Meeting with Clarke Osborne Thursday 10th May
FOREWORD As you will know by now from previous communications, last week 3 members of your TUST Board (myself, Robin Causley and Matt Gorman) met with Clarke Osborne at Plainmoor. The meeting was also attended by Geoff Harrop and Tim Herbert from the club. The note that follows provides an overview of our meeting. It is intended to give you a flavour of our discussions and the spirit within which the meeting took place. The note has been drawn up by the 3 TUST officials in attendance at the meeting and has been read by club officials to confirm it is a true representation of the meeting prior to it's issue to you this evening.
With all of the concern focused on both on and off-field matters, the TUST Board are of the view that we need to engage on a much more personable level with Mr Osborne moving forward to understand more specifically his plans and to improve the communication and clarity coming from the club. We are very pleased to confirm therefore that an agreement has now been made to have monthly face to face meetings with Mr Osborne from this point. This is the key outcome as far as we are concerned as this now opens up a 2-way line of communication between our members and fans directly to the key decision maker at the club. It provides a much needed mechanism for members to pose questions and for these to be fielded by Mr Osborne.
MEETING WITH CLARKE OSBORNE THURSDAY 10TH MAY
As you will be aware, we have been calling for such a meeting for a long time and it was much appreciated that Mr Osborne was willing to spare us over 2 hours of his time during which we had a wide ranging and open discussion around many issues.
It was agreed at the outset of the meeting that there was a necessity to focus on the future. Mr Osborne is clearly a well-established businessman with various business interests. Therefore his time is precious and we were conscious to respect this, yet at the same time take advantage of the opportunity to get a clearer picture of his thoughts for the club at this point whilst looking to build some trust and confidence between each party.
Prior to our meeting, we canvassed members in order to get a feel for the issues you were keen to seek clarification on. The vast majority of these questions were aligned to the subjects we fully intended to explore and were covered anyway through natural discussion at the meeting. We categorised these into 3 main areas:
The long term future of the club
Plans for a new ground
Communication with the supporter base and other stakeholders
The long term future of the club
It was clear from our discussions that Mr Osborne has every intention of being around for the long haul. To allay the fears of certain members/supporters we did not get the impression that Mr Osborne was looking at the club as a short term project. Significant capital has been and will continue to be injected into the club. He outlined with no small amount of passion his vision for the re-establishment of the youth system at the club and articulated the issues the club face with their training ground in terms of usability. This is a priority at the present time as he felt the current facilities were not suitable for a National League South club, let alone any return to the National League or Football League at this point.
We questioned him on the establishment of a local board. This is clearly something he sees as another priority in order to aid the communication channels between the club and the supporter base. In addition, there is a recognised need to engage with local businesses and the wider community in order to increase revenue streams to offset the budgets that have been agreed. Figures were communicated at our meeting which have not been divulged in this communication but it is fair to say these numbers are significant. Clearly it is important to establish a local board of directors who are willing to push the club forward in challenging some of the current revenue shortfalls. He did make it clear that he is not looking for a financial injection from interested parties.
New Stadium / Ground
A large proportion of the meeting was focused on this area as you may expect.
Mr Osborne was adamant in his belief the club would not survive on a stable footing without the move to a multi-purpose stadium with additional income streams. Once again he highlighted the limitations of Plainmoor for attracting non-football related activities with limited parking and dated facilities. He outlined the connections he has with high profile individuals and business organisations through his network, together with other blueprints of successful stadiums to take from.
It would be his objective to facilitate the purchase of a piece of land from the local council and then develop the land / build a stadium with finance likely to be injected from various sources / business investors. Prior to embarking on this project he will involve supporters in the make-up of any structure to get feedback and importantly their buy-in to the project at hand. It will also be important to produce a clear plan with identified revenue streams in order to gain buy-in from potential investors.
