Our second fans forum took place last night in the Park Suite with around 50 people in attendance. The panel was made up of Steve Irving (Co-Chairman), David Skinner (Co-Chairman), Tony Burman (First Team Manager & Director), Lauren Webster (Commercial Manager), Jack Smedley (Operations & Admin Coordinator), Elliot Bradbrook (First Team Captain), Mick How (DFCSA Chairman) and Phil Murray (Youth Development Director).
Steve Irving kicked off proceedings by welcoming and thanking all the supporters for their attendance and explained after receiving positive feedback following on from the first fans forum back in August, the meets would continue twice a year for the foreseeable future.
A few updates from the club then followed in no particular order. From the ground perspective a new 3G surface was laid and a stand installed on the side of the pitch that can accommodate approx. 65+ people to watch the matches out there. There will also be a formal opening of the stand later in the year.
The club has continued to develop over the months off the field with a new grounds team in place. A Head Groundsman has been employed on a full time basis – Charlie- who has been with the club for a couple of months now. Everyone at the club has noticed a vast improvement already from where we were at this point in the season last season, and moving forwards everyone will continue to see the pitch and grounds looking better than before. Charlie stayed for three hours after the home match on Saturday to ensure the pitch remained in good condition and it wasn’t left until Monday as it used to be.
Further updates about the club included the replacements of additional income and there will be a ground share next season, however Steve Irving will announce next week who the ground share will be with. The club don’t endeavour any problems with the new ground share affecting the pitch.
A new shirt sponsor has also been secured by the commercial department, again with details being announced later in the season along with a full kit launch. It was reported as being a sponsorship deal that is the largest the club has seen in its history and a lot has happened behind the scenes in order to make this possible.
David Shafford, the clubs webmaster, has created and successfully launched the new website at the beginning of last year, but there was still room for improvements to be made which David is working on now. Hopefully by the start of next season the website will look even better. David also doubles up at the programme editor and plans are in place to increase the size of the programme next season, with David currently researching other clubs ideas.
The academy is going from strength to strength with the addition of another side this season. We now have 2 x SCL Teams (boys), 2 x Leigh Academy Teams (boys) and 1 x Leigh Academy girls’ team. The academy is managed very well by Deren Ibrahim and in the future we’re hoping to increase the size and do more when we can. The youth development centre is progressing well, and Phil Murray explained that although fixtures had been a little stop start there have been some very good results for the teams involved which has been encouraging. Tony Burman said having a good academy means he is able to add players to the squad when he has needed to, and the Academy Yellows are currently at the top of their league. The U14s Girls are in a cup final in a few weeks and if any fans would like to go along and support them they should let the club know as transport will be available. The U16s Boys are in the semi-final of their cup soon, and three other teams in the youth development centre are through to the quarter finals of their cup games.
The community department is currently being run by Sean Scolding who has been working closely with schools to develop the department further. The club has identified that 10 years ago due to not having a home ground we lost a generation of supporters, therefore Sean has been focusing on ways to attract more kids to the games. We’re now in partnership with The Winners Chapel Church through a connection that Sean made and sponsorship funds have been secured by them going forward. A Sports Leadership role has been put into place and the community department are working to develop that whilst working to get back into the core areas within the borough. If any fans have ideas or areas they think we should be concentrating on they should speak to Sean Scolding or Phil Murray.
On a matchday the community visits are positive, with Steve Irving thanking Ian White for all his help. More and more people are getting to know about the club through the matchday visits, and parents are staying longer after the games as they seem to enjoy the day just as much as the children.
Steve Irving then said there were questions sent to Lauren from the forum and on social media which would be read out and answered, and the questions started:
If we get promoted so we stand a chance of keeping Elliot Bradbrook at Dartford FC?
EB: I’ve said it before that I won’t stay at Dartford if we get promoted. That doesn’t make me want to get promoted any less, but whenever that happens that’s the plan for me. It’s nothing to do with me really whether we do or don’t go up and if we do then so be it. Personally, I won’t be going up no.
The camaraderie in the team is fantastic – how many more players in the squad could we lose if we do get promoted?
TB: It could be a few. The ones who have careers outside of their football so the players who have been here for a few years. The likes of Danny Harris and Lee Noble would have to look at things. If we get promoted I’ll respect that they might want to leave, and some might want to go anyway regardless of whether we go up or not.
Has the Board of Directors got two plans in place?
