Minutes of the Fans Forum held at the Den at 7.00 pm on 4 August 2016
Guests Neil Harris and Scott Fitzgerald
Chair Bob Asprey (MSC Chair)
Bob opened by thanking everybody for attending, especially our guests for the evening. Andy Ambler is on holiday, so we won’t get to grill him. We’re happy to have Neil and Scott, so they can answer all the football related questions. Then if there are any questions for me, I’m happy to take them. We won’t have a break.
NH Anybody that wants to moan about pies, that’s not for me!
Is Lee Gregory staying?
NH There was a bid from Rotherham, which was not accepted by the chairman. There is nothing in the Wigan rumour. Greggers wants to stay; I get on really well with him. I’ve asked him where he’s going to find a club that gives him these opportunities.
Is he fully fit?
NH Yes, he had an op, a new style hernia op, at the end of last season, but he’s fully fit now.
And what’s left of his contract?
NH One year with a ‘club’ one year option – the club have the right to add a further year.
Do Halifax have a sell on clause?
NH If they’ve done their business properly, yes.
£2m is nothing in today’s market. Surely he’s worth £4-5m? He’s really improved.
NH Nobody’s ever given a figure we’d accept. I wouldn’t sell Lee Gregory, he’s one of my best players.
As the manager, would you not get £4-5m?
NH It’s not a question at the moment, nobody’s bid even £2m for him. I want him to stay happy.
Hutchinson limped off v Brentford. What’s the latest?
NH It was precautionary to a certain extent. We have to be careful of muscular injuries. I will give him every opportunity to be fit for selection on Saturday but won’t risk a 6-8 week injury by playing him too soon.
I want to see more shooting from outside the box.
NH My players generally make good decisions. We’ve scored seven goals in preseason from crosses into the box. I do encourage my players (not Jimmy!) but Ben, Shaun, should be scoring more goals from distance and Shaun does it all the time in training – his technique and quality is excellent. They are encouraged to shoot, so they should get twenty goals each!
Scott, apart from your hard work what has brought these youngsters through?
SF Luck! No, there’s a lot of work going on in the background: we have two scouts; they’re here tonight. I’ve been here nine years and we’ve started to get the players through in the last two years, so it takes time. Years ago, money was being taken out of the academy, but the chairman’s now investing. But the most important person is the manager; if he doesn’t give the youngsters the opportunities, it makes no difference. Holloway did the same. And we have a good crop coming through.
Is the idea always to bring the academy through?
SF Historically, this club has produced players. For clubs like ours, we have to bring players through. We want our own and they will have a value.
NH I think what’s important is that we all have a belief in what we want to achieve. When I played, a crop of good young players came through. They’ve come through because they’re better than what we can go out and buy. We won’t get five or six every year, last year was exceptional. There will be opportunities this season and they’ll get a chance. If you do that, Scott can go out and attract players. It gives him an advantage over other scouts. Players sign contracts because they can see they’ll get an opportunity. If they can see that vision, they’ll want to sign.
Will the change to the loan system affect the youngsters? Will you loan them or keep them back?
NH Firstly, I won’t work with a huge squad so without the option to bring loans in before Christmas, young players will get a chance. To go the other way, our youngsters that aren’t ready for first team have to be loaned by 31 August and can’t be recalled but they can go to Conference level clubs and below for 28 days, good clubs like Braintree and Dartford.
If they’re loaned out to non league, can they come back to play?
NH Yes, and we’ll send players to clubs that we think will benefit our club as well as them, clubs that play a 442 system.
Are there a lot of 4-4-2 clubs?
NH Yes, in every division, maybe less than 50% of clubs, but I speak to managers regularly. We may decide to send a player to a different style club just for their progression. For example, we sent Tom King to Welling as it would be a culture shock to him, as the club was struggling. Ultimately we want all our lads to play for our first team.
How do you protect them from agents turning their heads?
NH We try to educate them. Scott does that. At first team level, it’s really difficult. With the youngsters, if you have good stable families that like consistency and old school values, it helps. Otherwise, agents contact players through social media and promise them the earth. Players and families will get their heads turned by what will be broken promises.
SF When I first came back here the 18 year olds had agents. Now even the 12 year olds do. Agents promise the parents a big move and destabilise them, just to earn a few quid.
So do you need to educate parents?
