Wednesday 27th July and the club held its first Fans' Forum since the pre-Liverpool Semi-final forum, some six months ago when Ray Lewington (remember him?) and Sean Dyche (ditto) were the stars of the show. Still, better late than never. One would hope that they called it in recognition of the increasing criticism from loyal supporters concerning recent club actions and the spin that has been given to some events.
This article is not a comprehensive review of the forum - others have covered the issues discussed elsewhere on BSaD - this is a personal view of the proceedings and personalities.
The timing of the forum couldn't have been better.
So much has happened and so much water has flowed under the bridge that in the absence of regular meetings between club and its supporters, a real rift was emerging between both parties. Often, reading Watford fans' views on mailing lists and indeed this website, the genuine concern about the club's future was turning into antipathy about anything and everything Watford FC. Not a healthy situation for a club that has prided itself as a "family" or "community" club in its recent history.
In particular, the following issues were of concern to fans:
Even though each individual concern would almost be worthy of a forum in its own right, some of these important issues were not even addressed - indeed the concerns remain, particularly regarding the financial and management side of the club, which are still paramount. Owing to the almost "stage-managed" nature of the event, which was broadcast on 3CR, when they were touched upon they were brushed off by the panel.
- the lack of progress since last year's announcement about "exciting" news regarding ground development;
- the ongoing financial problems at the club;
- the continuing fallout with the Watford Observer;
- the sacking of Nigel Gibbs and subsequent PR fiasco;
- the sacking of Ray Lewington;
- the appointment of Adrian Boothroyd;
- the public criticism by both Neal Ardley and Neil Cox after leaving the club;
- Elton John's concert announcement about proceeds going towards buying players;
- the sale of Heidar Helguson;
- the failure to capture Sam Parkin (and other first team targets);
- the youthful nature of the first team squad;
- the resignation of Steve Simmons (former Financial Director) and other senior members of club staff;
- the lack of progress to an elected fan director.
Adrian Boothroyd came across very well - a genuine straight-talking Yorkshireman - and he has to be given an opportunity to do the job. He has set his standard high - the time for talking is over and whether he cuts the mustard in the next three to six months remains to be seen. He will not lack support from the fans, but perhaps should look over his shoulder when given a "vote of thanks" by our trigger-happy board.
Whilst Boothroyd at times dealt with difficult questions about the playing squad, his role, ambitions for the club and how he sees Watford playing etc., you felt an empathy with his task ahead. Indeed, if he can deliver half as much as he promises, Watford will be an exciting place next season. Certainly, this correspondent wishes the man all the best for the coming season. At times, he does sound "off-the-wall" (something even he confesses), but his energy and idealism (perhaps naivety) are very refreshing and welcome.
If I were awarding a school report mark, it would be something along the lines of:
Adrian has bags of potential, at least he tells everyone so! He has started the year enthusiastically and has made great efforts to ingratiate himself into his new background. He is very bullish about his prospects, but perhaps with experience will be a tad bit cannier in the future. An interesting year lies ahead.
Grade B - time to turn potential into results.
Also appearing on the panel was CEO Mark Ashton who made his forum debut. He has spoken at the Trust AGM, but this was the first time he has performed at a Fans' Forum. Again, he was asked some tough questions, notably about ground development and, rather provocatively in my opinion, about his credentials for the role of club CEO!
Ashton gave a good answer about his range of experiences at his former club West Brom. Ranging from community, marketing and special projects, he came across well and certainly a master of a number of managerial competencies. (Anyone who has studied for a DMS or MBA will know what I mean!)
He provided both exciting and concerning responses regarding the ground redevelopment. There are some grand plans for Vicarage Road - incidentally, there are no plans to move the club elsewhere - but how the finance will be generated wasn't answered. Indeed, due to commercial sensitivities the "I's and T's" have yet to be dotted and crossed and he couldn't divulge the information that the fans are increasingly impatient to know. So plans to turn the Rous Stand into the new Main Stand and to build a new East Stand are on hold for now.
Incidentally, Mark referred to briefing the Supporters Trust about the plans and getting their input. So perhaps, whilst things have yet to progress from the planning stage, at least the Trust have a watching brief to see that he succeeds.
