The Trust and other supporter groups met with Villa CEO Christian Purslow on Tuesday 27th October. This meeting was somewhat overdue with our previous meeting being pre-lockdown in December of last year.
With Premier League survival confirmed at the end of ‘Project Re-Start’ Christan Purslow summarised the key events and decisions that were made post-lockdown. A number of other matters were also discussed including those that the Trust has been vocal on such as PPV and the return of fans to Villa Park including requirements of photo identification.
Here is an overview of what was discussed.
Peter Warrilow, Mo Razzaq; Aston Villa Supporters’ Trust; David Michael, My Old Man Said; Dave Woodhall, Heroes & Villans; Scott Jones, Villa Talk; Jonathan Fear, Vital Villa; Nick Sanders, avillafan.com; Nilesh Chauhan, Villans Together; Sam Timms, Villa & Proud; Harjit Badesha, Punjabi Villans; Joanne McKibbens, AV Disabled Supporters Association.
Steve Gough, AV Independent Supporters Clubs; John Gillett, Lions Clubs (technical issues prevented access).
Christian Purslow, Chief Executive Officer; Paul Tyrrell, Chief Corporate Affairs Officer; Tommy Jordan, Communications Director; Lee Preece, Supporter Liaison Manager.
2019/20 Season & Project Restart
Christian provided an update on how lockdown allowed Dean and his staff the chance to step away from the rhythm and intense pressure of continually playing matches and evaluate the season with a view to making improvements.
He noted that, as supporters witnessed themselves from watching on TV, the team became harder to beat and the improved defensive performances ultimately led to the club surviving the first difficult season back in the Premier League.
In hindsight, Project Restart proved to be a good thing for the club. Not only was Premier League status secured, the club also managed to protect 85% of the core TV contract (our main source of income), and combined with the continued support of our Owners the club were able to retain all of our staff throughout lockdown.
Squad and summer planning / transfer window
Christian confirmed the club was in a different position this summer to the previous summer.
Last summer was challenging due to the number of players which had to be signed in a reduced window (having attained promotion via the Play-off final). This summer, the opportunity to add three / four starters to make the team better in key areas was the focus. Players targeted were identified and were secured within financial parameters.
He also explained another primary objective was to keep key players (Jack Grealish and Tyrone Mings signed new deals) and highlighted the continuing development of other players already in the squad.
The good start is a continuation of a good end to last season and no fluke in Christian’s opinion. The exciting beginning to the season is throughout the PL, with surprise results and the number of goals at a 50-year high, has made for a really exciting start to the new season.
Return of fans
Christian wanted to make it clear that everyone connected with Aston Villa wished Villa Park was packed, but there is no good news regarding a return of fans to matches. He has been sat on a working group with the PL, and CEOs of Spurs & Brighton that have been liaising directly with Government. Plans were made for test events in September and a gradual return of fans from the 1st October. Unfortunately, an increase in COVID cases across the country has led to a return of fans being put back indefinitely.
During lockdown, the football industry rose to the challenge of putting on a contact sport during a Pandemic. The club developed protocols to get over the hurdles presented by the science (the need for social distancing etc) and created an environment where football could be played safely.
It is Christian’s belief the same can be done for fans. The club is developing a full set of protocols to ensure they know who is coming in, spacing within stadia, managing entrance & exits, controlling behaviour and ultimately creating an environment where fans can watch football safely.
He did want to point out that, on the other side, the club has sympathy that Government would be concerned about the mixed message of thousands attending a football match whilst we have such necessary measures as the rule of six and tiered lockdowns.
Christian explained that it was vitally important to finish last season. Once clubs had a programme of matches behind closed doors, attention turned to what sort of product could be offered to fans unable to watch matches in person. Due to the exceptional nature of Project Restart it was felt appropriate to make all the matches available for fans to watch.
At the heart of the PL’s successful commercial strategy is the exclusivity given to Sky / BT Sport (in the UK, and 100’s of other TV companies around the world). As it became clear that fans would not be returning, and given that some clubs had already sold season tickets to their fans for 20/21, the PL informed clubs that the only technical way of providing access for 1000’s of fans would be via Sky & BT’s existing platforms. Clubs are in the middle of a four-week pilot which runs until the next International break.
The TV companies set the price of £14.95, based on EFL matches being shown for £10. Clubs are uncomfortable with many aspects of the current proposal. They have asked for the entire scope of the proposal to be reviewed by the Premier League and their findings brought back to clubs.
Christian then asked FCG members to provide him with their feedback and promised to raise concerns/suggestions when talks take place with the Premier League.
Premier League Review of English football
Christian explained the short-term funding needs for clubs across the country is acting as a catalyst for a review of how football is structured and funded. Aston Villa welcome such a review, particularly with recent experience of being a Championship club. He added that the club welcome a broader debate on the long-term health of English football.
New website & app
The group were asked for feedback on the new website and app. The general feeling appeared to be one of improvement. There is more to come over time, and that we will be asking our Digital Product Manager to attend a future FCG to present some of the journey we have gone through on the web and to get feedback on what fans would like to see.
Bodymoor Heath improvements
Exciting improvements are being made with the facilities at Bodymoor Heath and the club are hoping to produce a video so we can show fans the latest facilities that have been introduced.
Other questions raised by Fan Reps
Where are we in terms of academy recruitment and planning for our Youth Teams?
Our Academy strategy is a constant and for example, would not have altered if we had gone down. The club are thrilled with the progress being made under Mark Harrison, and alongside Johan, are developing key strategies such as facilitating six / seven academy players training with the first team. The Academy is a “365 days a year” process, and its success can only be judged after many years.
Why can we watch our U23’s when they play away but not when they play at home?
We are having a TV platform built at Bodymoor Heath, part of the progress we are making to improve our coverage. It was noted that there is an increased coverage of our Academy Players on our social channels and this was something Mark Harrison has been happy with.
What can we do to promote Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) whilst the stadium is empty?
The club’s internal EDI working group is due to meet shortly and we will ensure this is raised within the group. Our EDI efforts continue at pace and we will shortly be assessed for the Preliminary Level of the PL Equality Standard.
Can we have an update on improving the Accessible Facilities at Villa Park?
The club is in receipt of an Accessible Audit from Wilson Owen Owen Architects outlining numerous options for the increase in accessible facilities. Identifying which options to undertake is a regular item on the Senior Executive Team meeting agenda and a plan to compliance is being formulated. All options are very expensive and will result in a significant loss of capacity.
We have recently been asked to upload photographs. Does this have wider implications beyond COVID?
Being able to demonstrate to the Government that we can say exactly who attended Villa Park is a key Track and Trace mitigation for us to be allowed to have fans return. Supporters submitting photos as part of this while the pandemic is here is essential.
There are no plans to extend using photographs beyond this specific requirement as part of returning supporters to watch games at Villa Park. The club takes it data responsibilities very seriously and if fans wish for us to destroy their photos when we return to ‘normal’ then we will do so.
Can we have an update about plans for the Women’s Team?
The club’s aim is to walk before we can run, supporting Gemma and her team as we aim to improve through the season. The decision to turn professional was made under no illusions that due to the levels of TV deals & sponsorship in the Women’s game that this is a loss making activity, but one that our owners are happy to underwrite with a focus on the sport and aiming to be as successful as we can.