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Fans Forum, 24/11/99
Unofficial minutes
By Ian Grant

Tim Shaw
Nigel Wray
Brian Anderson
Haig Oundjian
Graham Taylor
Charles Lissack
Graham Simpson
John Alexander
Ed Coan

The forum was chaired by Haig Oundjian, who began by explaining the circumstances behind the meeting.

Having stated the intention to raise £5m by share placements, the club has now raised £4m and hopes to raise the rest. This money will be used for the following purposes:

  • to repay "the Petchey debt"
  • to build the club's own training ground
  • to fund an integrated educational programme with the local community

In addition, money will be made available to GT for players should he require it. (However, whether this money would be coming from the funds raised by the placements or from additional investment was unclear.)

The placements have brought three new directors onto the board - Tim Shaw, Graham Simpson, and Mike Sherwood. Following Howard Wells' departure, Ed Coan will become "Director of Marketing and Communications".

The new faces were asked to introduce themselves:

Tim Shaw, a Watford fan for twenty-two years, used the word "potential" more times than would seem grammatically possible.

Graham Simpson, a "lifelong" fan, began by describing some of his memories of hitch-hiking to games in his youth, before stressing the importance of "teamwork" and "communication".

Brian Anderson read a short profile of the absent Mike Sherwood, who is a "finance person" and, although not a Watford fan, is a "passionate football man".

Following the introductions, Oundjian handed the microphone to Graham Taylor.

In a lengthy, occasionally rambling, but vastly entertaining and hugely encouraging speech, Taylor described his "five year plan" for achieving Premiership status. Drawn up when he returned to the club, this involved two years in Division Two before promotion, as actually happened, and then a further three years of adjusting to life in Division One. "Typical players, take no notice of their manager," Taylor quipped before describing the victory in the playoffs as "this amazing, stupid, silly sort of thing".

His key point was that, unlike the first time around, "we've only had a successful team, not a successful club". The speed of the rise through the divisions, along with the changes in football in general, have made adjustment difficult. Now the club is looking for stability and continuity.

Taylor's principles remain the same: "there must be leadership [from the boardroom]" and you must make sure you know "who you're getting into bed with".

The club cannot afford to slip back into Division Two, since this is already becoming a cut-off point. What is needed is "planning with reality", responsible investment for the next generation. Too many boardroom decisions at other clubs are made on the basis of the last three results, what Watford needs is medium-term and long-term planning.

In the medium-term, the training ground will be vital in enabling the club to attract young players. This is what Taylor sees as competing with the big clubs by being dynamic.

In the long-term, relocation must be considered. Taylor admitted that he didn't know the answer, but pointed out that planning for the future was part of an on-going, never-ending "quest for success" and, therefore, that such things must not be ruled out.

Taylor ended by reading his programme notes for Saturday, a defence of his comments about Watford fans' treatment of Alan Shearer. In summary, he loved the chant of "Where were you on Wednesday night?" and felt that the humour behind it was very appropriate. He didn't like the obscenities used in the second half, although he pointed out that his wife and one of his daughters still disagree and think he's a "miserable sod".

Receiving the microphone back, Oundjian commented that GT would make a pretty good stand-up comedian, before asking for questions from the floor. (Apologies if I've got any names wrong, any corrections welcome.)

Debbie began by asking a two-part question. Firstly, she asked for clarification of the role, structure and accountability of the holding company. Secondly, she asked whether there would be a replacement for Howard Wells, specifically with regard to day-to-day liaison with supporters.

Haig Oundjian replied that the holding company was something inherited from Jack Petchey. The club's shares are split between 1,300 small shareholders (five percent) and the holding company (ninety-five percent). The board of the holding company is comprised of Brian Anderson, Nigel Wray, Haig Oundjian, Mike Sherwood and David Meller, and is therefore similar to the board of the football club. Its role is in long-term planning.

In reply to the second question, it was suggested that the role of chief executive was a "difficult position", since so much of the financial business of a football club involves team affairs, which are the domain of Graham Taylor. For this reason, the club will not be appointing a new chief executive. However, Ed Coan's job title includes "communications" and he is expected to be responsible for liaison with fans. In addition, a management meeting will take place today (Thursday) and is expected to address such issues.

Gary Williams asked about restrictions on transfers of shares between the small shareholders.

John Alexander replied that the situation was unchanged, in that transactions must be approved by the board and are currently only allowed within families or to next-of-kin upon death. This is primarily due to administrative costs. When pressed further, he conceded that this could be re-examined by the club.

