Last night marked a first for the club, when an Open Meeting was held in the Park Suite, and all supporters of Dartford FC were invited to ask questions from various members of staff from the club. Steve Irving (Co-Chairman), Dave Skinner (Co-Chairman), Tony Burman (First Team Manager), Elliot Bradbrook (First Team Captain), Lauren Webster (Commercial Manager), Jack Smedley (Ops & Admin Assistant) and Phil Murray (Head of Youth Development) made up the panel for the evening, and supporters were invited to ask questions relating to any aspect of the club.
Steve Irving kicked off proceedings by welcoming everyone to the meeting, and stated “This is something I don’t think we’ve ever done before, and it is certainly a trial for future events. I am delighted that you have taken the time out to be here tonight. The format of the evening is to update you all on what is going off behind the scenes and on the field. We’ve taken on new staff in the past year. We lost Nicola Collett and Clare Weekes at the beginning of the year as both moved onto pastures new. This has given us the opportunity to change the structure of the club, which is something we had been looking into for a while. The appointment of Lauren Webster was the start of the new structure and her role has been a key part in developing this club. Jack Smedley has been with us since April working in an operations and administration role as well as continuing as a Kitman and James Sanwell was the final addition at present to the paid staff who works during the week. James has been employed as the receptionist whilst undertaking many other tasks that others had previously done.”
Steve also went on to say what roles some of the other Directors of the club now had, which included the following:
- Harry Extance – Head of Facilities
- Dave Francis – HR & Staffing
- Tony Burman – First Team Affairs
- Jason Outram – Finance Director
- Mark Brenlund – Commercial & Legal Director
All the other Directors on the Board work together to provide the support for staff at the club, and all play a part in the day to day running of the club where they can. No member of the Board of Directors has a silent role, and Board Meetings are going to be a quarterly occurrence, with smaller monthly meetings taking place with each relevant area. This will ensure the smaller issues within the club are dealt with quickly and efficiently, with the bigger issues being taken to the quarterly meetings to be discussed.
One question that was asked was about the structure of the club going forward, and what are the plans for the future. Steve Irving continued to answer; “A year or so after our third year in the Conference Prem, we looked at a plan for 3 years, 5 years and 10 years. The 3 year plan was to get back into the Conference Prem, 5 years was to sustain our position, and 10 years was to be knocking on the door of The Football League. In order to be successful with the long term plans, we needed to employ someone to bring in the sales behind the scenes. Lauren Webster was employed as a Commercial Manager just over a year ago to bring in commercial sponsorships and partnerships, and the responsibility for her is huge; and it involves bringing in large amounts of income. Any business can get involved, so if you know of a business or you work for a business that wants to be involved, let Lauren know. “
The facilities of the club was another part of the structure going forward for the club, and it was confirmed that the replacement of the 3G pitch has now been formally agreed with Dartford Borough Council. A commencement date for the work is still to be set, however the club confirmed the pitch will be upgraded and there will be a small stand built with disabled access for supporters to be able to watch games on the 3G pitch. This will help to improve the selling ability of the pitch itself, but will open the door to another opportunity to have a ground share. Currently, the pitch is well used and the replacement of the pitch and addition of the stand will only increase the revenue for the club once again.
Tony Burman was next up to talk about the developments behind the scenes in the close season, and spoke about the main pitch, saying “The pitch has been re-laid but it has been a long job. It was completely reseeded from the beginning of May, and I have had a major involvement from the start. Some other clubs have guided us and we’re about where we want to be at this moment in time.”
