Rising up the pyramid when there are larger iconic clubs geographically close to you is always going to be difficult, because the size of potential fan base is constrained. In the case of Walsall (League 1), within ten miles they have West Bromwich Albion (Premier League next season), Wolves (Premier League), Aston Villa (Premier League), and Birmingham City (Premier League). That is not to suggest that Walsall is not capable of having a committed set of ultra-loyal fans; rather, it is to suggest that when ambition for the club is mentioned, it needs to be tempered with some realism.
The club was an early mover into a modern stadium, the Bescot opening in 1990. It has a capacity of over 11,000, and conference facilities, allowing non-matchday revenue streams. Its form in modern times has seen it fairly stably around its current level in the pyramid. The size of the stadium has not really been a constraint, and of late it has not been well filled.
After a period of considerable turbulence, the club was taken over in 1988 by a consortium led by Maurice Miller, who appointed two directors, Ray Clift and Jeff Bonser. Within ten years, Bonser was Chairman, a position he still holds, and owner of the stadium. (For more on this turbulent period and the early years of this regime, a particularly useful source was a series called The Long Road to Bescot published on the Walsall-Mad website, but now seemingly taken down.*)
Given the continuity of ownership and the relative stability of the club within the period over the last decade, one might expect to see at least the emergence of a financially healthy club. The accounts for the period available to me (1999/00 to 2008/09) make interesting reading.
- Apart for the three years from 2002/03 to 2004/05, a profit has been achieved. Losses were so great in that period however, a loss of just over £1m in 2002/03 in particular, that the average has been a loss of £137,000 a year.
- Turnover grew to a peak of almost £8m in 2001/02, with a ten-year average of just under £6m – which is almost exactly the figure for 2008/09.
- The wages/turnover ratio peaked at almost 73% in 2002/03, but in the past few years has been held at below 50%, a level which is unusually low for an English football club. It is this figure that no doubt drives the complaints from fans of a lack of ambition.
- Long-term liabilities leapt in 2003/04 by £1m to £1.4m. By 2008/09 they had grown to £2.2m.
- Directors’ remuneration has grown, for 2008/09 being £134,000.
- There is nothing obvious in the version of the accounts I have seen to substantiate claims that the club is paying Jeff Bonser over £1,000 a day as rental for the stadium. That said, there is no alternative figure explicitly stated either.
The overall picture is much what one might expect at a club owned by a ‘benefactor’ who is trying to run the club as a business.
The one football source of revenue over which a board does have a major control is matchday receipts. Average gates at Bescot Park grew at the start of the decade, reaching a peak of just under 8,000 in 2003/04, a season in which the club was relegated from the Championship. In the season just finished they had fallen 11.9% on the previous season to just over 4,000, putting only Hartlepool with a lower average in League 1, which overall averaged over 9,000 (although it should be remembered that the average is pulled up by the presence of Leeds United, Norwich City, Southampton and Charlton Athletic).
Whether you see a football club as a business, and fans are your ‘customers’, or you see it as a sports organisation which is a focal point of the local community, and your fans are, well, fans, it would not make sense to alienate them and drive away the one source of revenue which have some control over. Here too there has been a stability in Bonser’s approach. Consider this quote from him: “I have no intention to justify to anyone how I invest personal money. I have always viewed any personal investment I have made into commercial enterprises as the only way of securing the long-term future of league football for Walsall.” This is from a statement he made in March 1998, reported in the Sports Argus as he threatened to sell the club.
The same report included the following:
Ken Morrall, chairman of the Supporters Club, who once spent a year on the Walsall FC board as the fans’ representative, hopes any new owner will talk to them.
He said: “Problems started when we asked the football club in 1995 if we could have a little breathing space from paying our £1,000 a month donations while we sorted out our finances.
“We just needed a couple of months, but the next thing we had been served with a writ claiming we had contravened the licence by letting in people who were not members.”
The supporters club claim that over the years they have handed over about £750,000 to help the football club stay in business.
Twelve years on, are relations between board and fans any better? In a word, no.
Protest is not tolerated at Walsall under Bonser and Chief Executive Roy Whalley. Banners recently raised against Bonser and manager Chris Hutchings provoked bans (1). Predictably enough there were further protests at the next home game (2), resulting in more bans. According to Whalley, the protestors would drive attendances down (3), an interesting example of cognitive dissonance.
At the final home game there was a protest in the form of a sit-in (4). One fan unfurled a banner, and was ejected by stewards who showed a remarkable failure to notice the irony that the banner read ‘Freedom of Speech’.
Tempers may cool over the summer, but the underlying issues will simply fester. At the very least, Bonser and Whalley might like to think a little about the advantages of good public relations – they seem to have been off the morning that was covered. Unless there is some movement in the opposing sides, the club is in danger of ripping itself apart. For a club with a modern stadium with good facilities for non-football revenue streams, a good measure of stability in terms of where they play in the pyramid, a loyal core fan base and a very clear sense of local identity, this would be just plain ridiculous. ‘Dialogue not warfare’ would be my choice of banner. I’m not optimistic though.
[In the light of problems with comments encountered by my friends at Twohundredpercent, I have decided to allow comments, but moderation is likely to take longer than usual for comments from readers unknown to me.]
* Andrew Van-Hagen has kindly contacted me to say that this excellent ‘The Long Road to Bescot’ five-part series, written by ‘Sadlad’, is now available as part of a Memory Lane section on his Walsall Web-Fans Forum: (A), (B), (C), (D) and (E). Strongly recommended.