Stockton Town Fans Forum – August 2020

Stockton Town hosted a Fans Forum on Friday evening, giving fans the chance to put their questions to chairman Martin Hillerby, first-team manager Michael Dunwell and assistant manager J.D. Briggs about all things related to the club.

Here is a full rundown of the event, including all questions and answers:

Q: Any news on supporters being allowed to attend matches? The Football League are talking about October at reduced capacity, is that likely to be the case here?

Martin Hillerby: Anybody who has kept up to date with the press, the social media, news forthcoming from the FA has been very minimal to be fair, other than at the moment we are on a blanket ban of no supporters. There is an overriding opinion out there that the government and the FA recognises that non-league football cannot start without spectators. Where we’ve seen the Premier League, Champions League and Championship play to a conclusion, the reason League One and Two didn’t, was because without supporters there is no revenue, and [matchday] costs will be excessive. Without that revenue, they couldn’t survive, it is very much the same in non-league. If we cannot sell cups of tea, pints of beer and get people through the door, we haven’t got a business, we haven’t got a club.

That being said, we are working towards a start date of Tuesday 1 September, which is an FA Cup Extra Preliminary Round fixture. The Northern League have said we would expect to start on Saturday 5 September and you’ve seen the news this week that we’ve been given a bye to the Second Round of the Vase, which is due to be played on Saturday 26 November. We expect the draw for the FA Cup to be on Tuesday 18 August, I expect the fixture list for the Northern League to be out shortly afterwards.

We have been told by the Northern League that we could be given as little as seven days notice of the fixture list. Quite how that works, I’m not too sure. Those are the timelines we are working to at the moment. As far as restrictions go, capacity wise, we’ve got no guidance on that at the moment. Obviously, as a club, we have a lot bigger support than most of the clubs in our league.

Most clubs will be looking at 100-200 people attending [per match] whereas we are looking at 500-600 people. One of the restrictions we have to face is track and trace, you’ve had to sign up to come in tonight. We have a tremendous amount of season ticket holders, around 220 at the moment. There’s probably 30-40% of our attendees that are season ticket holders, that’s going to take a big burden away from us as a club on the track and trace as we will know who is attending games with that card.

What we are looking to do is for the pay-on-the-day attendees, to potentially have the ability to buy tickets online, which will administer a QR code on your phone that will get you through the turnstile. We are doing a lot of work in the background to reduce the burden on spectators to make it as easy as possible for them to attend, as well as ease the burden on the club to operate. The key to the football club is getting people back through the door, we live and die by the people attending and buying food and drinks, it’s critical that we have regular attendance on match days in order for the club to survive. To achieve this, we aim to make it as easy and secure as possible for people to attend matches. We are pretty confident that people will be attending matches when the club resumes playing, whenever that will be.

Q: What is the highest League Level the ground is suitable for, and what are the plans should we exceed that level?

MH: At the moment, the ground is suitable for the level we are currently at, which is ground grade G in the National League system. We were on the verge of submitting planning permission for a new 200-seater stand that would have gone in this summer. As the season was null and void, we are not able to receive the funding needed so we have to pull that out of planning and hold it until hopefully next spring. We are planning that in the short to medium term, we will expand facilities here to meet whatever ground grade we need to keep the club moving forward. What we are looking at is are the facilities capable of being expanded and expanded. Towards the end of last season, we were confident of welcoming crowds of over 1000, but we just cannot sell enough food and drink to accommodate this, so we are continuing to look at the long-term plan.

Q: What plans do we have for managing social distancing in the seated stand and the busy areas near the players changing room? 

MH: We are well aware we will have to put some restrictions on the seated stand to maintain social distancing. We are going to have to be quite regimented in how we lay that stand out. We are not going to be in a position to like Premier League clubs where we can organise seats in social bubbles, it’s going to be difficult for people to turn up and just pick and choose seats. We are waiting on FA and government guidance from the Safety Sports Ground Committee about what exactly we have to do. As for the ground, the difficulty we have is that we will not be able to manage 600 people, it will be down to the social responsibility of each individual. We will be publishing COVID guidance on our website, as well as our risk assessments by Saturday 15 August. That will request groups of no more than six turn up, it is going to come down to personal responsibility of social distancing. It becomes a logistical nightmare to manage 600 people. People may choose to wear facial masks, but it is up to each individual. We will follow guidance from authorities when it comes out.

Q: Are we expecting any more players coming into the club?

Michael Dunwell: Not at the moment, we had a very good squad last season, and adding Shane Henry to it, as well as bringing back Dale [Mulligan] as cover, with his experience and to add even more to the winning mentality in the dressing room. Shane has played three, four leagues higher for a long time. In training you can see the players have come back with fitness levels higher than last year. Sam, the physio, set the players a six-week training plan up to July 4, which the players have more or less stuck to. We do two tests, one at the start of training, then four weeks later, called the Yo-Yo test. In that four weeks, everyone has beaten the level from four weeks prior. To be even fitter four weeks later, shows the dedication the lads possess, the level they’re playing at just in training between themselves is even higher than last season.

