Category Archives: Interviews

STAND – @The_Paris_Angel meets David Conn

We were very pleased that the brilliant @david_conn featured in WSB3. Our good friends STAND also recently released their latest issue (which you can and should buy here) – it included this interview with David Conn by @The_Paris_Angel.

@The_Paris_Angel meets David Conn

When I was asked if I would interview David Conn for STAND I did not hesitate in saying yes. Not only was this a bit of a coup for the fanzine, there isn’t really a more suited journalist at this moment in time for a publication such as this.

David has written three books;The Football Business: Fair Game in the ’90s? (1997),The Beautiful Game?: Searching the Soul of Football (2004) and Richer Than God: Manchester City, Modern Football and Growing Up (2012). For all three books David used his investigative skills to delve into the somewhat murky world of modern football and the money which goes hand in hand with it. However, this is not the only reason he is the ideal interviewee for STAND – David has campaigned tirelessly on behalf of the bereaved Hillsborough families and his 2009 article for the Guardian (Hillsborough: How Stories of Disaster Police Were Altered: The Guardian April 13 2009)which brought to light the families’ continuing campaign for justice prompted the then Labour ministers Andy Burnham and Maria Eagle to press for all official documents relating to the disaster to be released.

He is massively respected amongst his peers and has been named sports news reporter of the year twice, in 2004 and 2009, by the Sports Journalists Association, and has been named Football Writer of the Year by the Football Supporters Federation three times, in 2002, 2005 and 2009. In December 2013 he was named Sports Journalist of the Year in the Press Gazette British Journalism Awards.

After a few emails it was decided between us that the best place to conduct the interview was at his house in the Yorkshire Daleswhich he shares with his wife and two daughters, two cats and a whippet called Daisy. On the coldest night of the year so far, David made me instantly feel welcome after a tricky drive in the snow and as he brewed up we got chatting about the work he has done with and on behalf of the Hillsborough families.

“I really hope with the new inquest approaching on March 31st, that the families get what they deserve and have been fighting for, justice, after all this time”.

After decamping upstairs to his office, David is quick to set out what he feels that football in this country is lacking:

“We are not educated enough about football as a nation – theorganisation of it, the values,the philosophy. I honestly think that if you asked people, hand on heart, that 99% would agree that football should be about communities and values. In Germany and elsewhere in Northern Europe, they don’t just follow a team they have a philosophy. They are aware that there are a set of values football has which should be protected.  Although the game started in this country and we are incredibly passionate about it, for some reason we have never been educated enough and had that philosophy instilled in us. We have owners coming in, buying our clubs,  and they are allowed to change such integral things as the colour of the shirts clubs play in simply because , we are told, “It’s their club, they have the money and they can do what they want”  It’s just plain wrong”

What set David on this journey of investigative journalism was an interview with the then newly appointed Chairman of MCFC, Francis Lee, which he was sent to do by North West Business Insider magazine in1994. The whole idea behind the story was the rapid transformation of football from a professional sport into a business. The following is taken from David’s most recent book,Richer Than God: Manchester City, Modern Football and Growing Up:

“We got into talking, and as I waited for Franny to articulate an affection for the club and inspire me with his intentions for it, it crept on me gradually that he was talking about money, and the club’s need for it”

So it was an eye-opener then?

“Definitely. It was also around this time that I met an accountant from Deloitte who explained to me about the Premier League breakaway and the SKY deal. At the time of the First Division’s breakaway in 1992 I hadn’t realised it was all about the top clubs keeping the TV money, not sharing it with the other three divisions.  The accountant took some delight in explaining to me that the shares in football clubs would be worth a fortune and the owners – I never considered them as owners because I thought the clubs belonged to the fans  – would be doing very well out of this  ‘new age of football’.  He even described himself as ‘a missionary for the new age of football ‘. Yet, for me, a new age of football should have meant putting the money to good use throughout the game at all levels.

