Fans Consultation Group – December 2019

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Below are the minutes from this week’s FCG meeting. There was a lengthy agenda to discuss and it was another opportunity for us to hear the thoughts and feelings of Aston Villa’s Chief Executive Officer, Christian Purslow.

More discussion in reaction to the meeting will follow, but for now, here are the minutes.

10 December 2019

Fan Reps
Joe Costello     Heroes & Villans
Jon Knibb        Lions Clubs
Scott Jones      Villa Talk
Ian Stokes       Vital Villa
Nick Sanders    avillafan.com
Peter Warrilow  AV Supporters Trust
Mo Razzaq        AV Supporters Trust
David Michael    My Old Man Said
Saqib Taj           Villans Together
Sam Timms        Villa & Proud
Harjit Badesha    Punjabi Villans

Apologies 
Joanne McKibbens  AV Disabled Supporters Association
Steve Gough          AV Independent Supporters Clubs
Dan Bardell           The Villa View

Club Reps
Christian Purslow  Chief Executive Officer
Paul Tyrrell          Chief Corporate Affairs Officer
Tommy Jordan     Communications Director

Main 10-point Agenda

1.    The group asked you at our last meeting about the situation of the internal purchase of Villa Park, and if the role of the subsidiary company  ‘NSWE Stadium Ltd’ was linked to this. At the time, you stated, “yes and no”, and the answer that followed was off the record.

A couple of weeks later, the media got wind of the sale, after documents filed with the land registry came to light.  Since, it’s been announced that the Premier League are to scrutinise the deal, as some club’s have pushed to close this apparent loophole to comply with the EFL’s profit and sustainability rules.

Recently, Sheffield Wednesday’s owner was charged for breaking the rules on such a deal.  Obviously, there were certain accounting details in that case, in terms of timing and the valuing of the ground at £60m.

What is the situation in terms of the Premier League ‘scrutinising’ the Villa Park deal?  In layman terms, how is the deal set up (does the club pay a rental?) and with ownership now technically outside the club, what assurances do supporters have that NSWE will look after their interests?

Christian (CP) assured the meeting that the ownership of the stadium lays directly with our owners and that supporters can be entirely content with this position.  He made reference to Villa Park being our home since 1897 and expects us to be playing here in 2097! It is inconsequential where Villa park sits within our ownership structure.

2.    Back in 2012, the club were one of the first Premier League clubs to offer to trial standing areas.  It was announced in the media and the club had Birmingham MP support too.

In light of the recent government report suggesting they were now open to such trials in their data gathering on the issue, and the support for standing stated in all the main political party manifestos, what’s Aston Villa stance now?

The Head of Stadium Security has voiced his concerns to the group regarding persistent standing at Villa Park, but there now seems to be a waning of the club’s earlier enthusiasm for the only gilt-edged solution – standing sections.

Clubs like Wolves and Spurs have future fitted their stadiums with rail seats, but can Villa get back to being at the forefront of the issue?  After all, we did once have the largest standing kop end in Europe.

There’s been previous plans drawn up for such trial sections, so what are the current plans of the club regarding standing?

If it were suddenly cleared by the government, for it to be ok to implement standing for the start of next season, what would be the club’s actions on the matter?

CP acknowledged we have widespread and potentially unsafe standing at present and he acknowledged the impact this can have on children, elderly and ambulant fans being unable to view the match safely or in comfort.  Any help from fans and / or fan groups in encouraging others to be mindful of the negative impact of standing so all can see the match clearly would be appreciated.

We very much support the introduction of safe standing and hope that a change in legislation will provide us with the opportunity of giving fans the choice to sit or stand at Villa Park.  When we can, we want to be at the forefront and ready to implement.

3.    There was a recent Premier League club meeting where the issue of VAR was aired out.  Did you leave that meeting confident your concerns were met?

What solutions for improvement have been put in place (or are planned) by the PL – especially in terms of quicker and clearer in-stadia communication?

There was a long discussion on VAR.  CP advised the FCG that the club (and all PL clubs) had made representations to both the Premier League and the PGMOL about what we believed were inconsistencies with the system in the first part of the season.  

There was no appetite from any club to abandon VAR during the season, and he was hopeful that ongoing changes would meet the concerns of supporters across the game. 

CP felt his biggest concern was the destroying of goal celebrations – a fundamental of the game. All PL clubs agreed three areas of improvement required. Quicker decisions, more consistency with decisions and better communications within the stadium.  CP felt there had been some improvements but stressed that VAR is still at the embryonic stage.

4.    The amount of season tickets sold this summer must have come as a surprise, especially when you look back at the club’s recent history (even in the last successful period pushing for Champions League qualification, the club didn’t match the current total).

Will this perhaps give you the opportunity to potentially fast track any developments or plans for the club?

How will it translate in terms of season ticket prices next season?

CP recapped to the meeting progress that has been made in the last 18 months.  All debts wiped out, a number of structural changes on the playing side, our Academy restructured, first team acquisitions & a new Sporting Director.  Some changes have been made internally at Villa Park, including upgrading matchday player facilities and the external dressing of the stadium which has been favourably received by fans and also recognised by the Premier League’s Visit Football scheme assessors. 

The playing side remains the priority with a long-term programme of upscaling the football club following the consolidating of our Premier League status.

CP is thrilled that season ticket holders who supported the club in the Championship have been able to enjoy the same prices in the Premier League.

Prices for the Liverpool cup match were discussed at length and CP agreed to check if prices had been set at the correct level.