TB: If we don’t get promoted then we can talk to those players and see what the situation is. We still don’t know what is going to happen. Players like Eliot have always been honest with me though. I’ve got a vision if we go up, and I still have one if we don’t. Again, who knows what is going to happen.
The football season so far has been superb, we’ve got players now with football brains that play football well, so a pat on the back to Tony for that;
TB: If I said to you that we haven’t changed, I haven’t changed what I do each season, but without a doubt those players have a great bond. That has been better as the results have been good. We’ve been through the mill for a few years and when we’re all getting on it’s good. I feel we’ve got our mojo back, on the terraces and in the changing rooms. The response from everyone has been positive.
STEVE IRVING: Elliot you see the kids we bring through who are around the first team and now as a senior player who has been with us for 9 seasons you’ve seen all the changes so what do you feel about the academy players coming through?
EB: The football this year has been good and you have to take into consideration what we have. We’ve gone to games and been down to the bare bones with squad numbers, and that’s been at some of the hardest games in the league for us. Look at Wealdstone away; we played Richard Seixas for the full 90 minutes. And we also went into the game on Saturday with low squad numbers so we had to call upon the academy boys. They’ve come on and done well, and we’ve given them that opportunity both on and off the field. The kids who come and train with us have been of a decent standard so it’s not affected the team morale and they fit in well. These players don’t just come from us though; they’re going onto other clubs on loan with the experience that Dartford has given them. It paints a good picture of Dartford Football Club as a whole.
Regarding the Academy its good to see the young players get given a chance, and Tony you’ve sent a few of them out on loan to the lower league clubs. Have you found those players have gained some good experience and found the loan useful – has this increased their chances of getting into the team when they return?
TB: The honest answer is when I send players out on loan it doesn’t always work. Ben Francis went on loan to Leatherhead and he came back distraught. Ben wanted games and it just didn’t happen for him. Jimmy Bullard was honest with me and said he didn’t expect Ben to play the way he did so he didn’t get much game time. He then went on loan to Phoenix and they had quite a few games postponed within his initial 28 day loan but because of the deal he had to stay there and I couldn’t recall him. So again, it didn’t work out there for him. Ben wasn’t in a good place and eventually I managed to send him out to Cray Valley. It was a better decision for him to go somewhere where he knew the manager and he’s ended up playing games now. When he trains with us he is happier and I can see that. He scored a hat trick at the weekend and he’s been scoring goals for them so I’ve loaned him out for another month however I can recall him. I wanted to give him longer there but he’ll be back to us at the end of February as he can’t be loaned to them again. Kaka Dembele went on loan to VCD and they started to win games but they couldn’t afford his money so they sent him back. He did well there and I was disappointed they couldn’t keep him for longer. We agreed for 2 months and the third month and they just couldn’t keep up with the money. He hasn’t let me down but with the team doing well he maybe hasn’t done enough to get a starting place every week. When he came on at Eastbourne he scored a great goal to seal the win for us but I do need him to be doing a little more. It’s not great being on the bench I know that and I’d like him to go out on loan again, get some game time in and then come back for the end of the season.
How does the club scout potential new signings? Do you as a manager have a list of players you keep tabs on, or do players/agents offer themselves for a trial?
TB: Before the internet it was all about going to watch games. I still do that and my coaching staff do that. A lot of players we get to know about through word of mouth or agents calling me up. There is an internet system that most of the National League teams use where you can type in a players’ name and I can view highlights of that player. I try to find players that way if I can. Here at Dartford because I’m first hand with the academy I trust those players to come in and do a job if I can give them an opportunity. That’s me seeing what we have in the academy before looking outside. I can bring them in for a couple of games and give them some minutes but if I put them in or 5-10 games in a row they aren’t quite ready just yet. I have to often put our first team players into different positions each week, look at Danny Harris for example, and the academy boys wouldn’t be used to that. Believe me there are some terrible agents at this level who will say ‘come and look at this player he’s great’ and I’ll go along and they’re awful. A small percentage of them aren’t though. Have I got a whole team of scouts working for me all over the country – no. If I think myself there is a player worth taking a look at I can send one of my coaching staff. I’ve had agents who have phoned me up and offered me players that are at clubs miles away and I wonder how is that going to work? We’re into producing players from within, it’s not always worked no but again it’s about giving the players that opportunity.
SI: We have built some great relationships with other clubs around here. Millwall FC has been good to us, and that’s how we ended up signing Keaton Wood. We do see scouts at our games locally and I’m sure they tip Tony off when there is a good player to see.
Any news on how Ebou Adams is getting on?