For Mark Ashton's "school report":
Mark has been at the club for over a year. Whilst some of his decisions have not always been popular, he is charged with a tough brief to transform the ground. Though progress is no doubt being made behind the scenes, it isn't apparent to supporters. Whilst the club's AGM isn't due till December, it is vital that Mark demonstrates concrete progress towards his goal.
Rating: C - can do better
Finally, turning to club Chairman Graham Simpson, who is the second largest shareholder in the club, and was second only to Adrian Boothroyd in answering questions. After three years at Vicarage Road, Graham was very effusive about his new manager and gave Aidy his first vote of confidence on the night, which Aidy made light of. Those with longer memories will remember Graham doing something similar with Ray Lewington on his appointment; those with shorter memories only have to think back six months....
Somehow you feel that, with Graham, if there is a way to put his foot in it, then he will do so. Whilst he has poured a huge chunk of his personal wealth into the club, has overseen the repurchase of the ground and is a veteran of a number of Fans' Forums (three), in my opinion he has yet to develop a genuine rapport with supporters. True, he answered some tough questions but also bluffed his way through a few others and in some instances was deliberately confrontational.
Indeed, Simpson must have made reference to "being his own man" at least a dozen times during the course of the evening. At a previously "community" orientated club, Graham has set his stall out as turning the club into a "business", perhaps with the consequence of throwing the baby out with bathwater.
Whilst he is on a mission to "turn the club around", he will do it his own way - whether fans like it or not. Indeed, you got the impression that he is not greatly keen on talking with fans - which, considering they are also his customers, could be an own goal of his own making. Should he feel strongly enough to defend the indefensible, he might find that the currently docile Watford fans might be equally unbending.
Graham actually apologised for the way the Nigel Gibbs affair was handled and admitted that he was out of the country when the controversial "management restructuring" release was put on the website. Whilst it might be impertinent to suggest, Graham perhaps has a tendency to be absent from his office when key decisions are to be made - appointing Vialli and the Chelsea ticket fiasco spring to mind.
Both Graham and Mark confirmed that settlement had been reached with Nigel. A relief to see that the affair has been concluded and that a great club servant has been given his due compensation. The fact remains he was pretty shabbily treated in the process, but at least a line can be drawn under the affair. It would be a fitting reward if Nigel were admitted to the club's "hall of fame".
Graham views himself as a great "communicator", so it was interesting when the debate turned to the club's rather, at times, bizarre email correspondence with fans. Graham confirmed in his own inimitable style that news "was made up", which rather precisely summed up many fans' contempt for the spin the club currently employ. The audience couldn't have laughed any more - even if it was an unintended gaff by the Chairman.
Turning to the Watford Observer and what seems to be a deteriorating relationship between the club and local paper, Graham offered to have a clear-the-air meeting. Rather than speak with the paper directly, Graham used the Forum to make the offer via representatives of the paper.
He also commented greatly on the need for the club to able to redress any article published by the paper. Far be it from me to remind the club about the greatly-treasured concept of freedom of the press, but no paper, local or national, will ever give an organisation, whether commercial, not for profit or government, the right to reply. It is a road which, if abused, could lead to a Pravda-style newspaper - where the real truth can only be found by reading behind the lines. Come off it, Graham, you are living in cloud cuckoo land if you believe any publication will give you right of redress. Perhaps you should look inward, to your PR and media people, to find how best to get your message across. In fact, the more Fans' Forums - say, four a season - are the best way of doing that. How about it?
For Graham Simpson's "school report":
Graham has had three years at Watford's helm. At times, when his guiding hand has been required, he has often been missing, or in the case of the Watford Observer debacle, he has been too closely involved. In the Watford Observer case, he should have been less passionate and more impartial. There is a problem with credibility, whilst he has made a deep and painful financial contribution, he has yet to bridge the gap between the fans and club. Whether or not he has the resolve to build bridges with fans rather than to batten down the hatches is his key challenge for the coming season.
Rating: D - a real hard worker, but needs to focus more on his key goals.