I wrote my first book, (The Football Business: Fair Game in the 90s), because I wanted people to know about football in the Premier League era but really the facts in it shouldn’t have been such a revelation. Yet they werebecause this was a secret world; perhaps the class system in this country could have a lot to do with it – the wealthy directors putting on a show for the masses with the masses not really being told what’s going on behind the scenes.  That’s not for you, it’s really complicated. It’s not that complicated really but the business men like to use that as a mystique so they are unaccountable for their machinations – we should expose it to make them more accountable – and thankfully this has happened and is continuing to happen. MCFC, or any club for that matter, shouldn’t be about rights issues and shares – it should be about the game itself and the fans.”

One of the biggest issues of the modern game is the extortionate ticket prices – what are your thoughts on that?

“I think it’s depressing when I see clubs charging upwards of £50/£60 for a ticket”

It’s also infuriating when you have fans defending their club’s ticket pricing policy just out of blind loyalty.

“I totally agree. How can they see that as a club issue to defend? It’s a broad fan issue and one where people should be able to see the wider picture.”

David then shows me a crowd photo of the Kop in 60/70s and a modern one at Old Trafford (although it could be anywhere in fairness).

“Look at that one of the Kop – no baldies (like me!)no grey hair and a lot of kids and a real mix of ages. Then look at the one of Old Trafford today- no teenagers, all adults. We’re missing a generation.  I’ve been making this case to the Premier League for years and they use their own figures on the match going demographic which they claim show there’s more of everyone going than there were in the past. Yet we know, me and you know as we were there in the past on the terraces, that it’s simply not true. I put those photos up at a conference I was at and it hit home more than any stats did because it’s so obvious. I think it’s really sad that most people at the game just seem to be of a certain age – older people”

It’s true, and I’ve often made the point that a huge part of growing up for me was going to the match and I think it’s sad thousands of kids won’t get that experience unless something is done about the prices, especially in the Premier League. Whereas in the past people went to the football and acted daft as a kid only to go less as they got older and settled down, the situation has been turned on its head and it’s considered by some as one of life’s luxuries you can only afford on a regular basis when you are earning a reasonable wage. It infuriates me when people view football as a ‘luxury’ people don’t have a right to enjoy.

Interview with Don Rowing

Reight. Before we go any further I just want to say a few things to add a bit of context to this.

1. I don’t know Don personally. I’ve met him a couple of times through his job at the Football Club but mainly in the open meetings that he set up for the Supporters Trust/BBS.

2. I contacted him a few weeks ago, before the DF departure, to ask if he’d be interested in an interview for the next issue of the fanzine out in February. He kindly agreed, however, when news of DF leaving came about I asked if we could bring that forward. Again, he kindly agreed.

3. I’m not a Journalist. I’m a supporter who is a position through this fanzine to be able to meet these people and ask questions from a supporter’s perspective. No doubt there are questions I could’ve asked, points I should’ve probed on but I didn’t so don’t get the monk on.

I’ve spent the last couple of hours transcribing this from a recording I took when I met Don last night. I’ve tried to make the below as close to the spoken word as possible but with some very minor grammatical changes – also, I ramble like f.ck. There’s probably spelling errors etc but I couldn’t care less.

My questions are in bold. Don’s response below.

LD: Don, 9 years at Oakwell, what were your highlights?

DR: The highlight was probably the first day at the club. It was quite an honour at the time – I’d worked most of my football career in the lower divisions. To be offered the job at Barnsley was quite a coup for me and I really did look forward to spending my latter years at the club.

Can you give us a bit of background how the offer came about?

I left Scunthorpe in May 2004. I was going to have a break from football but on the Monday after I’d finished I had a call from Barnsley asking if I would be interested in taking up a position as a consultant on the Football League regulations. Apparently I’d been recommended by the CEO of the Football League which I thought was quite nice. I went to see them and it went from there.

What’s your biggest regret?

Getting older and getting to the final day – I really have enjoyed my life in football. I’ve had 32 years in the game – it’s 24/7 but it’s part of your life, you’re social life. Most guys like football and to be involved in it is something amazing.

In those 9 years, I’ve seen you described as Secretary, Director, Chief Executive, Managing Director – which did you prefer?

