Saving Kingstonian – A Manifesto (of sorts)

Plenty has already been said and written about the referendum on community ownership, and it’s not my intention to add too much fuel to that particular fire. In my view, the referendum was ill-conceived, poorly timed and badly delivered; as such, both the exceptionally low turnout, and the one-sided result, were hardly surprising.

But something positive did come out of the referendum process: the opening of a (limited) dialogue between the board and fans, and the start of a debate amongst supporters with different views about the short and medium-term future of Kingstonian Football Club. This was much needed. There is clearly a variety of opinions about what needs to happen in the next few months, and the next few years, in order for the football club to survive and hopefully prosper in the future. These opinions need to be aired, and ideas shared, because at some point very soon the remaining 250 die-hard K’s fans will have to pull together and implement change. The alternative is the death of Kingstonian Football Club as we know it. Anybody who denies that the club will gradually die without changing its current trajectory is deluded. That is not a criticism of the current board per se, because they have done, and continue to do, a great deal to keep the club alive – but more needs to be done.

Of course, by far the most important issue affecting the football club at the moment is that we are being made homeless at the end of this season. If we had our own ground, so many things would be easier to improve. But everything that follows can be done – or at least partially done, or started – independent of where the men’s first team is playing football.

In that spirit, what follows is a summary of ideas and suggestions that have been proposed either on the forum, in the pub, on the terraces, or at open meetings in the past that I think are good ideas. Think of it as a step towards a manifesto (of sorts) for how we all can help to improve Kingstonian Football Club, new ground or no new ground. Like it or not, we are all going to have to get involved.

A) COMMUNICATION & FAN ENGAGEMENT

  1. The people in charge of the club should communicate with other supporters as routine, not by exception. Whoever is in charge of Kingstonian – be it one all-powerful chairman who owns 100% of the club, or a committee of fans elected by a one-member one-vote system, or our current three co-chairmen – should engage with supporters without prompting, and without feeling like it’s a chore that gets in way of the ‘important’ bits of running a football club. In order to thrive and grow, K’s needs to develop a feeling of togetherness and a “one for all” spirit: we are, after all, meant to be a Club where we all have something important in common. More communication leads to more supporter engagement, and more supporter engagement will lead to more supporter involvement. More supporter involvement in the club cannot be a bad thing: if people feel more involved, they’re more likely to make the effort to attend matches; they’re more likely to drag friends and family to games; they’re more likely to buy a 50/50 or an extra drink in the bar; they might think about sponsoring a match or contribute to a boost-the-budget scheme. It’s about time that any board of Kingstonian Football Club recognized that actively building a sense of togetherness isn’t an aspiration, or something that sounds nice – it’s necessary, it requires action from those at the top, and it will deliver real benefits.

  2. Install a membership scheme (or similar) so that there is a defined group of “Kingstonian fans” with which any board can easily engage. The only good thing that came out of the referendum is that we now have the beginnings of a register of Kingstonian supporters – because what did we have before? We had records of season ticket holders, but we don’t have many of those; we had members of the Supporters Club, but this seems to be focused on a limited number of things such as away travel, and has always been a body that isn’t for everyone. Yet we know, both in terms of attendances and anecdotally, that there are at least 250 people who are die-hard, passionate K’s. Those running the club need to be able to communicate directly with the vast majority of these people, so that they both feel involved (see above), and so that they can be asked to contribute to the survival of the club in whatever way they can. This club will need everybody who cares about it to help it, and the starting point for that is obvious: let’s find out as best we can who cares about the club. Then we need to find out how people can help, either financially, with their time, with their ideas, or just their regular attendance at games. It all helps – but we need to ask people for that help, rather than just hoping people will offer it.
  3. Create at least two sub-committees with specific tasks and roles, to feed into the main board at regular pre-agreed intervals. The specific nature of these committees would be up for discussion, but in my opinion they should cover as an absolute minimum:
  • Attendances and general marketing promotions;
  • K’s involvement in the local community;
  • Commercial income and promotions. 

