In the first instalment of our new Ask The Board feature, Chairman Shahid Azeem answers your questions on the past, present and future of the Club…
What is your vision for the Club? What strategy do you have to achieve this? We want to be a Football League club. There are lots of areas that we need to look at, and it’s a big ask, but that’s what we want to do and where want to go. Personally, I’d also love to get to Wembley – I know it won’t happen this season now, but the Club has never played at Wembley in its history.
A lot of people ask me what our ambitions are, and if it is merely to survive, but whenever I play sport I play to win. I wouldn’t play if I didn’t want to win, and this Club will not accept a mid-table finish. I want to win every game.
To achieve this, we need more investment in the Football Club, to help the budget. Importantly, the gates have to improve. We need to look at our future and what we are about, physically. Our infrastructure needs to change to generate that income and realise that vision, whether we are here or somewhere else. Ultimately we cannot survive at this level with our current infrastructure. We need a seven-day operation at this Club and we are working with people to ensure that happens.
Can Aldershot Town FC mount a challenge to regain its Football League status, and when do you expect? Of course it can, but it needs to be managed and have the right budget. The manager and the team certainly want promotion, but we’ve got to get the basic foundations right.
What are your top three priorities for the Club right now? First of all, to make sure that the Club is sustainable. The second thing is working with Barry to get the team winning matches and entertaining the fans. And the third thing, which goes hand-in-hand with sustainability, is to win back more supporters and get them to attend matches again. Ultimately, the bigger picture is the future of the Club, and where it needs to go.
Are the Board of Directors actively looking for new investment? All the time.
Would you add a money man to the board if one came forward? If it was the right person, and we had done our due diligence on them.
Have you had any serious offers to buy the Club during your tenure? We’ve had loads of offers, people come in and promise everything but when we ask to see their bank statements they disappear. We had one offer but it wasn’t really a financial offer, they just wanted to take over the Club.
Would you be prepared to leave the Club if the right offer came in? If anybody wants to take the Club forward, and they are the right person to do that, then yes, without a doubt.
How many of the Board of Directors take a wage from the Club? None. No Director takes a penny out of this Club.
How safe is the Club at this current level and will it stay a full-time club for the foreseeable future? Last year we again made a small operating profit, for the second successive year. We increased our turnover last year, and this year we are aiming to break-even. It will be tough, and I would urge people to support their club. We need you. I know things aren’t good, but this is your club. If you want this club to survive, you have to support it. Call me whatever you want to call me, but negativity towards the Club helps nobody, so please encourage people to come to the games. Make no mistake, if the crowds continue to fall it will be a huge challenge, and will be difficult to remain competitive on the field.
Please tell us in your own words why you are Aldershot Town chairman. What is in it for you? There’s nothing in it for me, financially. It takes a lot of time and impacts on my business and personal life. I first got involved when Paul Marcus (MD of Eagle Radio) invited me to help with our community projects, and I became more involved at Boardroom level when the Club hit financial problems in 2012.
During that time, I got to know the people a lot, and what the football club means to the town. I got to know Frank Burt, who has been here since the Club formed in 1926, and I wanted to help save the Club for these people. Without sounding vulgar and arrogant, without our consortium there wouldn’t be a Football Club. So is it by choice? No, it just landed there, but the Club is now a huge part of my life. I am very passionate about increasing the profile of Aldershot Town Football Club and the town of Aldershot, as it goes through a lot of changes.
I love sports, and I’m probably past playing much of it myself, so still being involved and part of the Club is the closest thing for me. It’s a big challenge, and I like challenges. I don’t like failing and the Board put a lot of pressure on ourselves, as well as from other people who are close to us. Sometimes the easiest thing would be to walk away, but we are trying to make it work for everybody.
What plans do the Board have to make up the shortfall in income between budgeted and actual matchday revenue? Our primary aim and concern must be to win back those 400 regular supporters who no longer come to games, and hopefully that will start to happen once results improve, but we know that it will take a while. Our FA Cup revenue has helped but it may still be that costs have to be cut.