I was actually the MD but I don’t think it really matters what your title is. You’ve got your responsibilities and as long as you go about your responsibilities in a proper and orderly manner you can be called anything. For me I’ve always been hands on and I’ve always tried to help in every department, irrespective.

When you read online forums and speak to people, your name is associated with not getting the right deals for players sometimes. What would you say to that?

It’s like selling a house. It depends what the market value is at that time. Many of the players we’ve sold have been sold at a time when the club are under pressure ie the transfer window. If I take an example in Vaz Te, he’d already told us that he didn’t wish to remain at the club at the end of the season. The decision we had to take was do we take the £500k that West Ham offered us or do we let him run his contract out and get nothing at the end of the season? Keith was involved in the decision making process and rightly so. He said he didn’t want a guy in his squad that was thinking about what he’d do at the end of the season – he needed someone who was concentrating on the fight for survival the end of January to May. The decision was either let him go for that money or we got nothing at the end of the season and had a guy who had his mind at another club during his period with us.

With hindsight did the club make the right decision, particularly around Vaz Te?

I think so. The lad’s mind was already with West Ham. We’ve got to take in to account that the guy had an agent that acted on his behalf and when you get they tend to influence the way they think. This agent said ‘he will not kick another ball for you’, he will be going to West Ham because the deal on the table there was so good we couldn’t have matched it anyway.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing and I imagine football is quite different to many industries in that your every decision is under scrutiny – if it goes wrong your slated and if it goes right it’s expected. Is there anything, with the benefit of hindsight, that you’d do differently – particuly in  your Managing Director role of the past few years?

No, not really. You have situations that arise from time to time that you have to address and you address them always in the interests of the football club. We can go to Adam hammill. AH came here and there was criticism that there was a buy out clause in his contract but AH was actually on his way to Leeds United. Simon Davey came and said we can sign him if we put this clause in his contract. I asked the manager ‘what would you like to do?’ and he said ‘I’d like to sign him and if we get 18 months out of him and we can stay in this division then we’ll look at it if we get an offer for him but it means we’ll still be in this division’. If we had let him go to Leeds United then we’d have got criticism for letting him do that. Sometimes you have to make decisions – he wouldn’t have come to Barnsley unless he had that buy out clause because he had aspirations of getting higher.

There’s a couple of times you’ve mentioned staying up – as a member of the board, what was defined as success for Barnsley? Was it staying up each year?

What we wanted to do was to improve year on year. That was always the aim.

And that was one of the key things that was mentioned in the statement when Mark Robins left and we hadn’t delivered on this year on year improvement.

That was always the ambition. Unfortunately, it didn’t pan out that way. If you look in hindsight to where the football club is now, taking tonight’s’ result out of the equation, we’d all give our back teeth to be in the division next year. No matter what you do, Barnsley FC is a small club in relation to the Leicester City’s, the Sheffield’s and clubs like that and therefore you can only actually spend what you earn unless you have someone who is prepared to put money in. People say this about ‘punching above your weight’, I don’t agree with that terminology, but I do think that by enlarge to be in the division, playing the big teams year after year after year is success in it’s own way. If you want to go higher than that then somewhere along the line we have to try and get investors to do that.

Do you think the only way that we’re going to consistently see improvement is if we do find alternative investment?

I like to think that the ideal situation would be for someone to come in and help Patrick and invest.

During your time there were lots of talk about consortiums; did anyone come in that you felt could offer more?

It was always Patrick’s idea that he would sell the club if he could get the right people to take it. What those right people are I don’t know but unfortunately it appears that they’ve not come forward.

There were reports of an asking price of around £1.5 million but with a guarantee of his investment being paid up if we went up – is that right?

Yes, basically there was a fixed figure that he would want to sell the club and there was an amount that should they get promoted to the PL that he would get a fixed sum.

Was there ever an opportunity to bring anyone else on to the board at that time?

No, it was never discussed. Maurice came on to the board when it was known that I would retire but no, not really.

