Blues Trust held a zoom webinar meeting with Garry Cook, BCFC Chief Executive Officer on Thursday 7 December 2023. The other participants on screen were Neil Cottrell, Blues Trust Chair, Cliff Horrocks, Blues Trust Past Chair, Jeremy Dale BCFC and John Clarke BCFC.
A number of Trust members were present as attendees (but not on screen).
The event took the form of a Q&A with Neil Cottrell asking questions on behalf of members. The questions had been submitted in advance of the meeting. Members were able to submit supplementary written questions, and make comments, as the meeting progressed. There was not enough time for all questions to be answered but the Club agreed to receive and respond to any that were not.
The following is a summary of the responses given by Garry and John to the various topics raised, and the discussion which followed in most cases as a result.
Garry began by summarising the owners ambitions with reference to the above slide and, in particular, the four pillars of that ambition namely football, commercial, community and infrastructure. He made the point that the club’s leadership have responsibility for key decision making, but that the owners do expect fans to give opinions.
The club wants to build an Alliance of all key stakeholders, including its supporters, and the pursuit of excellence across all aspects of the club will be relentless. Things are starting from a very low base, but there is a determination to succeed. The leadership and ownership of the club is now in good hands.
The club wants to be a beacon of excellence for the City of Birmingham, not just the football club itself. Objectives include the building of a world class Academy, involvement at the highest level of women’s football and the men’s first team being able to compete with the very best.
Thoughts have already turned to the 150 year anniversary of the football club in 2025.
The creation of the recently announced Birmingham City Foundation also signals the clear intent of the club to work with and support the community in many different ways. This is core to the future development of the club.
December 18, when Leicester City visit St. Andrew’s, has been designated Blue Nose Day and will be an opportunity to raise funds for the Birmingham Children’s Trust with the purpose of buying Christmas presents for every young person under the care or support of the Trust.
Garry said that he was amused by reports in the media that he and Wayne are best friends, and this was the reason why Wayne was appointed as manager. He explained this was not the case. They have enjoyed a business relationship in the past based on Wayne being part of the Nike stable of athletes. And Garry also explained that he had tried to sign Wayne when CEO of Manchester City, which should not be a surprise to anyone as he is one of the best players this country has ever produced. Wayne was appointed Blues Manager because of his ambition, experiences, and desire to play the type of entertaining football the club needs to achieve its ambitions. He had impressed the Owners, the Board, and the football leadership team in the interview process. The club was confident that given the supportive environment he now found himself in, something which he had not necessarily experienced before in his two previous managerial positions, he would succeed. Garry also stressed that Wayne is aware of what is expected of both him and his coaching staff and the need to deliver. This is something Wayne has embraced.
Garry explained that capital expenditure is outside the constraints of P&S and that the new owners have spent close to £20 million since becoming involved in July. This money had been spent on a raft of wide ranging measures including the outstanding stand repairs at St. Andrew’s, the laying of new pitches at various sites including St. Andrew’s, upgrading changing rooms, improving facilities for fans and repairs and improvements at Wast Hills following the recent fire.
There was no discussion about any possible relocation away from St. Andrew’s. It was explained that at the Open House session the week previously, it had been mentioned that the club may outgrow St. Andrew’s. Tom Wagner had responded then, and the position had not changed, that there were some possibilities that could not be discussed openly yet
Garry confirmed that revenue simply has to grow if the club is to compete in football terms. Currently, the club’s revenue is significantly behind that of other teams in the Championship. Last season Blues ranked 14th in revenue generation for teams in the Championship. Invariably, the teams with the highest revenue get promoted. So a great deal of work is taking place to drive revenue up.
Developing relationships with commercial partners is essential. For that to happen, the product which is Birmingham City has to be the very best it can be so that partners are attracted to the club and proud to be associated with it.
