Published with the permission of ISSA
Meeting Between Walsall Football Club & The Independent Saddlers Supporters Association
Venue: The 1888 Lounge at the Banks’s Stadium
Date: Tuesday 18th January 2020, 13:50
Graham Whittaker (GW), Walsall Football Club
Leigh Pomlett (LP), Walsall Football Club
Dave Beckett (DB), Independent Saddlers Supporters Association
Dave Joesbury (DJ), Independent Saddlers Supporters Association
The meeting began with DB questioning the absence of a minute taker. GW clarified that because the meeting was a formal discussion rather than a Working Party Meeting, a minute taker would not be provided by the club.
GW stressed that though the meeting had been organised at short notice LP had not hesitated to attend. DB expressed his disappointment at a minute taker not being present, but made clear that the meeting would be minuted by himself and DJ on behalf of ISSA, and made public to supporters in the spirit of transparency.
DB opened with a question to GW in relation to his position as Supporter Liaison Officer (SLO) asking what he felt the role brings to the fanbase and why his social media posts only seem to ask fans to attend games and purchase match tickets.
GW responded by stating that he is not a fan of social media, believing there to be a great deal of misinformation and misunderstanding regarding the Football Club. GW emphasised that he is always available to supporters and has a dedicated email address for such communications.
DB followed up by asking why GW was handpicked to join the Board as a fan representative without any consultation with supporters. LP stated that in his role as Chairman he chose to appoint GW to the position as he was already serving as SLO. LP had identified this as a growing practice within football clubs and wanted to be ahead of the game.
LP stated that GWs role would be reviewed after two years at which time a decision would be made whether or not to reinstate him. LP stressed that GW is a Walsall fan and has the right to criticise the club, and has done.
Allegations of Bullying
DB asked LP if there is any truth in the allegations apparently made by an ex-employees partner claiming that the club’s Director of Football Jamie Fullarton (JF) is a bully and that a toxic environment existed within the club.
LP stated categorically that the allegations are untrue and there is no way he would tolerate bullying in any shape or form at the Football Club. LP spoke to Miguel Llera prior to the Mansfield game and shared a ‘big Spanish hug’ with him on his departure. LP has no doubt that Llera will find a new role and enjoy success.
LP confirmed that the source of the allegation was Miguel Llera’s partner, and as such there would be an internal investigation. LP asserted that he did due diligence on JF prior to his appointment and that he received great reviews from all parties he spoke to, including the Scottish Football Association. LP assured that if any red flags had emerged, JF would not be at the club.
LP stated that JF’s role is to re-examine the footballing side of the club from top to bottom, that he is a disciplinarian and does not suffer fools lightly. LP again stressed that there is no place at the club for bullying under his stewardship.
DB asked what measures are in place to ensure the team improves next season, in order to prevent another season making up the numbers in a woeful division.
LP said he doesn’t believe the division is woeful and that there are some very strong teams. LP stated that the club is operating with a ‘top seven’ budget, but success is not all about money. LP asserted that you can throw a lot of money about but that is no guarantee of success.
Transfers & Loans
DB asked if the club will be able to pay for contracted players to strengthen the squad for next season, rather than signing a high volume of loan players with no loyalty to the club.
LP stated that if Matt Taylor (MT) and Jamie Fullerton came to him with a player who they believe would make the difference between gaining promotion/reaching the Play-Offs, and not, there is room for manoeuvre in the transfer market.
LP firmly believes that the current squad is capable of making the Play-Offs this season and could easily go on a strong run of form akin to Mansfield.
Regarding loan signings, LP stated that there is no limit to the number of players the club can loan, just how many are permitted in the match day squad. Ideally, LP would like to see an 80/20 mix of full time players and loanees.
LP said that there are plenty of high standard young players like Carl Rushworth that Jamie Fullarton is keeping tabs on. LP stated that the club has ‘irons in the fire’ but are in no rush as they feel what we have is good enough.
LP also confirmed that no bids have been received for Liam Kinsella and the club was not aware of any interest in the player.
Finance from Directors
DB asked if the Board of Directors are willing to financially assist the club in order to build a squad capable of challenging for promotion next season.
