Tony Hale meets with Shareholders

Tony Hale invites shareholders to the Belfry to discuss the EGM and his plans for the future. Chris Saunders takes notes and reports on the proceedings

I've said it before, and I'll say it again - life's full of little ironies. One of my most enduring memories from this year will be the dreadful state of the PA system in the Birmingham Road end, where the sound would cut out every few words, making the message being conveyed almost impossible to understand. So it's really quite fitting that the enduring memory of tonights evening with Tony Hale should be of exactly the same thing. Two "roving" microphones were provided to allow questions from the audience to be heard by everyone but their performance left a lot to be desired, as they too managed to cut out every few words and, at times, reduced the question and answer session that followed the presentation to fits of laughter. In fact, with people moaning about performances on the pitch, moaning at John Wile, asking why we kept being knocked out of Cup games and so on, I could almost feel the plastic seats of the Brummie beneath me.

My first impression of the evening was one of suprise. As we walked through the entrance of the Belfry's conference suite, there standing on the left hand side of the entrance, chatting away to a group of people, was Paul Thompson. Maybe it'll be an eventful evening after all, I thought. As we entered the main hall, we were greeted by a man who shook us by the hand and welcomed us - my somewhat glazed look prompted the words "I'm Joe Brandrick". I should have recognised him, really - not that I've ever seen him before, but if you asked me to describe a typical football club director, the result would fit him perfectly. Joe actually turned out to be the MC for the evening, and introduced Tony Hale to applause from the audience.

Tony then gave a presentation with the aid of flashy computer graphics and a video projector, words gliding neatly into place as he spoke. First of all, a brief agenda for the presentation - review of the progress under his leadership, then his plans for the future - because, as he said, if we hadn't got plans for the future then we might as well pack up and go home. To start with, he described the state of the club when he took over as Chairman - when it was losing money, in trouble with the bank, facing relegation, no money to strengthen the team, no real youth policy and two half finished stands. He took over as Chairman, and from then on we had a united Board, and a happy Club.

Achievements under Hale

Next, a summary of the achievements since he took over. The completion of a ground now worthy of Premiership status. The opening of the Tom Silk building with its new computerised ticket office and club shop. The opening of three more club shops - one at Merry Hill, one at Oldbury and the online shop of which he was especially proud, describing the official web site as "leading edge". The increase in turnover through the club shops every year. The appointment of John Wile as Chief Executive. The reformation of the archaic constitution and the subsequent share issue and then flotation on the AIM. 4 full Internationals in the squad. 7 Youth Internationals - more, he's told, than Manchester United. The growth in value of "intangible assets" - for instance Hughes, Kilbane and Maresca, whose value does not appear on the books, but who could together be sold for between 8 and 10 million pounds. And finally the acquisition of the training ground for which plans are in progress. (I apologise if I missed any, but I wasn't really making notes at this point). He also described the situation regarding current sponsors - after introducing the Albion Premier Saver account, one of the first of its kind and something that almost every club has copied since, the WBBS became shirt sponsors and recently extended the deal long before it ran out. We're half way through a 10 year deal with Banks's Brewery to sponsor one stand, and we have good deals with Apollo 2000 and West Midlands Travel the others. Hale made a point of mentioning the amount of money the Club has received from Don Colston in the form of their contribution to the Smethwick end stand. Around £13.5 million has been raised over the last five years, of which some £9 million has been spent on the team. The Club is currently undervalued on the Stock Market, with capitalisation of about £8 million against a book value of between £12 and £13 million.

The Future

Then, Hale's view of the future. To start with, there are two vacant seats on the Board, and he has the people lined up to fill them - Jim Driscoll MBE and Richard Thompson. The two were the ones who masterminded the revival at Leeds United, from which Thompson has now resigned. Funding of 2.8 million is in place now from the "Training Ground Partners" to cover its development. Further funds of 2.6 million have been pledged by existing Board members, and Hale felt sure that with Driscoll and Thompson in place, the right platform was in place to obtain further funding - but only if he remained as Chairman after the EGM. The priorities for development were as follows: Improve the playing record, finish the training ground development, improve links between the shareholders and the Club through a new forum of some kind (this may be the one thing of benefit that may happen as a result of the current upheaval - "good out of bad" was the phrase used), and to get a united club. But above all, we must improve our playing record if we are to achieve promotion.

