Meeting Report 13 December 2011
John Fawell Chair WST; Graham Sterry Vice Chair WST;
Laurence Bassini Owner WFC; Richard Walker Head of Media and Communications
We had a very amicable meeting with Laurence and Richard at which we explained what the Trust is and what we represent. Laurence Bassini represents a very different ownership than we have had for some time and he is first and foremost a businessman who sees the football club as a business, not a profitable business but one that needs to be run on sensible business lines in order to meet the business objectives. Those objectives are
a) to stay in business
b) to stay in the Championship as a minimum
c) to achieve more sustainable operational costs and
d) to find new, non-football related ways of sourcing additional, sustainable income streams.
Laurence stated that he had been an Arsenal supporter for many years but that first and foremost he was a supporter of football generally. He did say that he was close to taking over Blackburn Rovers but did not like what he saw. Since taking over Watford there is no doubt that he is a Watford supporter and in any match involving Watford he is desperate for Watford to win.
Why did he take over Watford? Our perception from the meeting is that it was because he has a real interest in the business of football and Watford is not only his local club but did not have the baggage associated with some other clubs that were available. It also represents a challenge, which he sees as achievable.
Where does the money come from?He clearly has his own funds available and is able to access these as necessary. He does not need to give us all the details and we have to accept certain things on his assurance and also the assurance of those who did due diligence investigation. Julian Winter, for example, was content that Laurence would be able to meet his obligations.
Why not a more public profile? Laurence is a businessman and works with and is in contact with some major business figures. It is not a normal requirement that you keep the world informed of every move and he is now beginning to understand the demands associated with the very public nature of owning and running a football club, although he has only been in charge since March.
As a consequence he is adapting to a different set of circumstances with the help of Richard who is a man of integrity and we must also modify our expectations. Not everybody wants to be a media figure and this is true of the majority of football club owners. We are just used to a rather different situation but only over the past two years. We must remember the situation in the later stages of Graham Simpsons’ chairmanship where there were significant tensions with the media.
We explained that fans would be impressed to know of the work currently being undertaken at The Red Lion and that the covers and grass growing lighting had been seen in action on Monday at the Football Club AGM. We suggested a photograph on the website would be worthwhile. Richard was always planning to publish a Christmas update and felt that an overall summary of progress would have more impact than a constant drip-feed of minor updates of information.
The club continues to run at a loss, which we knew, and we almost certainly have to sell at least one player per year, which is no change from the position previously. We will not be selling players cheaply but when we can get the best possible deal. There have been problems with the contracts of a small number of players as witnessed by the loss of Don Cowie for nothing, but this is being addressed and hopefully the situation will not arise again although some of this depends on the players and their agents. It would appear that the responsibility for these contract problems does not lie with Julian Winter (but others who have since left the club).
Laurence recognises more than most the need for Watford to remain at least at Championship level as a drop to League 1 would result in a massive loss of revenue. He is, therefore, prepared to be flexible in terms of player’s salaries in order to achieve this. While the basis of the Watford Way remains in place he emphasised the need for sufficient flexibility to achieve what is needed.
He is extremely supportive of Sean Dyche who he holds in high regard as a manager and as a man. He recognises that Sean is different to Malky but that was always likely to be the case. He could not have held on to Malky in any sustainable way. The club is recovering from a massive change with the loss of two key players in Danny and Don Cowie and the loss of a significant number of backroom staff on the football side. He believes that they are beginning to get where they want to be. He has strong views on the playing staff and strongly believes that there is a need for a blend with sufficient quality available in the squad that mere numbers cannot provide.
With regard to the pitch, the covers and lights are in place and a deposit has been made on the pitch replacement. This was simply not possible this year in the timeframe available. Work will start straight after the end of the season and this is not a simple relaying of turf but a full pitch replacement, with very specialised machinery necessary for best results.
The seats in the Rookery had deteriorated to the extent that they could no longer be cleaned with any assurance that they would not stain spectators’ clothes and so they had to be replaced. We are aware that maintenance of the ground has been very limited over recent times and a number of areas are reaching the point where it is no longer possible to patch up and get by.
The new screen was up and running for the start of this season and a second screen will go up in the opposite corner when the police centre is moved. A good deal was available that has meant there will be a significant long-term saving.
The new sound system is now in place and has been balanced. Those at the recent Watford and Saracens games will have noticed an improvement in quality.
The contracts for the South West corner have been agreed and await final sign-off. Work will begin in early 2012 but progress will be dependent to some extent on the weather. Discussions are under way regarding the replacement of the East Stand and Laurence wants to have the appropriate plans in place for when the South West corner is finished and the changing rooms can be moved.
Work has started on The Red Lion but it was allowed to deteriorate after its purchase and more work is needed than was originally anticipated.
He is content with the Board and, although he does not always agree with the other board members, that can be healthy and things are moving forward well.
With regard to Saracens, there are no current plans for them to return to Vicarage Road when the present arrangement finishes. However, he understands that there is a revenue stream to be gained from other stadium usage, which must be examined and prioritised.
Laurence Bassini represents a different sort of owner to those we have been used to. He is still learning about the club and the business but seems to relish the challenge. He spoke with both passion and enthusiasm and has emphasised that he does not see the club’s future as being other than at Vicarage Road but would never say never. He kept reiterating the need for stability and much of what was happening anyway, such as player sales, will continue in much the same way.
The Academy is a major foundation of the club and that will not change in the foreseeable future. The squad needs to be a mix of home-grown and imported talent, some of which will be young but then helped and allowed to develop, such as Hogg.
He has been very supportive of the Community Trust and had a battle with the FA over the fair play money, which was donated to the Trust. He recognised that WST had put its money where its mouth is with regard to supporting Watford’s community role. He also funded the Ladies football team when the FA pulled the rug.
He wants us to exercise patience and judge him by results. We have explained that patience is not something that most football fans have in abundance but he does not want to be constantly talking to the media and that will be left largely to others in the club.
We left the meeting differing in our opinion over what the fans should be told and how they are told but this was a constructive and amicable meeting.