TB: I haven’t spoken to him for a while actually. He played in a cup game for Norwich City and played well so that counted as a first team appearance. He’s still trying to make the transition between the U21s and U23s at Norwich and I think finding it a little hard. He went on loan to Braintree and got sent off early on and that was a bit of an issue. He was out for 3 matches and I’m sure Norwich recalled him, again I’m unsure. I heard his loan was until the end of the season as well and that he was looking for a loan move in the transfer window to a League 2 club but for whatever reason that didn’t materialise. He’s doing ok and was the last time we spoke. For anyone asking though I haven’t looked to bring him back here on loan.
SI: We want Ebou to do well of course we do, and it’s unlikely he’ll be sold at this stage to another club. Hopefully he’ll stay with Norwich.
With the players’ contracts, how does it work to secure players for next season? Do we have to wait until the end of the season or can you start talking to them now?
TB: Contrary to what people believe there are a couple of players in our team who are on two year deals. We have the youngsters in the squad that we can add on an option of another year. I put them on those deals because I can take them on for another season on the same terms. The older players with us don’t want to sign contracts for 2 years. I think if we go into negotiations with certain players now, I am conscious it could disrupt the team morale. Some players are probably looking to up their money as well if we go up and I can’t always do that. I will be talking to the players after the season is done when we know where we are.
Does the short window of time if we get to the play offs affect your negotiations?
TB: We finish on a Saturday and we do have to move quickly so I will be looking to start my talks on the Monday. I’ve got to look at the books as well. If we need to go forward I am able to say to the players that our contracts start from the first league game and end on the last league game and that does include the play offs. That’s changing rapidly in the football non-league world and it is something we do need to look at. Players these days look to be paid for longer, but our contracts have always been paid in the way. We don’t pay our players in May, June and July. In July some players may get expenses for the pre-season but not all of them. In the pre-season we train 2 or 3 times a week but they’re not paid to train.
SI: We’re finding more and more players want to be paid longer, but we can’t offer 52 weeks unfortunately. Not at the moment anyway.
TB: At the moment we are a non-league football club, and most of them pay 38 weeks. If you then say a team is semi-pro and they’re going to train three mornings a week, then they try to pay their players from the 1st of July. Then you have the professional clubs who pay their players 52 weeks of a year. For us, I want to get this club as high as I can, I want to be in the National League we’ve been there we can do it again. It’s the place to be from my side and the players. We should be trying to get there. If we get there this year, and we’re doing ok and in a good position its good for all involved, we’re there already I think. The results count yes of course, but we’re there. If we get up we seriously need to look at training three times a week in the mornings or evenings. I will have to negotiate that into their contracts when I look at new players. If it’s a morning training session then the football club will quite possibly be their main source of income. To do that we will lose some of our favourite players but that’s where I have to make a decision, and find the areas we need to improve on. It’s costly especially if we want to pay the players a bit more. It’s hard when you’re in that league because we didn’t do the big overnight trips all the time, we’d get up early and travel on the day. Throughout the season that got more difficult especially the longer distance trips. Becoming semi-pro we’d be looking at paying the players for two additional months, if we go professional then it’s going to be more. As with promotion, everything else has to go up too. Expenses, medical bills, insurance policies it really isn’t something that can be done on the cheap. We need to improve on all of that; the finance is not just the players it’s everyone involved – coaches and club staff.
If we go from the non-league to semi-pro are we not going to lose a vast amount of players? Can you not have training on the three evenings a week so we stand a better chance of keeping them?
TB: It’s a big big decision to make. We could actually lose some players to higher bidders from other clubs not just because we turn into a semi-pro club. We’d have to look at giving players two year contracts to keep people. We will also be competing with their jobs. Dover Athletic who are in the National League now train three nights a week and they haven’t lost a lot of players as a result. They’re paying them good money as well, but I know I will lose players so it’s that tough decision again. There is no guarantee that the squad we’re building now will keep us safe.
Our experience of the last 2 seasons in the National League we all know something has to change and Elliot said that also. In five years’ time those players who are the senior players now probably won’t be here anyway. Is it not your job to sort that out and make the changes?
TB: Yes again – big decision. I’m not going to keep everyone who we have here now. There are semi-pro teams up there now who are struggling. To gain 50 points in a football season is a massive ask for any team. We did alright the first time we were up there and we rarely stayed overnight. We had good cup run at one point and we ended up playing Saturday, Tuesday and Thursday for a couple of weeks, and that was our hard time. If we go up there are other income streams that could come in which we will look at.
