Steve Lansdown once again faced fans’ questions before the game at Nottingham Forest as he has done on seven previous occasions before away games in pubs up and down the country. The backdrop to this session, as Supporters Club & Trust chair Stu Rogers noted, was that in recent weeks we had travelled to Charlton, where fans are protesting about the ownership and were holding this session at a Notts county bar, where the Chairman Ray Trew has just stepped down due to personal abuse directed towards his family from fans. Next week we play Cardiff! Enough said.
Another poignant reminder to keep things in perspective, Stu added, was the tragic and sudden death of fellow City Supporter James Grieve. A minute’s applause at 32 minutes was impeccably observed during the game he would otherwise have attended, to remember the work James had performed in tireless pursuit of trying to bring back the robin on the City crest.
The first question was how we could improve the image of Bristol City across the country, especially amongst players and agents. Steve acknowledged that geographically we could have been considered a bit of a footballing backwater and that media pundits tend to have their own favourites. However, people now know about Bristol City and he considers the club to be in the best place it has been since his first involvement 20 years ago. There is a momentum with the stadium and he recognises the need to improve facilities to complement the excellent pitches at the training ground. Whilst accepting that relationships need to be built within football, he clearly doesn’t like agents, who are largely just in it for the money and describes them as a scourge of football. At this point Steve brought in Mark Ashton, the newly appointed Chief Operating Officer, as someone who has been in and around football outside of Ashton Gate. Mark’s view is that agents and people in football speak highly of the club and recognise the model that is now being built. He describes us as a sleeping giant or a rocket ready to take off for sustainable success. He feels the production line from the academy is staring to work, evidenced by Bobby Reid and Joe Bryan starting today’s game. One word of advice Steve gave Mark as the new boy was never refer to us as “Bristol”.
Player recruitment featured high on the agenda for fans. Dwight Gayle made it clear he did not want to drop down a division and did not engage at all. If, as media reports suggest, Zach Clough “laughed and dismissed joining Bristol City out of hand”, why did he bring his agent and father to Bristol and try to negotiate being the highest paid player at the club? Matt Smith was a target, but not now, as much as he would have liked to join. Fulham feared selling to a club that threatened their position in the Championship. Would Nathan Baker become a permanent signing in the summer? Probably not. This is simply because he has proven to be a very capable defender in this division, which may prove to be useful for Aston Villa. We didn’t do well in the summer transfer window; we did better in January with the likes of Scott Golbourne joining.
In response to a question about parachute payments, Steve conceded that this does make it harder for us to compete. In many respects he feels we are caught in the middle and cannot afford to splash the cash. The Premier League is strong and is the end game for us. For now we have to keep out place in the Championship and build from there towards the Premier League, although Steve did not place a specific timeline on that. Getting back specifically to player recruitment Steve talked about the academy and some good talent coming through from the lower leagues. Steve cited Andre Gray as an example. Brentford paid £500,000 to Luton for him. We bid £6-£8 million for him. We have to be bold in our decision-making having identified the right payers at the right time. Conceivably it would be better for us to buy 2-3 players at £500,000 in the expectation that one would come good. To this end we have invested heavily in our scouting network, including in France and Spain. Steve wouldn’t rule out “marquee signings”, but only if it improves what we already have. In the meantime, we need to bring on our young academy players and where needed, get them out on loan to get them match time and build their experience. It is important that we secure the futures of players like Korey Smith in line with this.
Former manager Derek Mcinnes was recently quoted in the press being critical of Bristol City. Steve agrees that the squad at that time did need whittling down. He feels he doesn’t have to respond to statements made like this in the press, however, on the point about board egos competing in the board room, this is rubbish. His disappointment comes from the fact that he gave references to Aberdeen when they were looking to appoint McInnes, who he feels is a good manager for the right club, so not sure why the need to come out and be so critical. Staying with managers, did Steve think former manager Steve Cotterill was too stubborn sticking to 3-5-2? Yes, to a point. Cotterill is a good manager and Steve is grateful that he gave us a very good season last year. It was a very difficult and sad decision to sack him, but it became inevitable. 4 wins in 28 games tells its own story. In truth, people were surprised it hadn’t been done earlier.
Are there any plans to subsidise away travel like Swansea and Stoke? No. In the light of Huddersfield this week announcing a set £179 for season tickets regardless of position in the ground, should we be looking at similar schemes given we have to fill 27,000 seats from next season? Steve didn’t know what the driver for the Huddersfield offer was, but he set out his thinking for ticket pricing. We are filling 15,000 seats currently. His brief to colleagues at Bristol Sport is to find ways to build the supporter base. His goal is to offer reasonable ticket prices. Without wishing to be morbid, the club has to survive without his continuing investment and subsidies and therefore, be sustainable in its own right. The stadium will drive more business income, which will help enormously. A strong representation was also made for the introduction of student ticket pricing to encourage fans back to the Gate more often than just attending away matches. Without being specific, the intimation was more of the same levels of ticket pricing all around. Making it easier for fans to purchase tickets is a goal. 82% of tickets sold for the West Brom FA Cup replay were online sales. Steve is conscious of the other 18% and that although the internet is everywhere, other sales channels like a ticket office should be available.
Steve was enormously proud when he entered Ashton Gate for the first game back in the Championship against Brentford. Not only because of the work that was in progress on the redevelopment, but also the reception he received from fans around him in the South and Dolman stands. Clearly, work is still to be done on transport and parking. Plans to open up the Portishead rail line by 2019 continues, with an Ashton Gate halt being ideal. There will be more parking available around the ground and a more rapid bus service from the park and ride will go via the stadium. Asked about consultation with local residents, Steve asserted that we want to be good neighbours and the planning consents are in place. Was the view from Clifton really being spoiled by the new stadium as suggested by some? No, much improved, was the answer.
That purple and lime shirt came up again. Steve gives credit to his son Jon for re-introducing it and whatever people may think, it did generate a lot of media attention. He remembers Cotterill not being keen until we won whilst wearing for the first time away to Sheffield United. From that point on, being the superstitious type, he wouldn’t entertain playing without it! Now that Bristol Sport manufactures the kit, we have more flexibility these days.
Were there plans to bring more sports under the Bristol Sport umbrella, namely Gloucestershire County Cricket? Steve stated that Bristol Sport is there to help teams and sports develop. As such, it looks at all sports. The Badminton franchise is coming in and Bristol Sport already works with GCC. Steve is pleased with the basketball, which has been a big success in his view. Steve has no plans to discuss publicly his intentions for the Ashton Vale site, except to say he will try to realise its potential commercially to re-coup losses, which is unlikely to be football related. It was difficult for Steve to respond to specific, more operational questions like the need for security searches. Whilst in favour of safe standing for Ashton gate, timing had worked against us initially and whilst still open to it there appears to be no further update on how soon this can be implemented nationally at the moment. Finally, another impassioned plea for a friendly with Dutch side Willem II, with whom fans have struck up a reciprocal relationship, which Steve again promised to take away and look at.
By the end of the session the bar manager estimated an attendance of around 350 City fans, which demonstrated the importance to fans of hearing the open and transparent views of decision-makers at their football club.