Regarding the possibility of establishing a city centre retail presence, Garry explained that it was a case of weighing up cost vs opportunity. At the moment, the idea did not represent value for money because of city centre rents. The club’s preferred option was to develop the fan experience at St. Andrew’s. However, that did not mean that the club would not look at partnership opportunities with existing retailers where club merchandise could be sold on their premises.
The EFL rules regarding P&S are not flexible, which is currently presenting challenges for the ambitions of the new owners. But, importantly, the current constraints ease significantly on 31 May 2024 when the considerable losses of three years ago, which were inherited by Knighthead, drop out of the calculation. A new accounting period begins from then and a much brighter future for the club will start on that date.
As far as player transfers are concerned, the club will need to be prudent but smart during the January transfer window. Change on a much bigger scale will come in the summer however.
Match Day Experience
Garry fully acknowledged that the current match day experience for fans attending St. Andrew’s was far from ideal. In fact, he described the challenges presented by the ground as being closer to “a nightmare”. He reminded everyone that when the ground was built in 1904 circumstances for supporters were very different. Most walked to St. Andrew’s as a starting point.
So the club was looking at everything to try to deliver improvements given the constraints that they face because of an old and poorly located stadium. The situation was not only difficult for supporters. It was difficult for suppliers, contractors, the police, other emergency services and so on.
Improved transport links are being actively considered, with ideas such as park and ride and an Uber drop in/drop out facility specifically mentioned by Garry. The club is also working with Birmingham City Council to identify mutually acceptable solutions.
The club was exploring ways in which the fan experience could be improved so that supporters were enthusiastic to get to the club much earlier before kick-off, rather than with ten minutes to spare, and also spend time at the ground after the game had finished. This would help to spread arrival and departure times, and so reduce congestion, and also lead to increased revenue opportunities.
When questioned, Garry said he understood the concerns about the rearrangement of matches to accommodate television but confirmed the notice period given was consistent with the agreement reached by the EFL. He also reminded everyone that the club’s matches were of increased interest to TV companies because of the ownership changes that had occurred.
Although, personally, he was not always pleased that fixtures were rearranged he explained that it was something that has to be accepted and that for younger generations of supporters it was the norm and unlikely to be an issue for them in the future. Furthermore, attracting the younger generation of supporters was crucial for the club’s development.
Garry was asked about replicating a supporter’s flag scheme at St. James’s Park, Newcastle. The scheme, known as “Wor Flags”, is organised by the club. The big flags seen on match day at St. James’ Park all come through joint funding from fans and the club itself. Every other row and seat in the stadium has a black and white flag which sits there permanently. So, on match day, the stadium is a guaranteed sea of black and white. Garry indicated that the idea appealed to him and that the club would research it with a view to its possible implementation.
Garry and John Clarke responded to a number of questions about ticketing arrangements. They explained that half season tickets would be announced imminently (which has now happened) but also that a lot of work was going on behind the scenes to better understand ticketing flexibility. They did not consider that price alone was a primary factor, although its importance was acknowledged. Rather, the club is researching the fan base in close detail to fully understand the needs of supporters. The club wants the overall club experience to be so good that people want to come back.
Garry considered that a Trust member proposal that a seating area at St. Andrew’s be designated for female only Blues supporters was worthy of consideration, but that proper research was required first to identify the level of demand.
In conclusion, Garry explained that it was very important that Blues supporters continued to play their part in helping to drive the club forward, but that this should be done collaboratively and positively. The club was determined to bring fans together. The owners and leadership will not stand above challenge, and will always be prepared to explain decisions and engage with supporters. But when criticism becomes personal in the way that it has recently, that leads to toxicity which is damaging and completely unacceptable.
Tom Wagner had noticed how quiet the ground was at the match against Hull City and had been concerned by that.
The owners, club leadership, partners and all supporters needed to galvanise as a group in pursuit of a common cause, namely the success and future development of the football club.
Garry, Jeremy and John were warmly thanked for making time available to talk to Blues Trust members.