SF Yes, we run a workshop and FA come in and talk to them. They agree with you there and then, but when the agent turns up and makes promises, maybe the family doesn’t have a lot of money and it’s easy to see the attraction.
How does an agent of a 12 year old make money?
SF It’s a numbers game. So when the player’s registration runs out, they can talk to other clubs. We can earn compensation rights but it’s not as much as it used to be; it depends on length of service and length of contract. There’s a table of figures. You can only sign a contract for one year at age 11, two at 12 and three at 14.
My grandson’s 7 and there’s always people trying to talk to the parents.
SF You can’t officially sign a player until they’re 9. We work with younger players but there’s no pressure on them.
Do you ever get to trust an agent or are they all untrustworthy?
SF I don’t deal with agents, only parents, guardians, players. We can’t offer money, we offer opportunities.
Last season, we were great at heading balls.
NH We scored goals from set pieces. I remember sitting here last season and talking about this. I think we answered it – we scored more set piece goals than any other club. We work on it, and are quite inventive. But it’s not only about ability to see the ball but the heart and desire to be first. And delivery of the ball is key. We will work for forty minutes on a Friday on this but to do it on a matchday needs concentration and hard work and you’ll see me go mad if they get it wrong, and they will. But if you see Shane Ferguson who can deliver the ball anywhere, it makes a difference.
Does that include Morro’s goal at Bradford?
NH Yes, that was worked on. We give players ideas and we worked on that the day before the game. We target the opposition’s individual players, we see who’s the weakest, and we’ll attack that area. But the players have to have the ability.
Will you copy Brentford with their free kick?
NH Yep, that was bizarre, I was annoyed, then thought it was quite clever. I don’t think the rule will be around for long to allow that to happen again. Jordan admitted he lost concentration. But you still have to have the ability to put the ball in the net.
Going back to long range shooting, it’s one area we can improve. Scoring from around the box fell short last year, we can certainly do that. We improvise and I let players come up with ideas.
Are we too sporting?
NH Have you watched Steve Morison, lately!? We try and bend the rules as much as we can and we have a physical element to our game that irritates our opponents. But I won’t have my players roll around the pitch ten times. I don’t ask my players to cheat or get others sent off. It is frustrating and I’m as frustrated as the fans when opponents just fall over. When you have a global game watched by billions of fans, it happens. It takes the authorities to stamp it out.
BA I don’t want to see our players roll around the pitch either.
There were good set plays v Brentford. Were they worked on Friday?
NH No! Perhaps we won’t any more!
Regarding loans: have you tried to get Sid a loan or is he a first team player?
NH He’s 100% a first team players. I’m very fond of him and he’s certainly a captain in years to come. Last season, he was very patient as Byron and Mark were exceptional. Sid did have games but I felt I had to bring the other player back, as they’d been so exceptional. If he wasn’t in my plans to play, I would let him go, but he is.
Could he play at right back?
NH Yes, he did that at Plymouth away in the second half, after Carlos had been ripped apart by Greg Wylde. As a right back he’d have to work on his going forward. I think he’s naturally a centre back.
Does he not worry you when he tries to head the ball low down?
NH Yes, we talk about it and he’s committed but his decision making needs work. We do a lot of video work, to help with that. It may be okay at U21s but not at first team level; players will get around you. You have to consider injuries – Sid will compete for a place, obviously we have Hutchinson and Craig, who was exceptional on Saturday on a big day for him. Sid will have opportunities to impress.
Loans in last season were important. Will you prefer never to take a loan player rather than put a youngster in?
NH I said I’d only bring loan players in where there was a real need. We did it last season when we suffered a few injuries. George was a sensible decision and Jed supplied directness and was an exceptional loan. When he went back, I felt we missed experience, and Chris understood that and these three players we felt provided a boost. We will consider loans but they have to have the right DNA to fit into the dressing room. I won’t let a loan take the place of a youth player who’s ready.
With the youngsters, what’s being done to secure Jordan Archer?
NH Quite a lot’s being done. Obviously David’s gone to Portsmouth, he wanted to play football. So I’ve put faith in Jordan and I’ve told him today he’ll wear the number one shirt; he has an exceptional young keeper in Tom King behind him, so he’ll push Jordan. We see Jordan’s long term future here; he’s in his last year, so we’ve started talking to his advisers and we want to tie our best players to long contracts. We’re committed to our young players. We’ve offered him a contract so watch this space.