The Academy and the Youth Development has been an area of interest for many supporters, and Steve Irving went on to say “Many of you will know the player pathway, and this was an ultimate objective from 9 years ago when we first started up the academy we wanted to make it better for academy players to have the opportunity to progress and make it into the First Team. Tony Burman and Phil Murray have worked closely together to put this player pathway in place, and I think we’re about there. The academy is going to be expanded this season – currently Tony runs two teams and last season we took on a third academy side (The Leigh Academy)and the next academic year we will add another team to the boys side, creating four boys teams, and also a girls team for the first time ever. We are also the first club in Kent to offer an A Level Programme, as well as a BTEC programme to the youngsters. We wanted to give the youth of today an option. A star product of our academy as you all know is Ebou Adams. I have never met a more humbled kid as Ebou, and he is well brought up with a very supportive family. Initially they wanted Ebou to be a Doctor, however at the time we couldn’t offer him an A Leve course. Ebou had other plans and wanted to be a pro footballer, so he chose the BTEC course to study, and made his break into the first team as a result of the academy. We want players to stay with the club as long as they can – Ryan Hayes is a fine example of this, and we hope as a club we can continue to nurture and grow players as a result of a successful academy pathway.”
The floor was then opened up to the supporters to ask questions of the panel, and we also had a few from people via Twitter:
“I feel a lot of fans thought that Ebou Adams wasn’t long enough in a Dartford shirt to move onto a new club – was it not possible to keep him until the end of the season?”
SI – You can’t stop a young player from getting an offer from a professional club. It shows good family grooming with Ebou, and I would have loved him to stay. Norwich’s plans were to take him straight into the U21s side, and the next phase for him to get some game time would be to send him out on loan to a League 1 or 2 sides. He can then work to gain a professional contract with the club.
TB – I think you need to understand with the Ebou situation was that it was in the transfer window. He had enough games with the club to get him noticed, he had agents after him. He had an advisor from day one, and that advisor was me. We had offers from clubs who wanted to take him on a week-long trial, and I refused that. I said if clubs wanted to watch him, then they should come to the games. Norwich called me and from the offset they treated us with the upmost respect. I told them what I was looking for to sell Ebou, and they refused there and then! They then came back with an offer for us, which I refused. Finally, they came back to me with two different offers, and I chose one of them. Ebou knew at this point that something was happening, and the deadline was looming. The final offer of those two came in on the Thursday, and once Norwich had made their interest official, I had to tell Ebou. I wanted to keep him, but Norwich wanted him there and then on the deadline day, and I had to let him go. I could have stopped him and said ‘no you’re under contract’ but at the time it was the only offer coming in that had a financial gain for the club, and I picked the deal that we couldn’t refuse.
How much was the offer for Ebou Adams?
TB – I can’t say what the actual offer was. Put it this way, if he goes on to play for England there will be a six figure sum coming our way. There were a lot of add ons to his contract. If he signs a new contract, we will get something.
Many of us felt the Norwich friendly was a financial opportunity missed. A few years ago we drew over 2000 for such a friendly – why didn’t we make it a condition of the Ebou transfer that they brought a First Team with them?
TB – I did ask for a Norwich City First Team. I asked in January, but we’re talking about fixtures scheduled for July. They couldn’t guarantee a First Team because they didn’t know what league they would be in. They simply said they would bring a team down. We agreed a date originally – and that was supposed to be the Friday evening where we played at VCD instead. They asked for that Friday, and they answered that they would bring the First Team with them. We got to June, and because of their situation with some players being away, they couldn’t do that Friday in the end. So we had to change it, and we had to take that Saturday instead. The reason for the 1pm kick off was because the game had been changed and we had functions on in the evening and we didn’t want an overlap. I think on the day they had 3 to 4 players who are currently in the First Team – I read somewhere that it was their youth team, it wasn’t. A majority of their squad were the U21s, but their number 7 was a transfer worth over £2m. We got an alright crowd – we weren’t’ expecting loads. They also had a home game at Carrow Road against a foreign team that afternoon, and I suppose most supporters went to that instead. Norwich City FC changed the date, not us.
You’ve talked a lot about the Academy – do we have a structure in place to pick up players from the lower leagues?
TB – The structure is that I, Steve Mosely and Paul Sawyer go to watch games. I can go to the games on Tuesday and Wednesdays. It doesn’t happen every week, but that is my plan for the new season to go to as many as I can. I do have a lot of emails from people who offer to go to the games and scout, and I also have lots of contacts at lower league clubs. Working with the academy however, I feel I can trust my boys and I know their character so it works well to keep them.
