the senior team with another couple on the bench. This didn’t happen over night. It is the result of ten years hard work by Simon Hayward ,our Head of Youth and Julian Tagg, the club Vice Chairman and Executive Director Football. It was Julian who ensured that our youth set up continued when we were relegated to the Conference some years ago. That foresight is certainly being rewarded now! We owe them both our thanks. Our Youth Academy must be one of the most successful in the country if judged by the numbers of players that move through into the first team. During April the Academy was subjected to a four day inspection by the Premier League Independent Audit. Simon together with Clive Pring and his groundsmen team did an excellent job preparing for the inspection. We expect the results in mid June.
The club has enjoyed great success from its “ across the board” dedication and commitment to its youth policy. Whilst Dean Moxey, George Friend and Dan Seaborne have all come through as a small part of successful teams built by Paul the possibility now is that a very high percentage of “home grown” could both not only represent the club but be extremely competitive and in time successful. You cannot buy experience but this year’s group coming through - Jordon Moore-Taylor, Matt Grimes, Tom Nichols, and Christy Pym to mention a few, whilst they are not yet the finished article they can be considered to be well on their way to establishing themselves. Paul Tisdale has considerable past and present experience in this area and it means the club has an opportunity to yet again do things differently. We had 10 home grown players on the pitch during our final game v Hartlepool which must be a club record.
The Cat and Fiddle training ground is leased. Up until recently we had a yearly tenancy which prevented us from improving the facilities. The present position is that a 25year lease has been agreed in principal and the details are now being dealt with by our Lawyers (Ashfords) This will enable us to draw up a comprehensive plan and strategy for its development over the coming years and to access certain grants to help deliver the improvements.
We are, also still determined to make improvements to St James Park. The brief of making improvements ‘at no cost and no risk’ to the club is not an easy one. As I explained at the Trust AGM earlier in the year we have tried a number of approaches and have yet to find a way to make the improvements needed. I can tell you, however, that we are in discussion with potential partners but there is a long way to go before we will know if we have a sustainable approach. One significant development during the year has been the acquisition of the Fountain Centre and car park, from the County Council, at no cost. This will ensure the future of Exeter City’s Football in the Community charity and opens up real possibilities for progress.
A few years ago our then Chief Executive, Norrie Stewart led a group that drew up our strategic plan ’20-20 Vision’. Many things have moved on since then including the recession and our position in the League. Over the coming months the Club Board will be working with the Trust Board to pull together agreed priorities and a refreshed Strategic Plan to guide our approach in the coming seasons.
As a result of growing interest in the club board, we have put profiles of Board Members, together with their photographs, on the Club Website. We will also hold a ‘Meet the Board’ Fans Forum in the latter part of June. Details are still being planned but what we are considering is that we will precede the meeting proper with half an hour of informal chat between Directors and Supporters. Following this I will ask each of the Directors to introduce themselves, I will outline our views on how a supporters owned club really is different to a club under private ownership and then I will ask James Forsyth, a board member and corporate lawyer to explain the legal niceties, responsibilities and liabilities of a company board. We will then open up the meeting for a question and answer session.
One of the club’s greatest assets is it volunteers. Nearly a hundred people regularly give of their time in helping the club. Our thanks go to all of you who are volunteers. They are one of the key differences between a supporter owned and a privately owned club. The Trust together with club staff are organising a thank you party on 20th July ‘Samba at the Park’ so do look out for details in the Trust newsletter.
We try to keep the club’s administration to a minimum in order to maximise the available funds for the team. Some people have asked who does what, so we have placed the outline staff structure on the website which shows who the cost centre managers are and their departmental responsibilities. As in all things we do, we try to be professional. The structure and the setting of individual targets have been developed by our new Chief Executive, Guy Wolfenden and members of the Board.
The 2013/14 season has been particularly challenging from a financial perspective. Having two home games rained off and replaced with Tuesday evening fixtures had a significant effect as gate and hospitality takings are always lower for Tuesday evening games when there are often European Cup games on TV. This combined with lower gates from the start of the year certainly created a challenge. I was heartened to see, however, the upturn in gates over the last couple of home games. We expect to make a small loss over the financial year of a whole and we are planning to make this good as part of the 2014/15 budget. Living within our means remains our guiding principle. We will publish the end of year analysis of gates on the website soon.
Again, for 2014/15 our aim will be to maximise the sum available for the team once unavoidable costs such as electricity, rates and so on are taken into account, together with the costs of stewarding, catering, bars, conferencing, staffing the shop, pitches, team transport, team kit and equipment medical services, team bus, administration, coaches and team management and the commercial team are taken into account. Some people suggest that as City is supporter owned then tickets should be cheaper. We would love to be able to do that, but it would not put a better team on the pitch.
Our first team did come top of one league and that is in team discipline – the 2013/14 Fair Play League. The first three were 1. Exeter City, 2. Scunthorpe United, and 3. Cheltenham Town. Personally,I think the Football League still has a long way to go in terms of fair play. This season we have experienced the best and the worst of gamesmanship and refereeing. We continue to make our point when the opportunity arises. Perhaps if the bottom teams in the fair play league experienced points deductions they would pay more attention to this issue. If you want to see the full Fair Play listing the web link is is:-http://www.espnfc.com/stats/fairplay/_/league/eng.4/english-league-two?cc=5739
So what are the prospects for next season? I think they are good. The season just completed was astonishingly close with the eventual gap between the team that just avoided relegation and that which just missed out on the playoffs being just 12 points. It truly was a season in which almost any team could beat another. We have a team of experienced and young players. They have shown how well they can play on a number of occasions this season, including recently at Chesterfield and at home against Scunthorpe (we were the only team to do the double over Scunthorpe and the first to beat them since last October). Clearly, what is needed is more consistency. In Paul Tisdale, we have a manager who with his coaches has guided the club to two promotions in the past. I have every confidence that he will guide the club to further success.