You mentioned the board and you spent a lot of time working with Patrick & Barry who are the two remaining members of the board at the club that you worked with. What skills do they bring to Barnsley Football Club?

Patrick has been in business and understand how business works. He was very supportive of both myself and the Team Management at my time at the club.

As far as the other guy is concerned, how can I put it diplomatically? I was always told as a youngster ‘if you don’t have anything nice to say about someone then don’t say it’.

You mentioned Maurice Watkins and Ben Mansford has taken over job as CEO, you had a couple of weeks working with Ben. What were your first impressions of him?

He strikes me as being an ambitious young man. He’ll obviously have a lot to learn but will only get that by working within the industry and finding the pit falls as he goes along. Maurice is a gentleman and been in the football World for many years.

He’s been in a lot of World’s for many years.

Yeah, but he’s very professional, a very nice man.

There’s been some concerns from supporters that whilst Chairman in name that he has commitments elsewhere. From your position of experience, how much time will he be able to dedicate to Barnsley and also what benefits will we see of having a very part time chairman with his other responsibilities? The worry is that he does have a lot of experience in football and he’s well thought of across industries and sport, how much of that can he bring to Barnsley in a part time basis?

It’s difficult to say, all I do know is that he has got the contacts with being in football as long as has and hopefully some of that will rub off on the football club.

You mentioned the board always set a target of progression, year on year. With the way things are looking it’s going to be difficult to meet that this year, what do you think we need to do as a club, not in a football way but in the background, to make that year on year progression easier?

You do need continuity of management and not chop and change your players too often. If you’re going to choose a player, stick with that player and do your homework first rather than having knee jerk reactions to things. You’ve to get the right players, they are out there but you’ve got to do your homework. I’m not a big believer in a big squad; I believe you’re better going for quality not quantity and if you then have to use the loan system then use it. By enlarge you should be able to run a football team on 22 players which would be 2 players per position and you could include a couple from your academy, like the Digby’s and Rose’s in that 22. If you have too many, you get the management problem of keeping them happy.

You mention the Academy; you were involved in the classification of our Academy as Level 2 status. In your opinion, what is a successful academy and do you think we have one?

I believe we have a very, very good academy. That’s not only endorsed by me but the Football League & Football Association. We are the front runners in the EPPP and are the envy of many PL clubs. Now, why do you have an academy? It’s obviously there to bring players through to supplement the first team squad. If you pick these players, and sign them as pros, then you have to put them in your development squad and you’ve got to ensure that somewhere along the line they get the opportunity to play in the first team. But with all youngsters, like any player, they need a run in the first team. It doesn’t help if you’ve not got continuity in the management in order to ensure that

Is it the transition of players from the academy to first team that’s the problem, with the notable exceptions of Butterfield & Stones?

I don’t think they’ve had the opportunity. What’s been recognised is that going from the Academy to First Team is not the thing to do. You’ve got a guy who’s in the Academy doing 7 hours a day and then you go in to the first team where you’re working less hours in a day for whatever reason. So they brought in a development squad, the U21s, to get the transition from the academy, the U21s into the first team and that’s how it should be. You’ll probably find that there will be more players that are capable of going into the first team squad, as time evolves, than previously.

In your opinion, do you think we’ve got the structure right to bring them players on?

I think we have now but there has to be a link between the first team manager and the academy and they have that with Paul Heckingbottom in which they dovetail into each other.

In your experience, did PH, DF & KH work closely together?

Yes. The appointment of PH did in fact make it much easier in terms of the transition from one to the other.

You took over as MD at a time when the strategy changed for various reasons, particularly where Mr Cryne wasn’t able to inject the money he had done before and we would spend what we earn. Do you think that’s the right way to run? You mentioned we need investment, without PCs investment how far away are we?

BFC aside, any football club should be self sustainable. Whoever owns a football club, something could happen to them tomorrow. If anything did, that club are lumbered with tremendous debt which could lead to admin. What you’ve got to look at is that all clubs should look to be self sufficient and then at least you can balance your books and stay in business. That is what we did because of the FFP that said that is actually what you should do. That won’t please all fans because they want to see progression on the pitch and be near the top of the league but sometimes you’ve got to look at it sensibly and say ‘do we go for broke and risk the future of the football club or do we try and keep it in business and try and keep it in the division we’re in now?’