Are you looking to bring in another keeper?
NH Not today, the loan rules are slightly different for keepers. If I lost Jordan to injury when the loan window is closed I can sign another, as our others haven’t made five first team appearances. Again, I’m committed to providing opportunities to our youngsters. Tom King’s been very good preseason and probably deserves to be number two. If I felt we lacked experience, I’d get another goalie.
Forde always geed up the U21s when he played.
NH Yes, David always admitted it when he made an error, but he was a good leader and that’s why we let him go to Portsmouth, as he deserved that respect to be allowed to go to play. But I have other leaders in the dressing room.
What’s your view on the new cup competition?
NH Something had to give. The competition that gave us a lot of joy and momentum last year was dying on its feet. Our home semi final v Oxford, with a chance of Wembley, only 7,000 supporters turned up, the fans weren’t bothered. When the U23s option was proposed, we understood that all the clubs would be participating. Has it been devalued by clubs pulling out? I don’t think so, but it’s only a one year pilot, so if it doesn’t work, it will change. I’m pleased we’re playing West Brom at home, not a long midweek away trip.
There’s Premier league money?
NH Yes, money has been given to the competition which helps all the 48 non Premier league clubs. And it’ll be invaluable to our young players to play. Last year the competition was brilliant for us and gave us momentum after a difficult start. Williams’ goal in the 93rd minute v Peterborough gave my players so much belief. I hope it brings success and so revenue, but it’s also good for my players.
Fans won’t buy into our first team v an U23 team
NH That’s key, what type of team will each club play? I’ll take each game as it comes. For example, Gillingham is a great fixture, a local derby with a decent crowd, so I’ll play some of my first team and it’s a great opportunity for young players.
I still have to play five players that played the previous or next game or that have played 75% of fixtures. I’m cool with those limitations, because young players need guidance and experience. With subs, I can use 7. There’s no extra time – straight to penalties. Will that work? It’s practice. There’s a financial gain from winning a penalty shoot out.
We moan when we don’t get the live Sky games, but then they affect attendances. How does that affect team?
NH The Burton game didn’t affect the performance! I think outside the Premier league, it will always be the case. We have a designated number of games. I’m delighted with it. It’s revenue and it’s great for my players. The more experienced ones are used to it but the youngsters have to learn to deal with the extra publicity, media, etc.
Back to the league, what’s the aim for next season?
NH Win every game! I’m always very careful of what I say, to protect myself and the players. Last season, I think there were a lot of people thinking stability. So we achieved well last year and we’re all aware that expectations rise. I won’t make any promises, what I will say is that every team I put out will give everything they’ve got: passion, desire. They might miss out due to refereeing decisions, or form. If I get the spirit in the club right, then with the quality of the players we’ve got we should be competing at the top of the division.
The Charlton game is on an international weekend. Might it be postponed due to call ups?
NH Romeo, Cummings, Fergie, Abdou, Jordan, so there is a possibility. Ideally no, as we’d want to play, especially given the stature of the game.
With hindsight of last season, when we postponed games, was that a good idea?
NH Who knows? There’s no way of telling. You can only make decision on what you feel at the time. The decision falls on me. We do get an inkling from the FAs on who is likely to be called up.
Is there a rethink about Fred’s role in squad?
NH Yes, he had some exceptional games last year out wide and some games where he looked a little bit young. I saw the potential to play him up front and went against it because of the form of other players. I’ve said to him that I want to see him up front but he’s improved out wide. Defensively he’s improved and off the ball. I used him in preseason in a forward area, and in training, and he scared centre halves as he’s direct and pacey. I have a player improving and is a huge threat and with Aiden showing his ability in both positions and Lee and Steve up front, and Philpott improving, we have options.
Referee access – does it change between first team and youngsters? A bugbear of mine is late bookings when players are tired.
NH Well it’s a bugbear of mine when opponents get away with something and then our players get booked. I’m always ultra polite but I do ask why there is a lack of consistency. Gillingham was one game where I lost it, with Mahlon’s sending off, and Swindon.
SF Yes, we get access to referees before the game. We also have an academy to train referees and we give them the opportunity to referee our youth games.
NH At the Gillingham game, they escorted me from the pitch but not from the fanbase higher up the stand and the reaction was not at all good. I think if I’d been a manager of a different club, I’d have been treated differently. Here if a manager is sent off, we send them to the directors’ box. At Gillingham, if I hadn’t been a former loanee there, I’d never have found it.