Can we afford to go up or not?
TB: Can we afford to not try and get promoted? We want to try and play well and win things. The target is to get promoted it has to be that or what is the point?
SI: In simple terms if we get promoted the sponsorship money from the league goes from 15% in the pot up to 70% in the pot. Second thing, the attendances will go up. Away teams in the league above travel well and we would get larger away support crowds. Admission prices will go up as well. We can control things that naturally would go up like our rave costs. The known increasing cost would be the budget. We will tell Tony a budget to work with and then he may want more. We would look at loads of things and be a progressive club.
The income that we do have coming in, would that be enough to keep us up in the National League?
TB: The club will give me a budget of what they can. There will be other new costs so we have to be realistic. If we go to the three mornings some of the players would have to use that as their main source of income as I’ve said. Then they would probably have to get a part time job as well. It probably won’t be enough but we have to start somewhere. If we go to the mornings as well we will be able to sell the evening space on the 3G pitch that I currently use for the first team training sessions. It’s not going to come in from lots of sources but we will have to improve in different areas so all the income streams across the board change. We will look at the commercial income, pitch hire etc. We’ll look at those income areas and then the Financial Director will tell us what we can do.
LW: My commercial budget would change as well as my commercial target, which will go up. I will have to look at our sponsorship packages, advertising, marketing, partnerships – all of that and change things to fit in to make the targets. Teams in the National League charge significantly more for things like sponsorship/matchday hospitality/programme advertising and advertising boards so I’ll have to increase the costs of those.
SI: We’re already saving money in certain areas in this league now –one of them being the ground maintenance costs.
Going back to the training schedule, why do we have to go to mornings? Can we not say now we’re training evenings?
TB: I have the option to say if I want them in for three mornings then they are in. We either do one or the other. We can’t have a combination of mornings and evenings. I’ll look at the schedule and see what we have to do. When we train we’ll have to give the players more information for example about the opposition ahead of a matchday so to have an extra training session that extra day will be vital. Over the season it counts.
Are we going to be fully committed to that training change? If we go up and then come back down will the training stay the same?
TB: We’ve looked at doing it before, and we might look at doing mornings next season even if we stay in this league. If we do that then the training will stay the same. Eastbourne currently train two mornings a week and they’ve kept it the same. When we looked at it before it wasn’t the right time to change it.
SI: If we do it and go up we’ll hopefully maintain the schedule if we change it. Tony has been successful in his player selection and we currently have several players who work full time for the club anyway as coaches so they’re already here every day. We could look at bringing in players who want to work for the club as well.
We’re in the National South now, hopefully get through the play offs and we may then draw Ebbsfleet and have a rubbish match because of the mentality of not wanting to go up. Everybody wants to win surely and we don’t want a manager who would throw the game so why are people considering not wanting to go up?
SI: We have to play to the best of our ability, if we go up then we go up. We’d have to sell more of everything we know that – sponsorship/tickets/advertising the whole lot. We’ve gone up before and improved, we know it’s a gradual progression.
There is an option of getting more players in via our Academy – have we got the potential to have more Academy teams?
SI: At this moment in time we can’t expand the academy as we don’t have the facilities. We have to replace the 3G every 12 years as well and that is costly. We can’t put loads more teams on there as the maintenance costs would go up.
DS: Maidstone did that when they had their 3G done. They continued to use it as they normally would and they’ve had to replace the whole surface after three years as it was over used. We’re told no more than 60 hours a week should be played on a 3G surface so we’d have to manage and maintain that. We also can’t have a 3G pitch in The Football League.
Does the club budget in good cup runs? And secondly does that money then go into the playing budget?
Jason Outram (Finance Director): Most seasons we budget for one win in the cup. When we get past that like this season the money coming in is a bonus to us. If I can hide some away to save for a rainy day I will, but that doesn’t always happen.
SI: It’s essentially a pot of cash but it doesn’t come in and get spent straight away like most people think. We look to spend it wisely. It’s also only small amounts, not as big as what people think.
Given the history of the club and the strategy of what has been established will that be kept or if someone with big money comes in would you allow a big backer to come in or let someone buy the club?
DS: We will never turn money down but they can’t just come in and take over the place there would have to be an AGM vote.
SI: We wouldn’t turn anything away realistically, but have a look around at the other clubs in the league who have rich owners – they’re not all great. We’re not going to go down the route of a financial backer to throw away all our hard work. We will never say never of course, but why would we?
Part 2 of the Fans Forum Q&A will be online tomorrow.