5.     What do you think is the fundamental considerations for the club in terms of building the supporter base, both locally and internationally (beyond success on the field)?  What is actively happening in relation to this?

Significant effort has been focused on growing our Arabic community, where we have seen growth over the last few months (resulting from ownership and signings).   We’ve developed our digital platform (Arabic website) and our Arabic specific social content to engage our new fan base.

We are also looking to international markets where we already have hotspots of fans – North America, Australia, the Nordics.  We want to grow authentic fans and feel that MENA, along with these pre-existing fan base clusters, gives us good breadth of opportunity to grow.   We’ve supported PL initiatives focussed on North American (Events Live in Austin and Miami, plus ePremier League) and internally are currently focussed on MENA.

Locally we still have a strategy in place from the Championship where we want to bring the club and the city closer together to grow more affinity with Birmingham residents.  A prime example of this is the Digbeth Dining Club Fan Zone in Trinity Forecourt we have started the past few games, along with things like supporting Independent Birmingham and growing ties with the council and CWG.  We feel this will position us as a key pillar of support to the city and attract the new young, vibrant community growing in Birmingham.

6.    We realise that there is no short-term plans for stadium redevelopment, be it the North Stand or commercial enterprises like museums and hotels.  And, we appreciate your disdain for ‘bogus logic’ and hyperbole promises, with your wish to be judged on what you actually achieve.

That said, can you share your own longer-term vision for Villa Park and the infrastructure around it?

Year 1 has seen a focus on rebuilding the squad, with a focus on matchday experience.  Parts of Villa Park that had been mothballed during our time in the Championship have been brought back in to use (Upper Trinity, North Stand boxes).  Bodymoor Heath has seen changes including new facilities and pitches, including the new stand and facilities to enable under 23 matches to be staged in an appropriate environment.  Our current focus is to establish ourselves as a Premier League club.

7.    We’ve previously discussed the concerns of gambling having too much exposure in the football world and you’ve shared our concerns in terms of preferred sponsorship partners.  With more time for the club to work on a more preferable partner since we last met, have any inroads been made at this stage?

CP understood some fans concerns of betting partners within the industry and reminded the group that planning for front of shirt partners can take a minimum of two years to implement.  A number of key discussions are being held but no decisions have been made at this stage.

We’re also looking to grow more affiliation with brands that have a natural affinity with the club and our fans – for example Purity as our ale provider has been very successfully launched.

8.    The need for a fair and transparent system for dealing with various sanctions on fans – covering fan behaviour, including ticketing offences.

Having a clear published set of tariffs ala Manchester United and Liverpool do (see – https://www.manutd.com/en/Tickets-And-Hospitality/Match-Tickets/Club-Sanctions#), will help bring consistency for both fans and club employees.

We would also like an appeals system to possess an independent element in the final stage.

Spurs, for example, have recently worked with their fan groups on their sanctions and appeals process, and are due this month to publish their sanctions policy.

At the moment, as supporter groups, we’ve been made aware on several occasions over the years of supporters experiencing an uncertain limbo (missing multiple games before even a hearing) after having season tickets confiscated by the club, over an alleged misdemeanour.  This at times has arisen from poor communication from the club or slowness in the process.

A clear and transparent protocol would in our eyes improve this situation and make less work for all.  It would also help act as a deterrent.

In terms of appeals, at the moment an appeal is heard by the same people (department) that makes the initial judgement/sanction.  Perhaps a second appeal stage like Manchester United have – with independent representation on a panel – would be an example of best practice?

CP is fully supportive of the system adopted here at Villa Park.  We currently have a hearing, followed by an appeal hearing (if requested) and then escalation to the Senior Exec team (a three-tiered process).  

This season we have had 33 ejections for a variety of poor behaviour.  Whatever the offences CP is disappointed that we have had this number of ejections and wants our fans to be an exemplar of how to support the team with passion but without exercising poor behaviour.  

The club agreed with feedback from the FCG that our procedure for dealing with fan conduct should be published and that this would be useful as a deterrent.

9.    Looking ahead to potential developments in football, we would be interested to get your views, in context to Aston Villa, of the use of facial recognition technology at football grounds and attempts to monetise fan engagement, as in the case of Socios, who have began to roll it out with the likes of West Ham and Juventus.

We have no plans or intentions to monetise fan engagement on these lines and have no thoughts on facial recognition software at this time.

10.    Ambition moving forward…

a) As supporters, we all know the kind of market the January window offers. Broadly speaking, how does this forthcoming window fit into the current team building?

Does the club see the team having any clear needs to attend to?  Or perhaps does it have business to conclude with original targets from the summer?

The supporter base is concerned about a lack of legitimate striker cover and options, in the same way we were concerned about starting last season light of defensive cover (which was rectified in the January window).

We prefer not to comment on January transfer window plans in public or even behind closed doors.

b) In terms of Dean Smith’s new contract.  Obviously his initial contract would have been levied very much with the aim of promotion in mind.  With that said, does the new contract reflect where the owners see Villa within the next few years?

With so many clubs apparently in transition at the moment on the pitch, is there one eye on the opportunity of potentially fast-tracking our ambition (i.e. challenging top six)?

DS is at the heart of our rebuilding process and that is the rationale behind his contract extension.

As a two way process, is there anything that CP wants to feedback to the group and/or fans?

CP asked the FCG to recommend to the club the most appropriate way of marking Ron Saunders’ achievements. 

A discussion was held about the various different options and it was agreed that a Heritage & History FCG would meet in January to make the recommendation to the club.

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