At the play off final, we were unlucky to lose three of our back four but I thought we lacked pace. Do new players have that?
NH Just on the play off final, we didn’t deal with adversity on the day very well. Losing Byron was a big blow. Seeing him in the dressing room before kick off was hard as he’s so popular and losing Joe was hard. Lack of pace, possibly. It was a similar team to two months earlier, minus Mahlon. Worrall and Wylde address that. Greg is rivalling Fred for fastest at the club and Worrall attacks areas. So I’ve brought that into the side as I felt we lacked it in wide areas. I think young players coming through today have to be athletic. For example, our full backs James Brown and Noah Chesmain. They’re modern day full backs, they have to be athletic. They’re coming through. We’re a younger squad than last year and that usually means athleticism.
For those that don’t watch the U21s, who are you hopeful of?
SF Yes, we’re all in constant dialogue, but we don’t always get it right. Ben’s first year as a scholar was poor, but second was exceptional. There’s no exact number but we have identified who we think.
NH Apart from the players I’ve already mentioned, we do have high hopes for other players. We are strict, I think you have to be, and are mindful that we don’t give them too much too young in stardom. Any youngster you’ve seen preseason, we have hopes for. We won’t sign any player on a pro contract unless we feel they’re a first team player in the next twelve months.
Harry Donovan is in our U21s so could play in our first team. What Scott’s saying about Ben is that he didn’t develop physically as we’d expected in the first year. Scott saw Donovan play twice and said you need to see him, and we’ve signed him.
I was surprised to see Jack Powell go. Will we get money for him?
NH No one was fonder of Jack than me. I brought him in to the club, but to play in a 4-3-3, holding and to spray passes around. He and other players that have moved on don’t necessarily suit the way we play: high tempo, aggressive. Hopefully, it’ll allow him to come back stronger. And he was hampered by the emergence of Ben Thompson, so even though they’re friends, that’s the reality of pro football.
Would that apply to Ed Upson?
NH I think ultimately Ed would perform better in a 433. MK Dons play that. I think I got good things out of Ed as a tucked in midfielder, he is a great pro. He desperately wanted to succeed at this club and there were no hard feelings but yes, he was a victim of the system I brought in.
Njoli was let go
SF Back to Neil’s point, we look at players who will play in our first team. Another released player has gone to QPR today. That doesn’t mean they’re bad players. Just as a 442 club, they wouldn’t fit in here.
Seems players now break through at 22, not 18 as in the past.
NH And a lot of clubs are holding bigger squads with players purely to play in the U23s. We’re different, we hold players we want to play.
Does U23 development squad apply to us?
SF We generally don’t play too many overage players, so it shouldn’t make a difference to us.
Is there a goalie coming through?
SF Yes, we have three England international goalies at U18, U16 and U15. Our coach would say it’s down to him, but it’s our recruitment department.
NH Harry Girling has been ill. We’re very fortunate that we have Jordan at 22, Tom King 21, Harry has been ill all preseason. Then as Scott says, we have three England goalies; between 22 and 14, we have five goalies that could be regulars. It means we must be doing something right in our recruitment, training and enticing them to join us. Hopefully the days are gone where Palace and Charlton are cherry picking the best players in south London. So having these player come though is a statement of intent and international recognition helps get players through the door.
Does having Andy Ambler on the inside of Football League help you?
NH Massive help. Obviously there’s an element of confidentiality but he’s helped us as a club have better relationships with the referee’s association: a conversation afterwards in the dressing room or on the phone. Andy being able to get our opinions across is important.
Can you ask for referees to not ref our games again, for example, Swindon?
NH I’m always really careful after a game, what I say is always polite, I admit they have a hard job to do even when they’ve been useless. I fill out the referee’s report every game, I don’t have anybody else do it – a lot of managers don’t, but I think it’s important. After certain fixtures, I might mark a ref down and if I do, I can speak to his assessor. And if I feel strongly, I can recommend we don’t have that ref again, but we can’t do that constantly. There are assessors at every game, they have coaches, and the refs/linesman are teams for a while. There’ll always be a handshake and I will tell him if he’s been good or bad. I think it helps and we do get positive feedback
Are you able to judge linesmen?
NH Yes, they’re all responsible for their decisions.
Did you submit a report post Gillingham?