Have you been a bit surprised by the lower league players who have come to us?
TB – I wouldn’t have said there have been many. If I said to you we were dealing with agents at that time, in my opinion the players are being ripped off. Not always from a financial point of view, but what these agents fill the players heads with, it’s embarrassing sometimes. If you look at our academy now, if they’re not featuring in the First Team, they’re playing for lower league teams. We try and get them involved out there, and because I already work with them I trust them a bit more than bringing in players I don’t know.
You said there was trouble getting the strikers in, and that it’s not always about the money – so why don’t they want to play for Dartford then?
TB – Years ago players knew this was the club to be at. If they come and speak to me, I have a chance of selling the club to them there and then. If they walk out, it’s always because they’ve got other clubs to talk to. I feel this club has made good offers to players, if I could show you the figures I would.
But it’s not working is it?
TB – I don’t think that’s the answer. We signed 12 players before the end of the season. It’s not working? It is for this guy (points to Elliot Bradbrook) – we’ve offered good money. I’m not talking £25 a week; I’m talking £100/£200 more than that. Other clubs would offer more, and if they’re going elsewhere to me it’s about the money and not the club.
Where do The Darts rank in the wages table in their league? And what is the realistic target for the season?
TB – Last year I felt, but I can’t be sure, that we were about 10th in the wages table. This season I think we’re about 8th. I’m saying to you that I feel we offer decent money to our players. If someone is going to give you £200 more to do the same job you’re going to go there. Some clubs in this league have been offering their players full year contracts, paying their players 52 weeks of the year. We can’t do that. We pay our players for 38 weeks of the year and that’s normal.
Congrats on getting Tom Bonner back to the club – moving forward our first season in the Conference Prem we finished 8th, long term what are the prospects of the club going full time?
TB – There are 3 categories in football – part time which is us, semi-professional and teams that are full time. Our next stage is to try and go 3 mornings a week. We would have to take on another month’s wages to go through July for this to happen. That is the aim – with going 3 mornings though we would lose players, Elliot being one of them. Although it was in the 3 year plan, I felt at 2 years it wasn’t right for the club and we would lose too many players. We will look at it again for next year. The Ebbsfleet United situation is a whole different ball game, and we can’t compete with that. I don’t know for sure what they do, but rumour has I they have made a huge reduction in what they’re spending this year. A number of clubs are doing 2 mornings a week, but I didn’t want to do that unless I got the full commitment of all players.
Players are coming in and working as part of the Academy as coaches, is that not a drain on the budget?
SI – The academy budget is separate to the playing budget. So when Tony is bringing in the likes of Deren Ibrahim, Andy Pugh and now Tom Bonner, the money is coming from a different pot.
TB – Tom Bonner has taken a big pay cut to be here, and if someone has already made their mind up that they want to come to the club they will. I had to try and do something more for him, and at the time we had just decided to start up the third team, therefore we had the space to add on another coach. That’s how I managed to get Tom back, which is great.
How many more Academy teams can we get here?
SI – We are currently at full capacity. We haven’t got anywhere for them to go and train. We are working with The Leigh Academy, and potentially we have links with other schools too. We haven’t got any more facilities to add anything more and also we don’t have anywhere else for them to do their studies. In the future maybe, but at the moment not right now.
Whilst Pughy (Andy Pugh) has been coaching the Academy, have we seen an improvement in the players because he is a coach and First Team player?
TB – The coaching has been good. It’s been an eye opener as well. We try and teach them early on to be young men, as they come to us as boys. We try and nurture them. Andy has been a big part of that, but it has been hard. We have parents meetings, we have to tell them things like ‘the kit doesn’t stay on the floor and it won’t get up and walk to the washing machine’. They’re taught to be polite; they shake our hands every morning on arrival. If they miss work or a lesson they don’t train or play a match, and we get them involved and around the First Team when we can.