We agree that attendances are low, as recently the result have not been good. Having said that, during our previous unbeaten run, we didn’t see attendances increasing much, either. We are increasing our marketing to improve attendances, and working to increase our commercial revenue. We are developing our links with schools, and improving our e-marketing.
What is the break-even crowd figure for the remainder of the games this season? Our budget is reviewed every quarter, so if attendances don’t improve we will try to both generate extra income from other areas and cut costs. Our ability to cut costs is, to an extent, limited by contracts, but we have to review figures all the time.
Would you consider lowering admission prices next year? We will always look at it, and we review our figures every year. Our prices have remained the same for five years, and we lose 20% of every ticket to VAT, so I think we are quite competitively priced, but I understand that money is tight for most supporters. This week we have reduced prices, for the Eastleigh game, and made an offer for those supporters to come to Guiseley AFC, and we will see the impact that has. Does that add an extra 2-300 on the gate? I very much doubt it. I think people are prepared to pay for good football, and that is what we need to re-establish.
If we are relegated this season, will the Club still be financially viable? Easily, yes. Our commercial arrangements and sponsors are on multi-year deals, and we would also make savings on travelling and overnight stays. We don’t talk about relegation.
Is or has there ever been any dialogue with the Council with regards to the Club owning the ground? All the time. I have an excellent relationship with the Council leaders, and we work very closely with them. We are always looking at how we move forward, because we know that we need to generate more income and at the moment those options are limited.
Could you please provide clarity on what terms the Rec is leased from the council? And roughly what kind of costs are associated with running the ground? We have a good relationship with Rushmoor Borough Council. We maintain the ground – it is a very old stadium and that is our biggest problem. The transferred lease that we took on makes us liable for all repairs, which amount to tens of thousands of pounds every year. We still pay business rates but have very favourable terms on our rent payments.
Are there any plans to build a new stadium on the land by the Wellington Statue? We are in constant discussions with a number of parties about what we can do. We have identified one or two possible areas for development but we cannot say where.
Is there any planning permission to make the East Bank bar into something with a roof and heating for the winter? Not at the moment, but Clarks Caterers, who we thank for taking on this project, are hoping to install some braziers. It’s down to planning permission, and as the bar is a converted building we are limited in what we can do, particularly with smoking as that opens up other health and safety issues.
Have you shopped around for stewards to get a better deal? We are limited to how much more cost-cutting we can make with stewards, because of the configuration of the stadium – by law we have to have a steward at every entrance and exit to the stands. The number of stewards is dictated externally by the Safety Advisory Group, Hampshire County Council and the emergency services – we have to comply or we will be shut down. Brian Bloomfield is talking to Knights Security and our Safety Advisory Group to look at every opportunity to cut costs. We also talk to every club we play to ensure we aren’t missing a trick.
Do you have any plans to open a full-time social club at the Club? It’s a great idea, and I would very much like to. We are trying to increase our income in all areas, and this is something we can look into in the medium-to-long-term.
Are the BOD fully co-operating with the Shots Trust for the benefit of Shots supporters and also in the best long term interests of Aldershot Town FC? We have regular meetings with the Trust, and our recent meetings have been very positive. Our relationship is getting a lot better.
How satisfied are you with the first 6 months of Barry Smith’s tenure and what targets are in place between now and the end of 2015-16? Like you, the Board, Barry and the team are disappointed with recent results. We haven’t had the best of luck, and we need to build consistency, but we are confident that our fortunes will improve. Barry has had a significantly reduced budget to work with compared to previous years, and has put a young and potentially exciting team together. We are very supportive.
How disappointed have you been with both our home form and entertainment this season? Like everybody else, we want to win. We’ve got to win and we haven’t scored enough goals. It is disappointing for the Board, the players and above all the supporters – we want to win, and I believe that Barry will turn it around.
In what circumstances would you change the manager? At the moment, we believe in Barry.
Is it more expensive or less expensive if we need to cancel a rolling contract? It’s less expensive. Barry believes in his own ability and he bought into the concept, so it’s in our favour.
Are we still paying Andy Scott? No.