We have 20 players, two goalkeepers and 18 outfield players, we are happy with what we have, unless for serious injuries, we probably will not add to the squad. We are happy with the squad, we are only training twice a week at the moment, we didn’t want to bring the players in three times a week after the break, which we did last season, but when pre-season friendlies start and we know when the season will start, we will do that. The players know that and are happy with that. They wanted to come back anyway, I received text messages all through June asking when we were starting again, the players wanted to come back, to see each other and it has been great meeting up twice a week having 90 minutes to two hours training, mixing together, it has felt more like normal. We are very happy with where we are at the minute.

Q: Do we have any current long-term injuries or issues with availability? Will Nathan Steel be back to full fitness by September?

J.D. Briggs: Long-term injuries are just the leftovers of Nathan Steel. With regards to his recovery, his attitude towards everything is first-class, he has done things away from the club almost every night to aid his progress. He has been with other physios as we well as Sam [our physio] to decrease his injury lay-off. He has started running with us a little bit the last couple of weeks, he will start ball work in the next week just because he’s building strength up in his knee. He is very eager to get back into it, almost like a fresh signing for us, as he only played a handful of minutes last season.

We expect him to be in full training possibly mid-late September, we will see how that goes. Regards to full fitness, we will take it week by week, once his injury is healed it is about getting him match fit as he hasn’t played at the level for a while. The rest of the squad are available all of the time, with no issues other than lads swapping shifts. Touching on availability, that’s why we agreed to let Peter Bulmer leave the club. We wanted to keep him but he couldn’t commit to being available every week and that has an effect on the players that can be there every week. We want our squad to be available all the time.

Q: We sold Dale Mulligan because we couldn’t guarantee him game time, and we’ve now re-signed him, has he got the guarantee we will play with three centre backs and wing backs in a new system? 

MD: We didn’t get rid of Dale, this was his choice, I actually bumped into Dale in Portugal last year and we had a good chat about him leaving and we’ve always been friends even when he left. At that time we were playing a back three, and we’d actually agreed with Dale to go into the centre of that back three. Afterward, Dale had a change of heart and chose to leave. As we say we didn’t want him to leave. Since then, we haven’t had any cover for Adam [Nicholson] and Tom [Coulthard], the only cover has really been Jordan [Robinson], but taking him out of the midfield, given how well he played last year, leaves a hole in there, we don’t want to be moving players around to accommodate players.

We’ve signed Dale as competition to Adam and Tom, but also as cover for them. There were times last year when Adam was carrying knocks and could have done with a rest, same with Tom, but they’d run through brick walls. Dale gives us that option to replace them after 60/70 minutes to give them a breather. At the moment, no one has any guarantee of playing every game. Anyone who thinks we can just turn up and expect teams to roll over, it’s going to be harder for us this year, the players will have to work even harder and Dale and Shane add that competition to push the squad further. The system with three at the back, it means we have to sacrifice a winger in order to play that formation. Playing four at the back, conceding only 14 goals in 30 [games], we shouldn’t really change it. We can try different formations during pre-season, but we will see as the season goes on.

Q: What is the aim for this season, cups, league, promotion?

MD: Our aim for this season is to get promoted and on top of that, win the league. It’s going to be more difficult this season as other teams have strengthened such as Hebburn [Town], Shildon and West Auckland [Town] will he up there. Our aim again is to get promoted and win the league, that is our priority. As for discarding the FA Cup and Vase, we will never put out a weakened team in those competitions to prioritise a league game or vice versa. The reason being is the fans following the club on the FA Cup or FA Vase games, I think they wouldn’t be happy if I threw away those competitions. Cups bring momentum, you could be playing in the cup one game then the Vase and you don’t want to be going into a league game off the back of two straight losses. Every game is important for us because it gains momentum, winning is good, we had a good run in the FA Cup, our priority is to go up, unfortunately we didn’t last season but that is our aim this season.

Q: With 80% of the season played is there going to be a player of the season announced?

MH: We discussed it when we were first locked down, but we let it rest as we didn’t know when we would be playing again. We have thought about it since, but we couldn’t have a presentation night, as due to social distancing it would not be possible to host a full night with players, girlfriends and a room full of fans. The whole idea of a presentation was lost without the fans. If it is possible and there is a feel for it, we would be open to it. 

MD: I’m not sure we need a presentation night, it is easily possible for it to be announced online. Individual awards should definitely be recognised. We will have discussions and sort something out.

 Q: If fans cannot attend games has there been any thought about live streaming games?

