Management Q and A transcript – October 18, 2019

Management Q and A transcript – October 18, 2019

A question and answer session organised by the SSFC Supporters Alliance was held at Mariners Park on Friday, October 18.

More than 60 supporters were present in the Shipley Heating Lounge, making it one of the best-attended question and answer sessions to have taken place at Mariners Park with the management.

Joint managers Lee Picton and Graham Fenton were joined by chairman Geoff Thompson and they fielded a range of questions from supporters, with the event hosted by Alliance chairman Geordie Pearce.

Here is a transcript from the evening.

Q: We recently secured the services of Jordan Hunter for the rest of the season. How happy are you with that?

LP: We’re delighted to have Jordan for the remainder of the season. It’s fair to say he has been absolutely outstanding since coming to the club in August. There’s always a question mark when you bring in a player from a professional club, or one who has recently left the academy of a Premier League or Football League club. They often have different levels of success when they come into this arena and non-league football. There’s always a question mark as to whether they can make that transition into an environment where results really matter. We’ve got nothing but really, really positive things to say about Jordan, with his approach, attitude, humility and obvious quality shining through every time he plays. He’s an absolute credit to himself, his family and Sunderland AFC in the way he has gone about his business so far.

GF: The thing you want to see from young players is a desperation to do well and you can see that with Jordan. He wants to do well for himself and the football club. We’re delighted to have him for the rest of the season and he’s delighted to be here. Some players come out of league football club environments and possibly think they’re above playing at this level. That could not be further from the truth with Jordan. He’s delighted to be here and is showing that on the pitch.

GT: I’d like to add that it’s great to have the relationship we have with Sunderland.

GF: Kevin Ball in particular has been magnificent for us. Kevin looks after a lot of the loan stuff there and he sees the benefits of the lads getting out to play senior football. Players need to be introduced into senior football because sometimes Under-23s football can be a little bit stale and false. Kevin is a really big advocate of getting players out to play senior football.

Q: Does the situation with Sunderland changing managers recently affect Jordan?

GF: When a new manager comes in things can always change. We have nothing but high praise for Jack Ross from our dealings with him at the friendly between the clubs in pre-season and we were sad to see him lose his job. We’ve met Phil Parkinson previously also and he’s a very nice man. Hopefully that’s a relationship we can develop and see thrive over the next few years.

Q: Just as an aside, would you have taken the Sunderland job if it had been offered to you? (Laughter)

GT: They’re on five-year contracts!

Q: We have signed a lot of players from the North West over the last year. Have you got someone in that area watching players or is there a contact in that area you have?

LP: Over the last couple of years in particular, one aspect of our job has been to try to develop a network out there that can hopefully work with us in a positive way. They’re not necessarily employees of the club but they are people who we have developed a relationship with that can work positively for both parties. We got the ball rolling with the signing of Nathan Lowe this time last year. He was the first player that came in from the North West and after getting the ball rolling with him, we brought Luke Daly to the club and since then, the likes of Jason Gilchrist and Adam Thurston. We’ve built up a number of very productive and important relationships with people in the North West in particular over the last year or so. We didn’t specifically earmark the North West per se, but at the same time there’s a huge concentration of Football League and Premier League clubs around that area and a lot of players. Location-wise, it’s not a million miles from us so it makes sense to cover that kind of area in our search for players. I’m sure everyone will agree that all of the players I previously mentioned have been really positive additions for us. It has been a really big and important step forwards for us as a club.

GF: Football is a very small world and everyone seems to know each other. I think it’s right to thank Geoff Thompson and Keith Finnigan for supporting us and providing accommodation for the lads to come across, because it wouldn’t have been possible to attract that calibre of player otherwise.

Q: Are all of those players who have come in full-time?

GF: Some are completely full-time and can access all the training we do. We have football training, gym sessions, pool sessions and video analysis. Some of them have other commitments, for example Dillon Morse has some work commitments for some of the week. There’s a big mix between the lads. Across the board, though, we have plenty of contact time with the players and we’ll hopefully feel the benefits of that through the season.

Q: How beneficial has the appointment of Jon Shaw with the academy been for yourselves, giving you more time to concentrate on the first-team?