LP reiterated that the Board are prepared to assist financially should MT and JF suggest a player essential to achieving promotion or a Play-Off place.
Composition of Board of Directors
DB stated that the Board of Directors are unchanged since LP took over the club and asked LP what the current members of the Board bring to the table and if he intends to make any changes.
LP provided a breakdown of what each current Board Member brings to the table:
Peter Gilman has expert football knowledge having sat on the Board at Leeds United and also has vast property expertise. Roy Whalley brings commercial expertise and has negotiated sponsorship deals including those with Homeserve and Poundland.
Nigel Bond is the second biggest investor in Walsall FC after LP and supported the club with increased investment during Covid. LP stressed that Bond’s investment in the club is so significant that if he chose to leave, the club would not be able to pay him back.
As previously discussed, GW brings experience from his ongoing position as SLO. Dan Mole is extremely hard-working and puts in lots of effort in all areas of the club including his work as Club Secretary. Stefan Gamble’s financial background and expertise in accounting brings a great deal to the club.
Richard Tisdale provided signage for all seats and around all areas of the ground as the club prepared for socially distanced attendance during Covid restrictions. His wife works for the club as a volunteer at every home match day in various roles.
DB asked if there is a current Director who would be willing to sell their position on the Board should they be approached by an investor with the appropriate financial means and was approved as fit and proper.
LP stated that this was always a possibility, but no significant change in the make-up of the Board was expected at the current time.
Director Returns on Investment
DB asked if all of the current Directors have assisted financially, and if they take a 5% annual return on the money they invest in the club.
LP stated that no Director takes 5% from their investment, including himself. Nigel Bond does take a return, owing to the high level of investment he has in the club *** Subject to retraction, please see footnote**. Dan Mole, Graham Whittaker, Roy Whalley and Stefan Gamble have no current investment in the club.
DB asked if the money invested by Directors stays in the ‘Directors Loan Account’, or if it is distributed to other parts of the club.
LP confirmed that some money invested by Directors sits in the ‘Directors Loan Account’ and some goes to support other areas of the club in general.
DB asked if Jeff Bonser (JB) is still involved in the club in any shape or form.
LP stated that JB has no involvement in the club other than owning the land. JB’s pension fund facilitators act as landlords to the club.
LP stressed that he had acquired all of JB’s majority shareholding when purchasing the club, and had also re-paid a £1.3m Directors Loan owed to JB, from which JB had drawn an annual return. The £1.3m is now owed to LP by the club.
LP said that with legal fees and due diligence he had paid a very significant amount of money in order to acquire the football club.
Homeserve Stand & Fair Rental Assessment
DB asked if it was true that there were significant structural issues with the Homeserve Stand that would require major repair, and if so, should the stadium be fit for purpose to meet Fair Rental Assessment.
LP stated that there are no structural issues with the Homeserve Stand, and if there was, it would not pass a Safety Cert to open on match days. LP said that there was an issue with water leaking between the top tier of the stand and the Bescot Bar that had been fixed. The repairs were paid for by the club as per the rental agreement.
LP stressed that as much as he doesn’t like paying for rent and repairs, the club is subject to a fully functioning repair lease and that the club is responsible for complete maintenance of the fabric and structure of the entire stadium.
LP explained that the rental cost not only covers the stadium, but also contributes to repaying loans owed to Jeff Bonser for upgrades on the land. These loans were drawn down from JB’s pension fund and loaned to the club to pay for upgrades including the digital advertising signs.
LP stated that JB does not take any money from any commercial activity on the land, including revenue raised from signs, events, hospitality or the Sunday Market.
DB asked if (following a previous disclosure that the floodlights had to be upgraded to meet standards set by the EFL, Sky TV and Aston Villa Ladies) the stadium was fit for purpose to meet its rental purpose as a football stadium.
LP stated that the floodlights on the astroturf pitch behind the Homeserve Stand had been upgraded, but work would begin soon to bring the floodlights in the stadium up to standard.
DB asked if floodlight upgrades will cost in excess of £100,000, as reported.
LP said that the cost of upgrading floodlights for both the astroturf and the stadium would be less than £100,000. LP stressed that this cost was budgeted for and would have no effect on the playing budget.