    Unless something goes incredibly wrong with football, or I win the lottery, the board of Kingstonian FC will continue to be made up of unpaid volunteers, working part-time to help the club. This in itself deserves enormous respect – and in any criticism of our current co-chairmen, it ought to be borne in mind – because it is hard and largely unrewarding work. As such, why not use the experience, knowledge and passion of supporters to help to develop the football club? This approach has the dual benefits of (i) bringing more people into the fold and as such widening the number of ideas on the table, and (ii) freeing up the board’s time to focus on the new stadium and on the football side of the club.

  1. Develop and agree plans for an interim board structure which can be implemented with or without any vote on full fan ownership of club shares. This example maintains control for the 3 major investors, but includes supporter representation, and requires commitment from the manager. We are after all a football club! My preferred option:
    • 3 major shareholders, plus
    • 1 elected (or agreed) representative from club membership (see above – not Supporters Club), plus
    • First Team Manager.
  2. Allow supporters (or ‘members’ if scheme above is a success) to see the financial performance of the club. I said above that “more communication leads to more engagement, and more engagement will lead to more involvement.” This is also true in the area of finances. To flesh this out a little:
    • If income was lower than expected for the previous season, and the club has a shortfall, why not tell supporters and spell out the choice that either a) supporters cover the shortfall, b) the playing budget is reduced, c) further investment is required – e.g. a share issue?
    • If matchday income is up due to supporter involvement, why not let people know so they are heartened and re-double their efforts?
    • If it’s obvious that groundsharing is costing the club vast swathes of its playing budget, why wouldn’t fans redouble our efforts to bring extra income into the club in the short term?
    • This doesn’t mean that club finances would be completely open, because this would massively undermine both the board’s negotiating position with suppliers and the manager’s negotiating position with players. But there is no reason at all why a Profit & Loss summary could not be produced every year, and reviewed with club members. All I am talking about is something like this…(and please, accountants and business owners, don’t go mad at me…I know it’s “wrong”…I’m illustrating the sort of basic level of detail you’d need to illustrate how possible and easy this is. I also know that the numbers are totally unrealistic before somebody also comments on that):

 screen-shot-2017-01-17-at-19-34-03

B) VOLUNTEERING

Without dedicated volunteers, a non-league football club cannot survive. We are very lucky to have the people who currently act as volunteers, all of whom are universally recognized as brilliant. But we need more people to volunteer, firstly because the club cannot expect those people to carry on giving so much of their time and effort for ever, and even more importantly, because with more volunteers we can begin to improve what the club does on matchdays and expand our presence in the community, rather than just aiming to maintain the status quo.

In my opinion and experience, there are two main barriers to more people volunteering to help the club:

  • People don’t know the club needs help, don’t think that the club would appreciate the help, or simply don’t know how to go about helping;
  • People are scared that helping will be too big a commitment.

So, what needs to happen ASAP?