LP: Myself and Graham thoroughly enjoyed the first two years of looking after the 16-19 academy and the first-team but like with anything else, when you have a singular focus you’re able to put more energy into that area. We really enjoyed doing both but did it take some of our energy away from the first-team at times? Of course. There’s a lot of commitment involved with travel and various other things, and to have one singular focus is more beneficial. We still assist across different areas but to have more of a singular focus on the first-team has been absolutely fantastic. Again we have to thank Geoff for making that investment to allow us to do that and our aim is to repay him and his faith in us to hopefully bring success for the first-team moving forwards. We’ve just taken that first step on the road towards being more of a full-time football club. There’s a certain misconception from some people outside the club as to what we are right now. We’re not what I would class as a fully full-time football club. In many games so far this season – for example FC United away – we’ve had as few as four full-time players in our starting line-up. It’s testament to the quality of the people in our dressing room as to how smooth the transition has been. There has been no divide in our dressing room whatsoever. I remember watching a Salford City documentary which showed their transition from being a part-time club, and it highlighted the divide it created between some of the players. We were very mindful of that from day one and tried to put measures in place to make sure we kept the harmony in the dressing room. So far, so good. The dressing room is a great environment. Everyone is a good egg and we really enjoy spending time with all the players.

GF: Just touching on Jon Shaw specifically, it has been a huge bonus bringing him on board in the role he’s now in. Jon and Wess Brown have settled into their roles so well, which has been proven by the results in the FA Youth Cup so far. It has been another fantastic run in that competition and everyone is looking forward to the game against Morecambe in the next round. Jon and Wess have been brilliant since taking on the roles we had over the last couple of years.

Q: Just looking at the structure of the club, how many teams do we have playing under the South Shields banner?

GT: Two years ago, we set up a charitable Foundation and a lot of children – around the 250 mark – play under that banner. We also have the Futures Academy with Mortimer Community College and the 16-19 academy itself. I was privy to a presentation put on by Wess and Jon recently about the work going on behind the scenes and the values the club is instilling across all levels, and I was blown away when I saw it.

GF: Over a period of time we’ve had lots of discussions and came up with our values as a club and what it takes to be a member of the football club, whether that’s a player, staff member or any representative. Humility, unity and industry are the values we settled on. We wholeheartedly support those values and talk about them with the players on a regular basis. If anyone doesn’t display those values we will question them. It has been a process over a period of time and has just come to fruition.

LP: I’ve said this before in these kind of forums but one of the most appealing things when we started at the club was that it was almost like a blank canvas and we were pretty much starting from scratch. One of the most debilitating things at many football clubs is legacy and what has been done previously, because it can hold the club back. The brilliant thing about this club is that the people that have stayed on the journey through the tough times are absolutely brilliant individuals and have continued on that journey with the club. That has been incredible. We’re blessed with some incredible people that kept this club going before Geoff came on board. We had an opportunity to develop a culture at the club and have tried to build something special from the ground up. We are not just talking about new stands and new floodlights, although they are absolutely incredible and thanks in huge part to Geoff. There’s something above and beyond that as well. It’s about how people feel when they enter this club as a fan, member of staff or player. It’s about what it means to be part of this club. One of the things we’re most proud of us that everywhere we go – if you pardon the pun – we get absolutely fantastic feedback from the clubs we visit as to how fantastic our fans are. It’s not just about the noise they create. It’s about how they conduct themselves. They’re fully aligned to the values we talked about. They’re not just buzz words. A lot of conversations take place about how we embody those values and how we run them through everything we do moving forwards as a club. We’re trying to be the best we can as a club. We don’t and will not get everything right, but we try to learn from our mistakes and get better as we go on.

Q: When you bring new players in, how important is knowing what they’re like as a character before they sign?

GF: We try our best to know as much about them as possible. It’s almost impossible to know for sure unless you have worked with them before. We try to speak to players who have worked with them in the past to make sure they’re aligned with those values.

Q: Two players who have done particularly well so far are Jordan Hunter and Myles Boney. How hopeful are you that the club will be seen as an attractive place for professional clubs to send young players on loan in the future?

GF: If the players do well and develop over their time here, that’s obviously what their parent clubs are looking for. If players do well here we can use them as examples if we ask other clubs in the future to loan players.

Q: How is Luke Daly doing in his recovery from injury? It was great to see him standing with us in the crowd at FC United away.