Someone whose name I didn't catch (sorry) asked whether decisions over relocation would put redevelopment of Vicarage Road on hold.

Haig Oundjian again enthused about the set-up at Wigan as a vision for the future, although he stressed that this could only be in the long-term. He agreed that such plans must not prevent redevelopment in the short-term, although no clarification of what such redevelopment might involve was given.

Richard Staines made a point about the continued absence of Elton John, commenting that the club's chairman is not seen at games even when he is in the country.

Graham Taylor replied by saying that Elton keeps in contact on a regular basis, but that music is and always will be his "first love". He reiterated that it was Elton who persuaded him to return to Watford, but that the financial commitment made by the chairman - over £2m written off when the club was sold to Jack Petchey - could not be repeated.

Steve Todd (Norfolk Hornets) pointed out that much of the language coming from the board was Blair-speak, before asking for further clarification of management structures and company policies.

Graham Taylor replied that there are management meetings every six weeks, involving seven or eight people. These may include board representatives if appropriate. The structure is detailed in the programme, with Ed Coan now added.

John wanted clarification of the position of Saracens and Nigel Wray.

Nigel Wray replied in some detail. He pointed out that Saracens has already made a £1.5m investment in Vicarage Road, including paying for half of the cost of the new pitch as well as refurbishments such as the Saracens Suite. His vision was that both clubs would work together, particularly to get more use out of the stadium both to increase revenue and to enable applications for lottery funding. There were hints about a new stadium and/or major redevelopment, but no more than hints. A new contract has been agreed between Watford and Saracens, drawn up without Wray's involvement, that will see Saracens become a long-term tenant. When questioned further, he confirmed that the ground and leasehold are still owned by Watford, although there is to be an attempt to take control of the freehold, which is currently owned by Benskins Brewery.

Hazel O'Callagan (Watford Independent Supporters Association) directed two questions at Nigel Wray. Firstly, what happens when there is a conflict of interest between Saracens and Watford? Secondly, how committed is he to Watford in the long-term, bearing in mind the promises he made when he became involved with Nottingham Forest?

Nigel Wray again replied in detail and, to these eyes, with considerable honesty. The answer to the first question was simple - when there is a conflict of interest, Wray abstains.

His version of events at Forest was as follows. He received a phone call (from the Scholar consortium, presumably) to ask if he wanted to invest, and agreed to do so. Days later, he met with Graham Taylor and Elton John for the first time, but was unable to invest in Watford due to his verbal agreement regarding Forest. He was never on the board of the football club and never wanted to be, his involvement was intended only to be with the PLC. He became chairman of the PLC simply because the other board members, who did not "get on" and could not work as a "team", were unable to agree on another candidate. The football club had no chairman at all for the same reason. As a consequence, he became a figurehead - which was fine during a "bloody marvellous" first year, but considerably less so during the "bloody awful" second year. He admitted that mistakes were made and promised that he'd make more, on the grounds that "the only people who don't make mistakes are the ones who don't want to achieve".

With regard to long-term commitment to Watford, he pointed out that a considerable financial investment had already been made. In terms of an emotional investment, he conceded that he would never be as fanatical as the supporters, but asserted that his emotional input was still strong.

Others were prepared to back Wray up on this. Graham Simpson was particularly passionate, stressing as strongly as possible that the club was in safe hands. Brian Anderson said that he was "impressed" by the changes of the last six to nine months. Charles Lissack was also enthusiastic, claiming that the new board was "head and shoulders" above anything in his near-decade at the club and that Watford was in "rude health", before re-emphasising the need for better communication.

Pete Fincham found himself surprised to "believe what you're saying". However, he pointed to the number of empty seats at Vicarage Road as evidence that changes need to be made, especially to bring families back to the club. He asked the board to give real consideration to the issue of ticket prices, before ending on a positive and supportive note.

"Fincham, are you all right???" was Graham Taylor's response, which brought the house down. Nigel Wray commented that "the future of sport is family", saying that the supporter base for the future can only be built by getting families into the ground at a good price. His final words were significant, emphasising that the club must change its attitude and look to get families and kids in "at the lowest possible price, not the highest possible price".

Finally, as the forum drew to a close, Leo Mindel asked permission to submit the lists of questions from Watford Mailing List subscribers and readers of BSaD to the club, so that they could be answered in full. This was agreed.

The last words belonged, almost inevitably, to Graham Taylor who ended proceedings by telling a joke. Awful, since you ask, but Watford fans will forgive him anything....

Note: The forum was recorded and full coverage in the form of Real Audio files will be available as soon as possible.

See also: Reaction