Steve Irving directed a question to Captain Elliot Bradbrook:
You’ve been with us now for 7 years, played 300 odd games, and scored a few goals – I just wanted to get your feeling on the 7 years as you’ve seen more of the Academy boys come through the club, what’s your view on how we develop these players?
EB – From my perspective when I joined the club it was the place to be. I’m from Dartford anyway, and you knew if Tony called you, you went to Dartford. We had talks, and the money aspect didn’t matter to me. If you want to play for the club, and to you it’s not about the money, you’ll get the game time and you will play football. If you don’t want to play here and it is about the money to you, then you go elsewhere. Look at Keaton Wood, he came here on loan, he got released at the end of the season, and he wanted to be here so now he is. I’d rather have someone on my team who doesn’t earn as much money but wants to play here than a changing room full of players who are driven by the pound sign. For a lot of non-league players it’s a lot of meetings where the player goes to lots of meetings to find the club that offers the most money, and that is where they will go. We have a lot of players here who have stayed season after season because they like the club – it isn’t about the money. Ebou isn’t just a one off from Dartford, we have an Academy of players progressing to the First Team who are doing well, and they’re coming through at a good rate. That’s improved day and night in all the years I’ve been here. The structure of the club is the reason I am here as well, and there is a lot to be said about the players who have signed for this season and the new players that have been brought in.
When you eventually retire Elliot, are you planning to be involved in the club still?
EB – I am currently so busy with my full time job and football that to me coaching isn’t even on my radar at the moment. If and when I stop playing football, maybe I would miss it. Who knows?
Will you stay when we go up this season?
EB – I won’t be staying if we get promoted no. It’d be like having two full time jobs. It’s hard work and it’s a lot. I did 3 years of it, one of those years we all enjoyed. The other 2 didn’t go as well as we thought. It felt like the poor seasons were double the length due to the losses. I won’t be looking to play in the Conference Prem again personally.
TB – I think as well football players have changed over the last few years. I think every player had a full time job and the football was just pocket money. The work side of things has always been the main side of the income for our players. Now I think a majority of players you speak to are either a coach or work in a school. The wages have gone higher due to the fact that younger players are coming through who either don’t have a job or they work in the city.
EB – Another thing I would say is this club is only 2 divisions away from The Football League. So many clubs would want to be in this position. It’s all well and good bringing in players from the lower leagues, but we’ve done that before and it hasn’t always worked. Look at Maidstone – they’re in the position now that Dartford was 6/7 years ago. We do alright for attendances, but when people get relegated players leave, fans go elsewhere. That’s not all down to us. When we were relegated the dynamics changed. It had taken 4/5 years to build up what we had on the pitch, and then the relegation made the changes for us; we were a victim in a way.
SI – There is a small part of me that hopes we don’t get promoted because I want Elliot to stay. You know what he is about and what he is like as a player.
It’s all very well having this social media side of things, and having Twitter for match updates but that’s a reason people aren’t coming to the games anymore?
LW – When I first joined this club, we were the only club in this league who didn’t have the live match updates at every game, both home and away. We were missing a trick. I decided to bring it in to keep the fans that can’t make the games still feel a part of the action and not miss out. I go to the away games voluntarily – I don’t have to be there, I choose to be there. Twitter is not a factor stopping fans from coming to the games; if you were a true fan of Dartford FC you would buy a season ticket or put your money through the turnstiles. Twitter is not an excuse for a drop in attendances in any way, if anything it’s an addition to a person’s matchday experience. And the feedback we have received has been very positive so we’ll continue with the updates.
Are we in a decent enough financial situation yet? And what is being done to increase attendances and attract new supporters?
SI – The season ticket initiative was a great one. We are pleased to say we have over 300 season ticket holders now. The price drop didn’t have any impact on the sales, if anything it brought more people into the club. We’ve appointed a new Community Lead, Zack Hamid, who will be overseeing the clubs community activity this season. He’ll be working in a full time capacity and will be working on new initiatives like free tickets for schools and so on. This is why the social media aspect has been a key part of our progress – it’s not detracting people it’s bringing in new supporters.