GF: He took some stick about the coat he was wearing that night! It was brilliant for us to see the pictures of the winning goal that night and Luke among the crowd celebrating. You can get down when you’re injured and I think that evening gave him a real boost. He’s doing really well at the moment. We’ve seen him out on the pitch doing his functional work with Andy Morris. He is one of those players who will get back to fitness as quickly as possible because of the way he works his socks off. He’s a real grafter.

LP: We don’t know at this stage when he’ll be back available. He has another appointment with the consultant. The scan he had previously showed a number of issues with the knee and the consultant wanted to give Luke the maximum amount of time and chance to see how the injury recovered by itself initially before making a final assessment as to whether an operation is needed. We should have more definitive news soon, and everyone is keeping their fingers crossed for positive news. Since Luke has been here, he has had a massive impact in terms of the energy and quality he brings us on the pitch and his athleticism. We’re absolutely desperate to have him back. Unfortunately, if an operation is needed he will be looking at a pretty long time out but we’ll have to wait and see. When he got the first results back, the consultant gave him a really low chance of recovering without the need for an operation. The last time he saw him, he gave him a much better chance so we’re keeping our fingers crossed.

Q: Is the long-term vision for the academy, in line with Project EFL, to produce players at academy level from the age of nine as part of the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP), as the cost of players will be much higher the further up the pyramid we go?

GF: We’re trying to develop the club from the bottom up. Jamie Williams is doing a fantastic job with the Futures Academy. Wess and Jon are doing a really good job with the 16-19 Academy. The lads are playing some fantastic football and we will have to see if they develop enough to get into the first-team. If they progress beyond our first-team there might be that one special player we can make some money on and we might see them play at the top level.

GT: The aim is to be a sustainable, community-based football club. The further you go up the pyramid and the more success you have as a club, the bigger the salary and transfer fee requests are. The obvious thing to do is to develop your own talent. That’s not a quick fix, though. It’s all credit to the lads that we’ve made such great progress in a short amount of time.

LP: We are where we are as a football club. I think we have to accept at this stage that because of the level we’re at, we’re quite vulnerable in that respect. A case in point is Will McCamley, who we helped to develop over a period of two years here and we were delighted for him to get the opportunity to become a full-time professional at what was then a Premier League club, Huddersfield Town. Unfortunately, we received no financial compensation for that because of where we are as a club. That’s tough. We’re always vulnerable in that situation to bigger clubs coming along unless we sign them as contracted players to the first-team. You can only do that when they’re in education when they turn 18. We’re learning as we go. We’re always talking about different strategies we can apply to help the club move forwards. We had three young lads training with the first-team last week. They’re all very talented players and it’s all really positive. Graham mentioned Jamie Williams and the Futures Academy at Mortimer earlier, and it’s important to mention Blair Adams at this stage too because he works alongside Jamie. Blair has been absolutely fantastic since coming to the club. No managerial team gets all of their signings right and we’re no different. With Blair Adams in particular, though, we made a fantastic signing for the club and it’s brilliant to see what he’s doing on and off the pitch.

Q: Do Callum Guy and Arron Thompson still train with us or do they train with West Auckland?

GF: It’s a bit of both. They’re with us for the day-time training sessions and with them when they train on evenings. The massive benefit is the senior game-time they’re having. The management team at West Auckland are very happy with both of them, and our club will benefit from it too.

Q: There seems to have been a problem so far this season with maintaining brilliant first half performances into the second half of games. What do you put that down to?

GF: It’s difficult. We’ve had some fantastic halves of football so far and our job is to try to get 90 minutes of good performance out of the team. We have to remember that it’s still early in terms of the group of players we have. We brought in quite a few new lads in the summer and it takes some time to fully settle in. The results have been largely positive, though we are always looking for better. Our performances have been inconsistent and we accept that. There’s been some very, very good stuff and some not so good stuff. Over the next few weeks and months we have to keep progressing and trying to get better all the time. Another one of our straplines at this club is Better Never Stops, and that’s what we’re trying to get to.