  1. Be open about volunteering requirements, wishlists, and “nice to haves”. Sometimes we are told if the club desperately requires more volunteers, but when were we last told if the club would benefit from, or even could do with, more volunteers? Some roles cannot be done without: turnstile operators etc. Some roles are clearly very beneficial: 50/50 salespeople etc. Some roles are important, but have hidden rather than direct benefits: programme editor. And some roles are nice to have people to do, but not essential: social media etc. Let’s get this all written down, and then fill in who does the roles currently. Let’s see where the gaps are. Then let’s advertise internally every summer and see which gaps can be closed. I’m sorry to say this, but it seems like a closed shop at the moment…a bit of a clique. We’ve got to stop that immediately.
  1. Set up a volunteering rota for as many roles as possible to involve more people and spread the demands more thinly. Some people can’t make every game, or can only make 10 games a season…so why prevent them from doing what they can to help? The ‘regulars’ might really appreciate a day off, and some people won’t want to spend every home game volunteering, but would help every other game (for instance). Equally, something important might come up on one day of the season (a wedding, a funeral, or anything!) and even the most dedicated volunteer might not be able to make it. Getting a ‘sub’ in shouldn’t be difficult in 2017. I bet any money that setting up a rota such as this would massively increase the number of people who would be prepared to volunteer. As an easy example, I was prepared to help with the club’s Twitter account provided it was an irregular thing. As somebody else was also prepared to do the majority of the work, we took it on, and took one of Robert’s many many roles from him, giving him a little less to do. As a further example, sometimes there’s one 50/50 seller, sometimes two. Presumably the club makes an extra £30-50 or so when there’s the second seller, but as it stands nobody can commit to doing it every single week. What if 2/3 people said they’d cover that role between them? It can only benefit the club.
  1. Organize volunteering through one point of contact (which does not have to be one person). One of the reasons that the above two points don’t currently happen is that things aren’t well organized (and I don’t mean ‘Matchday’, overseen brilliantly by Alan, or the media stuff overseen brilliantly by Robert…I’m talking in general here). Sorry if that offends anybody, but it’s the truth. It would be a big commitment for somebody to take this on, but again, could 2 people share the role perhaps?
  2. Be explicitly and more regularly thankful of our volunteers! These wonderful people deserve to be celebrated and venerated. Let’s do that more.
    • Introduce a “Volunteers Day” every season to thank the people who keep the club running. Every volunteer gets in for free, gets a free drink voucher, gets to go on the pitch at half time or whatever, etc
    • Print people’s names in the programme – if they want!
    • Encourage ex-volunteers to return to the club, even if they don’t want to volunteer again. People who’ve given so much of their time to the club should always feel welcome, no matter what happened in the past
    • And anything else – ideas welcome!

C) MARKETING, CROWDS & MATCHDAY EXPERIENCE

  1. Set up a committee with responsibility for this area (see above). Let all ideas be welcome and make sure the committee is a totally open shop, not a clique.
  2. If schemes are trialled, we need to be able to quantify whether they are a success, a qualified success, or a failure. This isn’t easy and it will require some expertise – but we do have a remarkable group of supporters. We then need to focus on what works, and stop doing what doesn’t work. Sounds obvious, but we’re in the dark at the moment. What is the best way to use willing volunteers’ time in promoting the club?
  3. Set genuine targets and measures on attendances to improve things. I remember a couple of years ago at an open meeting, Mark Anderson insisted that “gates aren’t going down actually – they’re at the same level they’ve been at for the last few seasons”. To anyone who came to home matches, this was clearly bollocks: you only had to look at the crowds to see we were, and still are, gradually losing home fans. But he was just looking at the overall ‘average attendance’ stats, which masked the fact that we had about half a dozen massive travelling supports that year. Come on: let’s do better than this. There’s a load of measures we could put in to track whether things are improving – and to keep the necessary and intense focus on expanding the supporter base. If we don’t do this, the club will die. The problem is that we’re going to be groundsharing, and gates will go down inevitably. From that low point, we need to bounce back.
  4. Focus on matchday experience: it is what makes the difference for new supporters, and when all’s said and done, what keeps existing supporters coming back season after season. In practical terms, at the moment, would we pay slightly more for a groundshare with cover at both ends and the ability to drink outside? I think we probably ought to consider doing that. People come for the day out, not for the game…and actually, K’s have got a lot to offer. Our fans are passionate and witty; we have great songs; we have great history to sing about; our travelling support can be really impressive and fun to be a part of. Let’s use all of that as a positive rather than either ignoring it, or even worse, seeing it as some kind of negative.

D) COMMERCIAL & OTHER INCOME STREAMS

  1. Set up a committee with responsibility for this area (see above) – this doesn’t have to be all new people, because why ‘punish’ those working so hard in this sphere at the moment?
  2. We need more people selling the club to businesses (or wealthy individuals, I suppose). At the moment, there’s basically the chairmen plus one volunteer. How can we make this happen? I’m not sure I have any answers, but we’re not going to get very far if someone out there can’t come up with the answers.
  3. We need something to sell: we need to be the community football club of Kingston-upon-Thames. (That doesn’t necessarily mean ‘community owned’). This requires us to massively increase our links with the local community, so that we’re not lying when we say that a) we have great reach in the area for local businesses, and b) we have a great local brand. This is the hardest one of all, but not impossible, as other clubs at our level and below have shown. AFC Wimbledon leaving Kingston will help – but not if we don’t become Kingston’s football team once again.