Where is the club in terms of selling players?
NH I can never sit here and say we will never sell. I won’t go into the past but there are always different reasons why players are sold. While I’m manager, I don’t want to sell my best players, and I want us to get value for money. I want to compete on the pitch in front of my fans with the best opportunity to win matches.
Everton had the steal of century with Timmy.
NH At the time it seemed a lot of money. After seven years and all those goals, it seemed cheap. If he’d have been sold on again to a big club we may have got money.
NH Joe had 45 minutes at Weling. Shaun Cummings is three weeks from full training, and is running every day. It’ll be good to have him back in the group as he’s a good man. Joe is a good voice in the group. Hutchinson is touch and go for Saturday
Do you have a manager you can spar with and bounce ideas?
NH Yes, Kenny, and contrary to what has been said, I got on with him when I played under him. Naturally I took ideas from him over different things. I think we helped each other last season with the loan players, as they went back better players. It’s a strong relationship and he gives good advice. He knows the club as well. Sean Dyche, he’s a good friend and top manager. I get on with other managers in this and other divisions: Steve Coppell is a good sounding board for me, an experienced man; having not been at this club, he didn’t have a pitch perspective, but an overwhelming general knowledge. Anything I experienced, he’d done ten times; the man to my left (Scott), a different perspective is good, both football and non football perspective. He may see where I’m going wrong?
If he saw something during the game?
NH No; afterwards, yes. Justin Skinner sat upstairs a lot last season and the opinions are valued they’re people I trust. I speak to Steve regularly but he’s just taken a job in India; there are good people within the game where you can take opinions.
Ticket sales – how are we doing?
NH No idea. Can’t comment.
BA We’ve sold more season tickets than at this time last season.
With the Wolves loans, would those loan players be affordable?
NH I think I’m careful in what I say, they’re on championship wages, but we didn’t pay championship wages last season. They were excellent players and characters and they enjoyed it. They text me regularly and I think we helped them. We give our players a good working environment to play. I’m the same on the training pitch and when we work, we work and they enjoyed that. Would I like to work with them in the future, yes, they’re good players.
Would you benefit by having a director of football, for recruitment, etc.
NH Well, we have a recruitment department that was set up last year and so far works really well. I think the players we’ve recruited over the summer, we’ve seen quality but they need to prove themselves to me, you and their teammates. I think you can sometimes judge on what we don’t bring in. We’ve done some real digging and players have gone elsewhere and been injured or failed. What does a director of football do? I don’t know. Do I need someone experienced? I think I’ve covered that and who doesn’t know our players more than me than Livermore? When we had Andy Frampton with us, he was excellent and I’ve not replaced him. That’s a possibility but I need to recruit the right staff and they would be my choice.
Our number of goals from crosses. Would you bring in a big lump like Hanson up front?
NH I think if I could sign thirty players I’d have an array of types of players. I don’t, to make my life easier and for budget. Do we need a target man? Not while Morison’s fit. Are there players coming through, yes. Bring anybody in right now to cover for injuries? I’m always worried about my players being injured. I think unless the squad is massive it’s impossible to cover every eventuality.
Are you keeping Harry Smith on?
NH I’m not going to lie. I’d like to keep Harry Smith. We spoke to the player and the club. I think his position will become clear by Friday/Monday. He is something we don’t have in the squad at the moment. He has a lot of clubs chasing him and I don’t think he’ll start next season at Folkestone. We’ll have to see where he ends up.
NH Paris has been extremely unfortunate while at this club, every time he looks just about ready, he has a setback. I spoke to him over the summer about how to get into my side. He knew who I had in my squad and my signings and could fight for his place. Wycombe came in so his decision, that I backed 100%, is that he’d play for four months, so the door’s not shut and we watched him preseason and we’ll watch him again. And a decision will be made on 1 January. His contract runs to next summer so it’s a big year and he wants to be playing regularly. He hasn’t played for two seasons and was guaranteed that at Wycombe.
As there were no more questions, Neil said thanks to the audience. I hope you enjoyed last season and saw progression as a club and hope you see the same this year.
Bob Thanked Neil. I think we all agree that was the first season we’d enjoyed for a long time, especially at home. I really hope we get a good start. All the best to you and the club, and to you Scott, and if anybody wants to speak to me afterwards, I’m available. Without further ado, thanks again and have a safe journey home.
The meeting closed at 8.35pm.