LP: I think we’ve had to deal with a number of different elements and issues so far this season. We would love to put out a pretty consistent and regular starting 11, but haven’t been able to do that. We’ve put out a pretty regular back five and have had a really strong start to the season defensively. Certain things can affect your momentum, though. Jason Gilchrist was unjustly red carded in the first league game of the season and we had to deal without him for three matches while he was suspended. Then Luke Daly picked up his injury in the next game and further injuries left us with few options in certain areas. We had to bring in Jordan Hunter – who has been a revelation – because Craig Baxter was injured and recovering from a hernia operation. We also brought Lee Connelly in on loan and that didn’t quite work out. We dropped points over the August Bank Holiday weekend against Hyde and Scarborough while we had those injury issues. I’m not trying to put out a sob story but there are always lots of factors involved. In terms of the question, there have also been times when we’ve not been great in the first half and done well in the second. It’s very, very difficult and quite rare to get a brilliant performance for the full 90 minutes, although it’s what we’re aspiring for. We’re striving for greater consistency now. We will take responsibility for the team but the players have to take responsibility as well. I get sick and tired of seeing the managers at the top level always getting it in the neck when their teams under-perform. I’m not complaining about the job we do and neither is Graham, but players also need to take responsibility for their own performances. Once we start getting a greater consistency of performances across 90 minutes of games, I’m sure you’ll see us climb up the table pretty quickly! (Laughter)

Q: What’s the latest on the injury front with Josh Gillies and Lee Mason?

GF: Lee Mason is back in full training having got over a particularly long-term illness. Lee was knocked for six for a good week and lost over a stone in weight. It took him a while to recover but thankfully he’s available for selection again. Josh requires a hernia operation and will be out for six weeks once that procedure is done.

GT: I can’t really comment on the football issues because that’s the managers’ remit, but I’d like to go back to the point I made about sustainability earlier. I’m trying to simulate a debate now. Sometimes I hear on social media that this club has lots of money and is throwing silly money at players. I just want to take this opportunity to dismiss those rumours. The player budget this season is actually lower than it was last year. Lee and Graham took a pay cut this season. Keith Finnigan, our Managing Director, took a pay cut as did one or two others. There’s a lot of noise about us being a wealthy club but the reality is that the budget is slightly lower this season, although still very fair. Our long-term aim is to become sustainable. People have taken pay cuts but are still working their socks off to make this club a success. To be sustainable we need our average gates and average spend per head to increase. That’s why I’d encourage supporters to talk to their family, friends and neighbours and encourage as many of them to come here as possible. We want people to spend their money here so we can reinvest it in the club. The average spend per head at games, including admission money, is just over £13. If we could somehow double that, we would be a lot closer to being sustainable. Matchday revenue is so important to us so please encourage as many people as possible to come here to help us out.

Q: We’d all like to see even bigger crowds but can Mariners Park cope with any more?

GT: There are plans to develop the ground further and I wish we could do it overnight, but it takes time. We want to make sure we have a Football League-ready ground in place and the installation of the new floodlights was a big part of that. We recently submitted plans for a new stand on the Shaftesbury Avenue side of the ground, and we want our fans to have a better matchday experience.

Q: Liam Connell signed on loan for Darlington recently. What was the reasoning behind that?

GF: It’s important to stress that Liam is still a South Shields player. Myles Boney had possession of the number one shirt and Liam said he would like to play some games. It’s frustrating as a player to train each week and not play games, so he requested to go out on loan and did well at Whickham. Darlington came in and requested a loan, but we have an immediate recall option, so if Myles was to get injured we could recall Liam. We also have Ross Coombe, who trains with us every day and is doing very well so we’re not short of options. Ross is dual registered with Whickham so is available for both clubs.

Q: You both signed five-year contracts just over a year ago. How committed are you to seeing the job through and helping deliver the club’s vision?

LP: 100%. One of the things we’ve really enjoyed at the club and are very grateful for is that Geoff has included us massively in the strategic thinking long-term for the club. He makes the final decisions but it’s great to know your opinion is valued and it’s testament to him as a person. Myself and Graham have worked at lots of clubs and at some places the moment someone puts some money in, all of a sudden they are the be all and end all. With some owners it’s their way or the highway and they make every decision without consultation. It’s great to be part of a club where you feel like you have some input and your opinion is valued. Graham and I are absolutely fully committed to this club and we absolutely love being here.

GF: We have a vision for the club because we know the support is fantastic and will get even bigger as we go along on this journey. It has to be done in a certain structure, because there are examples of Football League clubs going out of business and that’s not what we’re looking for here. We want to do it in a sustainable manner.