MH: I’m 99% certain fans will be allowed to attend games, but for the pre-season friendlies, we have been told must be behind closed doors, we are looking at the possibility of live streaming friendlies, especially home games, back into the club house. We think we have the technology available, but we need to work out if it works with sufficient quality. I’m pretty confident we will not be starting without crowds.

Q: Do you think the Northern League will put a cap on how many fans can attend our games? 

MH: The Sports Ground Advisory Committee have put together a document of guidance for allowing spectators back into football for all levels, indoors and outdoors, right up to Premier League football. As a club we must do all we can to meet the test, track and trace. I cannot see the Northern League coming down with a figure for crowds, but I’m not going to say the FA or government won’t set a limit. The National League system has been told they will start and finish the season together, some clubs at the National League get up to five to six thousand. One of the possible advantages we have is that bar 100 people in the seating stand and the standing area, everyone else is in the fresh air. We have managed to come through lockdown, we have secured the club in a box so we weren’t under threat during that period. It is like starting again 10 years ago building the club, last year we would have had one night, a presentation, there would have been over 100 people here all socialising. It is a challenge for everyone.

Q: When fans are allowed back are you going to trial events in the clubhouse?

MH: We are looking to maximise getting people to have food and drink here. Instead of just saying we can only get 52 people in a room we are looking to maximise room in the clubhouse. Every business will be looking at how to get revenue back to where it was before. We are a small business, the same outgoings as before. We have to be imaginative in all we do. 

Q: Pubs have been given allowances to have tables outside to allow people to sit outside with food drinks, is that something we are allowed to do?

MH: We have go to maximise everything, to get people socialising in the clubhouse before and after the games.

Q: Has the lockdown had any effect on the sponsors, are they still committed?

MH: I am overwhelmed by the sponsor’s response to the situation. Not one has backed off or withdrawn, they’re all good to go, player sponsorships are about to go out. We have a new sponsor for the back of the shorts. In fact, some of them have been knocking on our door wondering if they could help us. I cannot thank each of them enough, they’ve been absolutely brilliant. 

Q: There’s set to be squad numbers allowed next season, has any player claimed any number for next season?

MH: I believe it was an option but it will cause too many arguments between the players. 

MD: It was just a guideline.

JD: We thought about it, but you might have a number one playing in midfield. 

MD: Clubs at our level couldn’t afford to create different shirts for each player, it was just a guideline. It’s just an added cost. They’ve added salary caps to League One and Two to ease costs, yet they’re giving us more costs by adding squad numbers.

Q: Are there any provisions for season ticket holders for home games missed due to the cancellation of last season? 

MH: This is one of the things we have discussed and are unsure about. We have to go with what the majority want to do. There is a recognition from the club that fans have missed games. One aspect we thought would be the fairest way possible would be if you’re a season ticket holder last year, if the price increased in the future, the increase wouldn’t apply to them, so money wasn’t going out of the club but loyalty was rewarded in that respect. It is not really possible to allow people in for free in cups games due to the contribution due to away teams. We are open to suggestions to what the supporters would like. 

Audience: I think most fans don’t care about the money, but would like a recognition from the club that we’ve missed these games, such as an email to season ticket holders. 

I think most fans just want to help the club, especially with what’s gone on with COVID-19, we just want to help the club as best we can.

MH: We discussed this during the committee, whatever decision we make has to be for the consensus for all as we can’t have one thing for one and another thing for another. 

Q: If there was a limit on fans attending, would that put a ban on away supporters? 

MH: It would be very difficult to ban away supporters from attending, it would be hard to tell where each person at the turnstile is from. It becomes a logistical nightmare. Even if we moved to online tickets, it would be very difficult to restrict by postcode. The only way to do it would be to just sell tickets in the clubhouse, but that would involve the track and trace. We haven’t been given guidance on this. 

Q: Will clubs prevent opposing fans from attending games, turning down revenue they get from Stockton Town fans attending games?

MH: We can tell by friendly requests that everyone wants to play Stockton Town, but at home to get the revenue from our fans. We shouldn’t underestimate the positive effect of our supporters, it’s a fantastic reputation for our club and town. Some league teams don’t get 300 people away.

Q: Following on from that question, if away supporters were to attend, is it possible to create a designated away end to limit social interaction?

MH: It would be possible as we have a gate at the top, and could put a temporary fence at the top but one issue is toilet facilities. We would have to hire in a mobile portaloo, it would be possible but it isn’t quite as easy as putting up temporary fences.

MH: Can I thank you for coming tonight to support the club, it all makes a difference. Anything you can do to generate supporters coming, it would be really appreciated. We are all ears for ideas.

MD: Thanks from us as well, your support is massive. We appreciate you coming to all games, every away game feels like home for us, it makes it easier for the players to settle. Sooner or later, we will get back to normal, thank you for your continued support.