DB asked why the club’s annual accounts are so opaque and why the club doesn’t tell fans where total income comes from and where it is distributed in the several facets of Walsall FC.
LP stated that as President of the Freight Transport Association he had dealt with companies worldwide, and had never seen accounts as spotless as Walsall FC’s. LP asserted that he had never dealt with a business with accounts so transparent and meticulously put together as those prepared by Stefan Gamble (SG).
DB suggested that a forensic accountant would be unable to unfurl the accounts.
LP explained the accounting process and stated that if he called SG to the meeting room there and then he would be able to produce a full transparent balance sheet. LP said that the club has nothing to hide.
DB asked if the club was aware of the FA charges faced by Manny Monthe (MM) when he was signed. If not, would the club seek recourse of his employment costs from the FA or previous employer.
LP denied that any charge was hanging over MM when he joined the club and that the player was distraught when the allegations and charge came through from the FA. LP stated that he had spoken to MM and that the player believed the incident in question was player to player banter that was common in football.
LP added that MM had been found guilty on the balance of probability, as the FA panel decided that he probably said what was alleged.
LP asserted that MM continues to refute the charge, and that he fully believes the player, describing him as a man mountain but one of the most shy and mild-mannered people at the Football Club. LP said that, knowing MM as he does now and how fervently he denies the charges, there was every likelihood he would still have signed the player had the club been aware of the charges.
LP mentioned that MM had a niggling shoulder injury and probably wouldn’t have been available for recent fixtures.
Rental Break & Freehold
DB asked if, with a rental break on the stadium due in the next 5 or 6 years, LP could see a future for the club away from Bescot if the lease cannot be secured.
LP stated that his ambition from day one was a return to League One and re-unite the club and the freehold, after that – his job will be done. He added that should the club reach the Championship under his ownership we would come straight back down, as the financial void is greater than ever.
LP said that on taking over the club he had agreed a timescale with Jeff Bonser to complete the purchase of the freehold. The agreed price would not change unless the timescale was exceeded.
DB suggested that at current prices the value of the land could be in the region of £20m.
LP stated that there was no way he would discuss the price of buying the freehold, but asserted that the agreed price was nowhere near what the land is worth.
DB asked what would happen if the freehold could not be purchased within the agreed timescale.
LP said that the club could leave Bescot, but it would have to happen at the same time as the rent break. He stated that another possibility would be to pay the freehold, sell the land at market value and re-coup enough money to build another stadium elsewhere, but he couldn’t foresee this happening.
LP asserted that he was a fan who stood on the terraces at Fellows Park and that he understood the bitterness surrounding the move to Bescot and the rental agreement. LP said he hated paying rent on the stadium as much as anyone else, but there is no way of going back and he could only deal with the current situation.
LP stated that if he hadn’t purchased the club he would be on the same side of the table as the supporters.
DB asked if LP had received any interest in the club from potential investors or buyers?
LP confirmed he has had interest in buying the club not backed up by a firm offer. He feels a responsibility to the club and fans, and would accept an offer from someone able to buy him out and purchase the freehold providing they were the right person.
LP said that he could sell the club tomorrow, but it wouldn’t be in the best interests of the club or fans, and he is determined to find the right buyer even if it means him staying as Chairman longer than first planned.
The Saddlers Club
DB asked if the planned refurbishment of the Saddlers Club would dilate the offering of other bar facilities around the stadium.
LP confirmed that the Saddlers Club would be renovated at some stage, but the facility must have a number of different purposes and be active six days a week in order to make it economically viable. LP stated that was it not for Covid, the Saddlers Club would already be re-opened in some capacity, and that he hates seeing it in its current state when he arrives at the club each morning.
LP commented on how the pandemic had been a hard, testing time and that he never imagined that Covid would be the worst crisis in the club’s history. He stated that he is determined to turn the club around without fail.
LP reiterated that he understands the frustration felt by fans, and that though he owns the club, it belongs to the supporters.
The meeting came to a close at 16:20.
The Chairman wishes to put on record that he was mistaken in stating that Director Nigel Bond takes a return on money he has invested in the club. Mr Bond had previously taken a return on investment, but this is no longer the case.