It seems that since DF was appointed that strategy has changed with our young players going out on loan and bringing in high quality yet expensive loan players in. Is it fair to say that strategy has changed and we are more willing to gamble than we were under your stewardship?

All I can say is that I believe the Board have backed DF to the hilt and they’ve given him everything he said he wanted to make the team successful. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out that way but there is always a cost when you do things like that.

You had an interview with Radio Sheffield yesterday and there’s been quite a few comments about it – how was your working relationship with DF?

Fraught, if I’m being honest. I think he probably saw me as a dinosaur who wasn’t switched on to what he was trying to achieve. A lot of things were cosmetic – wanting 5 star hotels, better buses,  training & first team pitches etc. There are 24 clubs in the championship and if everyone has the best of everything there will still be three clubs who will be relegated. I think it’s cosmetic and unnecessary and it’s nothing against the players if they have to go on a bus which isn’t as bright as their opponents. With all these things there are cost implications. It’s ok when it works but when it doesn’t there’s a cost to pay.

If you were still a member of the board, what would you be recommending in terms of a new manager? Would it be a short term, end of the season approach or look at it a little longer?

I would do it  short term, until the end of the season. Who that person is would be up to the board but I certainly would look at that and take stock at the end of the season and decide then where they want to be and which direction they want to go in.

Any names that you’d throw in?

No, not really.

How does it work in this situation?

There’s two or three ways. There will be a load of letters on the Chairman’s desk. You’ll look at that and find the usual candidates that have been on the merry-go-round that have dropped off and back on again or you can headhunt one of the younger managers and look. Although every manager has to have a Pro License, none of them have any formal training. I believe they should have all done at least 6 months to a year in an academy before you go in to a manager’s job.

Why’s that?

Because the academies are set up with business plans. Everything is there from how to balance the budget, the cash they’ve got and budget for what they have, how to man manage the kids and the staff and the contacts you build as you go along. The only thing they don’t get training is with the media which again, I think they can learn.

We’re quite open with the fanzine in our support of supporter representation. There’s a strong feeling that the club and its supporters have grown apart over a number of years for various reasons. Supporters feel they’re seen as customers which is never a good place to be as a football club. Do you ever think there will be an opportunity at Oakwell that there is an elected member of the supporters that could sit on the board?

You could never say never – that’d be up to the powers that be. There is representation at other football clubs and whether or not they’d go down that road I don’t know.

Do you think it would be a benefit?

I think the supporter’s representative should know how difficult it is at times to be able to agree to the requests of the supporters when it comes to players and finance comes in to it. Also, the other pit falls you get when you try to get players when they want more money than you can afford and they hold you to ransom.

Finally, if you were to use this to say something to the supporters, what would you say?

The club is only as good as the support base and the supporters. You’ve got to remember that without the supporters you’ve got nothing, with them you have everything. But there are times that they don’t understand that unfortunately there is a cost to watch a game and they’ve got to get out of this idea that by charging £5 they’re going to fill the ground. They might half fill the ground but they’ll put themselves into administration by doing it.

To follow up on that, do the powers that be across football need to look at less traditional way of ticketing that we could look at instead of standard £23 a game. Have any initiatives been looked at for Oakwell?

We’ve had initiatives. We tried the Cat A/B/C – £30, £23, £16 – I know that was quite expensive so we came to a mean average because they didn’t like that. You still need to have a certain amount of money to be able to pay your bills and you need to set your prices taking into account what you’re going to get commercially, season tickets and the Football League to at least break even.

I think supporters know we are one of the cheapest around and appreciate it but the concern is that it’s part of the feeling of being pushed apart and that the Categories, member schemes did quite a lot to push people away fro a number of years.

What we were trying to do is increase the amount of revenue so we could invest it in to the team but it didn’t work and we have to move on. Some things work and some things don’t. It’s one of those things.