LP: There are some obvious comparisons, for example Fleetwood Town, although we have to understand and recognise that we are completely different to those kind of clubs. Salford City, for example, are owned 50% by a billionaire and 50% by five or six multi-millionaires. They have done it in a certain way and that’s not the way we’ll be able to do it. People have to understand that. We’ve had a really fast progression over the last three or four years. I’m not trying to create a managerial safety net for myself and Graham here, but that level of quick progress is unrealistic. I’m not trying to dampen anyone’s parade. No one wants to be more successful than us and we feel we can do it, but it’s going to have to be done in a different way to the way the other clubs I mentioned did it and it might take a little bit more time. I don’t like to talk about money a lot, because we like to talk about football and people, but there has to be an understanding and a reality check as to how and when this is going to come to fruition.

GT: I take great pleasure in how well Farsley Celtic are doing in National League North so far this season. I would like to think that if we can achieve promotion this season, we would be in a positive place next season too. We have a set of numbers and assumptions about what will be needed if and when we get to National League North, and then if we progress to the National League and Football League, but we have to stay grounded. The club is loss-making as it stands. We’ve looked at the numbers and if we can grow into a position where we’re getting 2,500 people through the gates and spending a little bit more money each while they’re here, the club will be sustainable. There’s a number of factors, including increased sponsorship revenues and matchday revenue, that will go into making the club sustainable. I don’t want to let anyone down by running out of money and have all of you throwing darts at me! That’s why it’s important we talk about this and work towards making this club sustainable.

Q: The impact the club is having on the community is immense. My mum works at Mortimer Primary School and she says the children there are talking about South Shields more than even the likes of Newcastle and Sunderland.

LP: That’s part of the strategy. If you talk about what motivates people and why we do what we do, I know that a huge part of it is exactly what you’re talking about. It’s about trying to impact people’s lives in a positive way. Geoff has introduced things here that other clubs at this level wouldn’t even dream of. We have two academies and a Foundation, and lots of other community-driven aspects. We’re doing that to a level only Football League clubs are doing, and that’s testament to Geoff. He could have deferred that investment until we get to a certain level, but he deserves a huge amount of credit for bucking the trend and doing it the opposite way round. The community gets the benefit of that, and that needs to be recognised.

GT: It isn’t just down to me. I have a great bunch of people around me and I’m very fortunate to have that. Steve Camm is doing a great job, as are the coaches and volunteers involved in supporting the children. We also stepped in this year to help the Harton and Westoe Miners Welfare, who had been in a lot of difficulty. I’m now one of the trustees there and our Foundation is supporting the Welfare to secure its future. There are some great things being worked on and it’s not just about football. The first-team rightly gets a lot of the headlines but there is so much going on within the club to try to benefit the community. If you get the right people around you anything is possible, and that’s what I’m trying to achieve.

Q: Are there any plans to replace the pitchside perimeter fence?

GT: It’s going to be replaced at the end of the season should we get planning permission for the new stand. We also plan to replace all of the tarmac around the ground to give it a complete refresh.

Q: There’s such a refreshing professional approach at the club. You’re very meticulous in your preparations, professional in the post-match interviews and are always driving the right standards. Even the strips are always in pristine condition. So what I’d like to know is, what soap powder do you use? (Laughter)

GF: You’ll have to ask Gary Crutwell! On the subject of Gary, he does an unbelievable job. He does so much on top of what he does with the pitch, which is in pristine condition, and the kit is one of those jobs. We’re very fortunate to have Gary.

LP: Not forgetting Jak Lewis, who is helping him now as well and is a credit to his family and the club. Geoff is spot on when he says if you surround yourself with good people then good things happen. There are some great people here and great fans. We’ve got to keep pulling together in the same direction. We have been at football clubs where that’s not the case, and unfortunately that’s the norm. Here it’s the opposite. I really enjoyed our experience of going to FC United recently and I mentioned after the game that it felt like a proper stadium. We’re looking forward to having a similar stadium here. It felt like a special non-league football club and I believe we’re a special non-league football club too. Who knows, one day we may be a special Football League club as well.

GT: Before we conclude it would be remiss of me not to mention Janet Davies, who was recently appointed as a vice-president of the club and is here tonight. It’s a thoroughly deserved accolade for her, along with David Fall, Bob Scott and John Gray, who have also been given the same title.