Finally Hale summed up: A vote for us is a vote for change! There are many things that need to be put right, but with the new members he has found, he believes that the Board will become the strongest Board ever at West Bromwich Albion.

Driscoll and Thompson

Before the questions, Jim Driscoll came up and introduced himself. He came to the Midlands from Ireland in 1954, and his earliest experience of WBA was seeing them bring the FA Cup back to town from Wembley, and he's supported them ever since. He was responsible for the TV cartoon series Shoe People, and someone suggested to him once that he should make a character called Baggie Boot(!) He's known Tony Hale for over 12 years [which means from the times before Hale was on the Board]. He didn't say a great deal more than that - if anyone can remember any more please fill in...

Questions and Answers

Joe Brandrick then took over again to host the question and answer session, saying that he'd carry on till about 9pm and longer if it seemed that there were still useful things being asked. Questions and answers as listed as best as I can reconstruct them from scribbled notes, so bear with me!

Could Hale confirm that this was the same Jim Driscoll that bought Stourbridge Town, promised to get them into the League but sold out after a few years, and was it the same Richard Thompson that was hounded out of QPR by the fans?

Jim answered for himself, yes it was - he owned them for 4 years, during which time they won their League and their League Cup. They weren't promoted because their ground didn't meet the requirements of the Taylor report, he tried to relocate to a new site which could be developed very close to the old one but met with so much opposition that he eventually gave up and sold.

As far as Thompson was concerned, he was only 24 when he became Chairman [so that's ok, then?] He wasn't hounded out of QPR, he sold the Club - which had made a profit every year while he was running it. But, Tony then pointed out, "we're not here to discuss them".

We look a long way from being promotion candidates. Is the £2.6 million you've talked about enough? How much has Don Colston put into the club?

This money is available, and more will be coming in - hopefully. But he can't say how much or when it will happen. Don Colston has put nothing into the club yet, but if Hale stays in charge he put in something between about £750,000 and £1 million.

Regarding the accusations that Thompson blocked Hale, Thompson wanted to put money in, etc. There were minutes taken of the Board meetings - why not publish them to show what really happened?

[I could see this one coming a mile off...] The comments and accusations are currently subject to a legal action, which I'm defending - so I really can't comment.

If we are relegated next season will you resign?

I've always said I'd be prepared to stand aside - but for someone with money to come in. If I have another 2 years like the ones I've just had I'll probably resign anyway!

We've possibly had one of the worst post-war seasons in the Club's history. What can we do to improve things?

Well, I've said what we are doing to bring more money in. Let me just say that if we'd had a united Board things may have turned out different.

Why do we have such a dreadful record in Cup games?

No idea, I really don't know. Perhaps it's because the team feel they don't have to try so hard against lower league opposition, but I don't know. I wish I did - maybe then I'd make a manager. Do you know, Joe? [Joe didn't know either].

We're so bad in Cup games because we're a poor side. If the same side starts next season, three months in we'll be in the bottom of the table and chanting "sack the Board".

[No answer. But then it wasn't really a question]

Why did we make no loan signings last season?

When the Board asked Denis, he said that he couldn't see anyone better than he'd got [laughter and shouting from audience] - not anyone that would be released, anyway. The Board had to trust the manager on this - Hale can't pick the team, after all.

How many, from 1 to 11, of the players you saw in our side at Tranmere on the last game of the season would you honestly want to keep for next season?

It's not as simple as that. Players are under 2 or 3 year contracts, so it's not that easy.

How much capital would you say we really need? £2.6 million is surely nowhere near enough?

£2.6 million is just the start, there is also the £2.8 million in place for the training ground. More will be raised but he has no idea how much. £13 million has already been raised over the last 5 years, of which £9 million has been spent on the team, but spending money isn't the only answer - look at Watford who have got promoted without spending anything to speak of, and look at Wolves who've spent a fortune and not got promoted. "If spending money is your only answer, God help you Sir!".

How is the Club going to be better managed and planned from now on?

Basically, by having a united Board with the benefit of the new members he's introduced and their experience.