Why are there no players coming through from the Academy, like in recent years? We no longer have a ‘scholars’ scheme in place. After administration, Knights Training stepped in to run an Academy, in which the lads tend to be younger. We’re trying to promote the name of Aldershot Town in youth football, and get the Academy playing in a higher standard of football, so that we can compete with the likes of Portsmouth, Southampton, Reading and Brentford for the best youngsters in this area.
How much finance from the Football Club is provided to the youth and Academy set up? None. They use our office space (in the South Stand) but that is it.
Does the Chairman think that the youth set up will provide first team squad players in the next 18 months? Potentially, yes.
Do we scout local youth football for young talent? We have a number of scouts in the area, watching youth teams and regional football. Barry and Chris are out most nights watching matches at all levels, and our Academy coaches have established a good network of contacts with schools and youth teams so we know which players are worth looking at.
How is Aldershot Town FC’s brand being developed to the benefit of the club, and is there a feeling that the damage caused by 2013 can be reversed, and how? I certainly think that the damage of administration is already being reversed in some areas, including our relationships in the local community, and with sponsors and the Council. People are buying into our reputation. 2013 was a difficult time but I feel the Club has come through the most difficult period. We must remain financially stable, first and foremost. We respect the clubs history but it’s now time to move forward towards a successful and brighter future.
The Club is proud of its links with every part of our community, and want to be at the heart of everything good about this town. Everybody has a responsibility to develop that brand, including supporters, but the team are the biggest ambassadors we have. They are the face of our Club and we will ensure that they connect with fans and every single stakeholder within our community. Supporters must be able to identify with their team, and the players must demonstrate that they care about the Club as much as fans do.
I feel the teenagers are a decent target audience and provide a possible growth area – how are you engaging with them? We are building stronger links with schools and colleges, covering primary and secondary schools plus further and higher education, and that includes teenagers. I agree that they are an audience we could tap into, and that is not easy – they are no longer part of a traditional ‘family’ audience but are not yet totally financially independent of their parents. We must make it easier for them to attend. However, I also think we must start younger than that. Most football fans have found their club by the time they reach 13, that process starts from birth and we must attract younger children into supporting their local team.
When are you going to introduce a decent online shop with a decent selection of good quality products? We are always looking to improve our Club Shop, and want to get more products online. We feel that it is improving, thanks to our work with Akiko Design, a company who also design websites for McLaren, Disney, Universal Studios and IPL Cricket, and want to provide a full range of quality merchandise. We want to sell products that people want to buy, so let us know what you want.
How do the Board feel about being more transparent with the finances and running of the Club? Every shareholder receives full details of our finances. We are happy to answer any question that people want to ask, either in person or via this feature. There have been some fantastic ideas from our Boardroom Forums, and the Shotsweb messageboard, which we are implementing. Maybe we should have published some of the activities, but we have implemented quite a few and will let you know about more in future.
What is the best thing you have done for Aldershot Town FC? With John Leppard and Tony Knights, and the help of lots of other people, it’s taking the Club out of administration and clearing the debt.
What is the biggest mistake you have made? Personally, the biggest mistake I made was taking Kris Machala’s word over the £300,000 that I put into the Club just days before he put us into administration. I trusted him, and the old Board took his word on things. That’s probably the worst thing.
Commercially, how is the Nepalese partnership going – I don’t see any Nepalese fans where I sit? It’s going well. They have bought advertising boards and banners around the ground, £10,000 of shares and Community Stand debenture tickets. Attendance-wise it is a bit slower, and it’s going to take longer, but the community are getting involved.
Why have we lost loyal and passionate sponsors like Goldstation and Optiplan Kitchens? Goldstation sponsored our FA Trophy game against Eastleigh. Optiplan have, in the past, sponsored midweek games and we hope to have them back in the ground very soon. We work hard to give value to all our sponsors and try to retain them.
Do you regret wanting to charge Graham Brookland to sell his book in the ground? It regretfully caused a lot of unnecessary negativity, but a major reason for the financial problems in 2013 was there were too many giveaways and we now try to enforce a policy of no freebies. I agree, though, that there could have been more dialogue and an agreement reached.
What are Terry Owens and Graham Brookland’s thoughts around the health of our Club? I think you have to ask them. We are pleased that we still have a club, of which Terry is a shareholder.