He outlined his own thoughts for the stadium in terms of size, accessibility and flexibility to increase capacity. The provision of a retractable stand was interesting in order to improve access for certain events i.e. music concerts etc. It was clear he had already undertaken some considerable research into the whole concept of a new stadium. However, it was also very clear that plans were in a formative stage. We questioned him on his previous timescales given around the time of the last AGM of the club where 2020 was given as the indicative date for a new stadium to be built. Whilst he acknowledged that plans were behind schedule he was keen to emphasise the desire to move forward at a pace.
Mr Osborne divulged that whilst progressive discussions with the council took place prior to the takeover of the club they have not been at the pace he had hoped for since. It appears that Nightingale Park remains the preferred option but the Club are looking at all opportunities. There was however no indication that the purchase of the Plainmoor freehold was seen as a being a necessary part of Mr Osborne’s plans.
We discussed the implications of a move to a new stadium in terms of stadium atmosphere. There have been examples of clubs moving to big stadia and as a result they have lost their “soul”. This has often been due to large capacity stadiums with low regular attendances, unsympathetic design or lack of reference towards supporters for their input etc. This is something he is very conscious of and would look to initially build a stadium with a realistic capacity to deal with National League / League 2 anticipated crowds, but with the ability to economically expand the stadium if necessary because the club aspires to a higher league status. He would also wish to seek supporters’ feedback when plans are eventually ready to present.
This was seen as a big issue for Mr Osborne and the club to overcome. The fan base have been sceptical of the motives of Mr Osborne and we made it very clear there was a need to re-establish “trust” between the club and the supporters. This was crucial in attempting to re-engage with current and previous supporters together with attracting any form or interest / engagement with local business and the community at large.
Unlike many football club owners, Mr Osborne is not keen to be at the forefront of engaging with supporters on the basis he does not feel he is as close to footballing matters as others at the club. He sees himself as the strategist rather than being heavily involved on a day by day basis. In view of other commitments, he has limited opportunity to be at Plainmoor on match days, but remains in touch with Geoff throughout games to keep abreast of what is going on.
Whilst we appreciate his stance, it was suggested there was a need for him to demonstrate he is open to communicate and listen to what the paying supporter has to say. This comment was well taken and he stressed that good communication with paying supporters is absolutely at the heart of all leisure businesses and particularly professional football. This led on to further discussions around a local board and the appointment of a fan based representative either to the board directly or to an official role as such. This is certainly something he is keen to explore further.
The huge positive from our meeting was the fact that he felt TUST could play a big part in the communication void that currently exists. We were able to outline our own vision and mission statement which as you know relates solely to safeguarding the long term future of Torquay United. With our growing membership and widening network of volunteers to compliment the current board structure he was keen to optimise this resource and as such we are pleased to announce that he has agreed to personally have monthly meetings with representatives of the TUST board, either in conjunction with our current monthly meeting structure with Geoff and Tim, or by a separate meeting if needed.
This is a very significant move for TUST as it establishes us as a credible organisation in his eyes and provides members with a platform through the TUST board to air their views on a regular basis. Our meeting on Thursday was very much seen as an opportunity to get to know Mr Osborne and for him to get to know us. With the advent of a regular meeting structure moving forward, we will have the ability to pose more specific questions when required and also liaise directly with him over the particular projects we have started to establish, which are all aimed at providing a long term benefit to the club.
We raised the concept of a Fans Forum. To be clear, this is something that Mr Osborne is keen to support but would look to engage the management team and local club officials in facilitating such an event rather than attend in person.
We appreciate that some of you may be somewhat disappointed by the fact we have not listed out all of the questions posed with specific answers given. However, the 3 of us in attendance felt it was more appropriate to use the meeting with Mr Osborne as an exercise in harnessing trust from both sides and agreeing to far greater engagement moving forward rather than a one-off exercise of questioning the owner. By adopting a collaborative approach like this, we feel there is far more opportunity to work in a productive manner to secure the long term future of our club. Therefore, you can look forward to more in the way of communication on a regular basis from this point and be assured that your voice is and will be heard.
Michel Thomas PP TUST Board