LW – Twitter is the fastest way to communicate with supporters of the modern day. It can be done from anywhere in the world at any time, from a laptop, phone, computer. I respond to tweets within seconds of receiving them it’s that easy. I can speak to fans quickly and get messages out there easily. Twitter is a good move for this club, as is any form of social media, particularly where the younger generation are concerned.
How does the club intend to raise funds for making the club sustainable both on and off the pitch long term?
LW – From a commercial point of view which brings in a lot of income for the club, I will sell anything that can make profit for the club. I have just secured an exclusive deal for sponsorship that is a first for the club and has never been done before. Next season the dugouts will be sponsored, and that sponsorship will run for the next 3 seasons. I also attracted the new away shirt sponsor, and they have already expressed the interest to take the home shirt sponsorship as well, but that’s a conversation for a later date. Had the sponsorship been available for them this season, they would have taken both. I am also aware that another club in this league aren’t keeping their sponsors very happy, so I’ve got some contacts from there who are looking to put their money into Dartford this season, and I’m working through those and arranging meetings. If anyone knows of anyone who may be willing to sponsor anything, then please let me know. I can create a package to suit your business or individual needs – it’s not as expensive as people initially think. Some of the deals I do aren’t all for monetary value – we have some contra deals in place which we need just as much as the money contracts. The club car for example is a contra deal – we only pay fuel charges for that and the Dartford Crossing fees. People don’t see the amount of work that goes in behind the scenes or the additional hours for that matter, and I often find some fans can be quick to judge because I don’t publicise every single commercial deal for the club. I can’t give you a figure for the income I’ve generated as by my own rules I don’t discuss money with anyone but the Board of Directors, but I can tell you that last month’s income compared to last season’s income of the same month was significantly higher. The contracts for the bigger sponsorships don’t come easily – I’ve been working on some sponsorship deals for months. I won’t just sign off any old sponsorship; it has to be right for the club. I cannot force people to spend money, but I do try to!
I understand that I’m not everyone’s cup of tea, whether that’s because I’m a Northerner I don’t know! I’ve been described on the forum, which I do read, as having more clubs than Tiger Woods – so what? If I can’t do this job after 13 years of being in the football industry I’m not only letting myself down but I’m letting you as the fans down. It shouldn’t matter how many clubs I’ve worked at. I do this job to the best of my ability at all times, and I give it my all. If that means staying long hours, starting work when it’s dark in the morning, finishing late then so be it. I’ll do and I am doing what it takes to make this club successful.
TB – I just want to say that regarding Lauren and Jack, they both undertake many other roles within the club, not just being a Commercial Manager or and Ops & Admin Assistant. They both do a lot of hours, and they’ve done a hell of lot behind the scenes off their own back without being told or asked to. When people left the club there was a good couple of months whereby they were on reception, doing accounts, taking golf bookings – the list goes on. Not once did they moan or make a fuss – they got on with it and it’s been appreciated. They never stop even when they’re at home. It’s taken them some time to get into their roles, but I think we’re there now, or thereabouts. The IT side of things has improved significantly, and things will fall into place with a bit more time.
In your opening statement Tony, you mentioned the reseeding of the pitch, has anything been done about the drainage?
TB – The pitch wasn’t up to standard last season, and luckily we only had to call off two games which were Greenwich Borough games. We’ve put other things in place to help prevent that happening again. We’ve asked other teams who ground share to have their staff as almost act as consultants for the club. The real test for us this season will come in November/December. We’ve kept the grass long on purpose to try and protect it but it will be shorter for the first match of the season. Greenwich Borough last season were playing games on there and the pitch took a battering. Other clubs have had teams play on their pitches, and their pitches have stayed ok. It’s just how we tackle doing different things. We’re looking at different things already for next season.
SI – There have been other problems that have caused issues, and we probably need a partner to bring in some income. We are looking at someone coming in for next season. If we get the right money coming in, two sides can easily be playing out there week in, week out. It will be a lot better I’m sure.