Paul Thompson wanted to ask a couple of questions of Jim Driscoll. [Joe Brandrick refused to allow this, saying that it was not appropriate for this occasion]. So he asked Hale - the press release says that Richard Thompson is supporting Jim Driscoll - can he confirm that Thompson is joining the Board? [Hale confirmed that he was]. Why, when Driscoll was offered a 3% commission on any money he could raise for the Club a few years back, was he unable to do so then? And is the £2.6 million mentioned for the development of the hostel at the training ground site?

[I have to admit, I'm not sure exactly what was said here. Hale was clearly not happy about fielding questions from Thompson and regularly used the phrase "as you well know, Paul". The business with Driscoll being offered comission if he could bring in funds was apparently the subject of a presentation by Driscoll to the Albion Board, which the latter chose not to pursue. The question over the training ground develoment and funding, and the response to it were hard to make out because Brandrick was putting a stop to what looked like it could soon become something of a row. I'd welcome any views on what was actually being said here].

Alan Reynolds [I think it was you, Alan!] asked Paul Thompson whether he'd resign if his company didn't make a profit every year, because he'd said at the Moat House meeting that Albion should do this. However, given the accounting rules it was actually impossible to do this. Alan tried to ask more questions and have more of a go at Thompson, but again MC Joe stepped in and put a stop to it.

Thompson pointed out that this wasn't what he said. What he had been asked, was that if Sandersons had performed like West Brom had over the last 5 years, would he resign, and that his answer had been that he doubted if he'd still be in place in order to resign. He was quite happy for the Club to make a loss, provided it was for the right reasons - i.e. to achieve promotion.

It's all very well saying that Hughes is close to signing a new contract, but why have we got ourselves into this situation in the first place?

When Hughes signed a new contract at the start of the year, it was agreed that it would be reviewed after a year, and that is what is now happening. Money was not the issue, it was a number of personal things between the player, the Board and the manager which it would be inappropriate to discuss.

Do you back the current manager?

The manager knows where he stands - if the team does not improve he will not stay in place.

Ugo Ehiogu. We've read in the papers that you've gone "cap in hand" to Doug to ask them to buy out the clause?

I've never contacted Doug on this, it's always him that's called me. The offer so far has been unacceptable, and there has been a lot of speculation. Let's see what happens...

Why is the Club's PR so bad? Do we have a mechanism to monitor the effects of stories in the press and decisions we make (e.g. players' meals after training, and an example quoted by the questioner's son who approached the Club for help with a charity golf day but was refused).

The Club does a lot of good work for charidee [but, it seems, they really don't want to talk about it...]. We give out match tickets to schools and we have a budget set aside for charity events. "People think we can just keep giving money away, but we can't". Hale didn't know the details of this paricular case, but suggested that the budget had run out by the time this application was received. The real question, that of having a mechanism to look at the effects of PR stories, was lost in the much longer time spent on the illustrations.

We need more details on your plan. It all sounds nice but there are lots of details missing, and in fact it looks like it's been thrown together a bit hastily.

Well, I think I've given more details that anyone else has.

Have Jim Driscoll and Richard Thompson been brought on to really help the Club or just to give you some support by "flashing the cash"? [Applause!]

No, they've been brought in to help the Club. Thompson I know very little about, and Jim - well, I wouldn't really say he was a friend. [Not exactly the impression that Driscoll had given when he spoke to the audience earlier! Kerry managed to get a word with him afterwards and asked him if he'd stay on the Board if Hale wasn't there, and he said "No way - he was only doing this to support Hale"]

How can you guarantee that we won't be in the same position another year from now?

I can't guarantee anything. All I can do is try my best to look at the CVs and pick the right people for the jobs.

So what was it that attracted you to Driscoll and Thompson...?

Well, Driscoll is a true Albion fan...

...So am I... [applause]

...yes, but Driscoll has an MBE - he's been given an award by the Queen...

...well, I take that rather personally. [applause] Can you, in light of earlier comments, clarify the roles of Smith and Wile?

Denis Smith is the manager. He reports to John Wile on team matters. It's up to him to decide on player purchases, but the final decision is made by the Board. Smith makes all the decisions on the pitch.

What about this Wimbledon business? I was horrified at the thought of it, etc, etc...