E) LAST BUT NOT LEAST…FOOTBALL!

  1. Re-integrate Kingstonian Youth into the Kingstonian Football Club structure. As it stands, K’s Youth use the club’s famous name and colours – and in return, the name “Kingstonian” and the red and white hoops get great exposure in the community without any actual financial outlay. But can’t we do better than this – and shouldn’t we be aiming to do better than this? In my direct experience, people in Kingston presume – wrongly – that Kingstonian FC has overall control of Kingstonian Youth. Leafletting in Kingston, I’ve twice had the finger pointed at “the club” for increases in youth subs, or poor quality coaching. This can’t be right. There needs to be a direct link between K’s Youth and the first team. Younger teams should come to matches as guests far more frequently than they do, bringing their parents, and then given incentives to return beyond a free season ticket; they should feel part of the Club. Slightly older teams should be encouraged to see a pathway to the first team. The U18s should be producing players capable of playing some role in the future of the club: this may not be a direct transition, but one that happens later in life. It cannot harm the club if more good footballers based in London have an emotional connection with Kingstonian Football Club as a whole. And it will genuinely help the football club in terms of both ground-building and commercial sponsorship to be able to point to these links as real and tangible evidence of its importance to the local community.
  2. Develop a reputation as club that plays entertaining football. If the future of the club is on a 3G or 4G pitch via a period of groundsharing, then in my opinion this is extremely important. Particularly when we’re groundsharing, gates will plummet unless we are playing attractive, entertaining football. This does not necessarily mean tiki-taka, which often doesn’t translate at non-league level, but must mean excitement, and hopefully goals. Of course this isn’t easy, and doesn’t happen overnight, but it is possible. And if we do manage to build or create a home of our own in future, then becoming known as a ground where you’ll be entertained will a) bring in sponsorship, b) increase gates, and c) improve the chances of developing links with professional clubs, both in terms of lucrative pre-season friendlies, and in terms of loaning their young players.
  1. Define and agree the role of First Team Manager and Assistant Manager, and recruit on that basis. Since Geoff Chapple, we have had managers with vastly different approaches to a role with the same job title, and Assistant Managers who range widely in their experience and qualifications. What actually is the role of the management team, apart from to set up and football team to win football matches? Should they also be told that they’ll be expected to deliver any of the following?
    • To make sure the team plays attacking and entertaining football?
    • To bring contacts and potentially increased commercial investment into the club?
    • To act as part of the club’s work in the community, promoting the club?
    • To get involved with other areas of the club (e.g. Youth, Academy or Ladies teams) in a coaching capacity?

And if they can’t do anything other than trying to win games, should the club be prepared to pay them less than a manager who can? In my view we should.

  1. Have a first-team football strategy, and implement it. The non-league season is uneven, both in terms of the spread of fixtures, and the importance of fixtures: put bluntly, some parts of the season matter more than others. There are more midweek league matches at the start of the season than the middle and the end (unless there is a bad weather winter); all-important FA Cup and FA Trophy games are in September, October and November. Obviously, there is also no transfer window, and most players aren’t on a fixed contract. As such, a sensible manager will front-load his budget to take this into account. If a cup run brings in some money, he’ll be able to maintain the slightly higher level; if not, he may have to cut cloth accordingly. And if there’s a promotion chance or a relegation battle at the end of the season, extra funds should then be provided as a calculated gamble. If we’re comfortably mid-table, it may be that the budget can be squeezed even further without letting players go who are in the manager’s plans for the following season. This should all go without saying…but it doesn’t seem to happen at the moment. Our team in August and September was a shambles, and we’ve just signed an expensive player on contract when we can’t go up or go down this year. Go figure.

Words are easy. But achieving any of the above won’t be easy – and the changes and developments in this piece are only a very small part of those required. It’s going to take a lot of action and commitment, possibly over a long period of time, to make Kingstonian FC a success once again. But this great club has one big advantage: a large group of passionate and dedicated people who are desperate for the good times to return. If we all work together, we can make it happen – but it has to start right now. Let’s get started.