Apart from a striker, are we looking for anyone else?
TB – I’m not looking to increase the playing squad at the moment. I’m happy with what we’ve got. I have made it public we’re looking for a forward. I’ve spoken to some players, but they want to stay in a higher league. I want to get someone in who’s different to what we’ve already got. I’m quite happy with the development so far. It’s another chance to try and get everyone together, form new friendships and that is going to happen. I have had an answer from someone tonight who said they’re going to come in tomorrow and sign, but we will see.
Last season we didn’t have a reserve goalie, how come?
TB – In the Conference Prem we had a backup for every game, or at least most games. A reason we didn’t was like the distance we travelled. Last season I went without one, it was a decision I just made myself at the start of the season. It’s difficult as people don’t just want to be a number 2 goalkeeper; it’s competition yes but people want to play. I could always put a young lad on the bench, but I wanted to have a bench of outfield players instead.
Who would be the substitute goalkeeper this year if we ever needed it?
TB – Tom Bonner.
Why aren’t we allowed to take alcohol onto the terraces when other clubs such as Margate allow it?
DS – This is something we decided to do as a stadium, to ban alcohol within the sight of the pitch. That is a rule within the National League. We decided that from day one, because we didn’t want to change people’s matchday routine when we got promoted.
SI – I like the fact we don’t have alcohol on the terraces – it gives people a sense of discipline. Only 1 or 2 people have said it’s a problem, but on a whole it’s never been an issue.
DS – If the alcohol isn’t there in the first place then it’s not a problem.
The Ladies side is starting now, and in the past we had an affiliation with a ladies team but it was never fully set up. Can someone bring us up to date with what is happening with the Ladies Team now?
PM – The ladies team will be playing next season at a level that puts us about 4 levels below what you as fans would recognise as the semi pro level. Our aim is to get the ladies team playing at the same level as the First Team. We’ve played some friendlies already, and we did have a reality check when we played against the Crystal Palace FC Ladies Development squad at the weekend. The girls did well against a well-established team, which was very good. We’ve go full sponsorship in place now as well, and for our first year we’ll combine the academy girls with some of the senior players. If you come to the games, some of you will be surprised with the standard of our ladies team so far. We have a squad of 20 girls ready to sign up next Monday with the club, and we’re all looking forward to the start of the season.
Elliot, I read in the programme last season that you were enjoying playing in a deeper role. Is that the position you want to finish you’re career in?
EB – I probably said that at the time as that’s the way we were playing. The whole time I’ve been here we’ve always had Ryan Hayes who can put the ball into the box. I’ve always tried to do that, and when I couldn’t in the Conference Prem, it was because a majority of the time we were defending for a large portion of the games. I enjoyed it because I was scoring goals as well. I’ve been lucky with the injuries and not had too many which is good. As long as I’ve still got the energy to make the runs forward I’ll continue to do so.
Steve Irving went onto the say how important the DFCSA has been to the club, and also he has encouraged supporters to join up with all their memberships to help out throughout the season. Steve also mentioned how the partnership between the club and the Supporters Association is vital and asked that we all support their events.
What would happen before the game and in your team talk do you tell Ryan Hayes just go out there and do his job?
TB – Ryan can go forward but it’s the getting back that’s the problem. I think now his testimonial match is out of the way, which was fully deserved for a player who has been at the club for 11 years, he will be more focused on the games and concentrate on being the good player that he is. Love him or loathe him, he’s a great player who does his job. He knows exactly what he’s going to get if he doesn’t listen!
EB – When Tony signed me he said “we will need you to play alongside with a formation of 3 in the midfield as the guy we’ve got doesn’t know what he’s doing “ – that guy was Ryan!
Will these Open Meetings be a regular occurrence at the club going forwards?
SI – I return that question to you as the fans – do you want another meeting and has this been beneficial? The meeting was something I wanted to give a go, and it’s proved well from the turn out. I want to say thank you to all the staff who have joined me this evening and also the thanks goes to you as you’ve made this evening what it is.