I asked each one of my directors whether they had released anything to the press about this and they each told me that they hadn't. The remarks came from somewhere, but I've no idea where.

I'm glad you said earlier that it isn't just about money. Why have you allowed managers to waste so much money over the years? It scares the life out of me when I hear that the manager has "however much" to spend. What's going to change?

The manager is the one who decides who comes to the club, but the final say is a collective decision by the Board. We are putting plans in motion to put tighter controls on signings.

Tell us more about this Shareholders advisory committee?

It'll be up to the shareholders to decide who they want on the committee and what format it takes. But we'll have a Board member on the committe to listen to their concerns and try to so something about them. [Note: I understood this, although they were never mentioned, to be a bit of a dismissal of the current Shareholders Association. After all that effort to support him, eh, Don?]

There seems to be a lack of motivation in the side. When Bryan Robson played for us he suffered twice from broken legs but there seems to be nobody in the side now that has the same attitude. And John Wile was completely wrong in saying what he did about Bob Taylor...

I agree.

I'm tired of seeing the same old rubbish on the pitch. What are you going to do to persuade me to buy a season ticket for next year? [Applause]

[No answer - Joe moved straight on to the next questioner. The question was answered later when another questioner insisted that it was answered before he asked his question, and Hale said that what he planned to do was implement the plans he'd already described.]

Are Driscoll and Thompson directors now?

No, the plan is that if I stay on the Board, they will be co-opted as directors and ratified at the next AGM.

Joe Brandrick decided to wrap things up at this point, despite the fact that plenty of people were still keen to ask questions, saying that time was getting on (it was now 9:15, having started at 7:30). He'd take one more question from the floor:

This turned out to be not a question, but someone who'd been asked by Graham Waldron to come along on his behalf and read out a press statement that he'd issued in support of Tony Hale. [so not in the slightest bit staged for the last word from the audience to be a good one, eh Joe?]. Waldron's statement said that he'd reflected on the proposals offered by both parties, and that he'd decided that Hale's side matched his own views the closest. He believed that the continued Chairmanship of Tony Hale was essential, but that he'd only agreed to support him once he'd been given assurances that some serious concerns would be addressed as soon as possible. He was also worried that Thompson had said that the positions of Smith and Wile would be safe if he won the vote, having previously criticised them. He urged fellow shareholders to do what he is going to do - and back Hale.

Finally, Bert Millichip addressed the audience, having sat quietly minding his own business next to Tony Hale at the front table. He told us that he'd spoken to Paul Thompson and told him that he had a great deal of respect for him, but that he'd be supporting Tony Hale in the EGM vote. He went on to talk about the vast amount of money that was now involved in the game, how WBA would never be able to afford some of the ridiculous transfer fees being talked about or some of the enormous salaries some players are earning, and how he felt that the "bubble would have to burst" sometime. The future for WBA was in a good youth setup, even Man United have a team made up principally of players that have come through the ranks. At least, I think that's what he was saying, because with the microphone cutting out every few seconds it was very hard to be certain.

The evening ended, and Hale had laid on food for those that wanted to stay for a while afterwards (but the thought of nearby Sparkbrook and the balti houses was too much for us to resist and we made our exit). Besides, the bar was three deep all along.

In summary, I was again disappointed at Hale's performance. I'm not quite sure what I expected him to come up with, but I think I'd have known it if I'd seen it. He certainly didn't get much of an easy ride from the questioners, and the presentation - for all its flashy graphics in contrast to Thompson's simple set of overhead slides - had all the substance of an excuse quickly thought up to explain your failure to finish your homework. Jim Driscoll, though an Albion fan, is far more interested in supporting Hale than supporting the Club, and there are some questions to be answered about the presentation he made to the Board that began a discussion that was quickly snuffed out. Richard Thompson is most definitely not an Albion fan - in fact he seems to have no interest in football at all - he got into Leeds United and got out again, and certainly left QPR under a cloud. And there was no mention of either of them committing any sort of funds to the club, just vague statements that Hale was sure they would be able to raise money from outside sources through their contacts and skills.

I left with the overriding impression that a vote for Hale to stay would be a vote for more of the same. And if I started to doubt that - well, there was always that PA system to remind me.

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