Earlier in the month, I went to Parliament along with 12 or so members of other club’s supporters groups and trusts (including Newcastle, Spurs, Chelsea) to meet with the Shadow Minister for Sport, Labour MP Clive Efford. The Shadow Minister was essentially brainstorming ideas to protect football supporter’s stake in the game with the view to formulate potential policy for the Labour Party’s manifesto for the forthcoming General Election.
Topics discussed included supporters having representation on football club’s boards, protecting the heritage of football clubs with laws and looking at various ways of empowering supporters. More of that in a future post on MOMS, but during the discussion, on a number of occasions supporters gave insights into their relationships with their respective club’s boards and CEO’s. In short, they didn’t really have one and they seemed to get the cold shoulder when it came to communication attempts with them.
Interestingly, they were at odds with my own and a handful of other Villa supporter’s relationship with the former Aston Villa CEO Paul Faulkner.
[quote_center]He joked, if he could have anything on his grave stone it would be ‘Paul Faulkner was a football man'[/quote_center]
The Faulkner Effect
The now departed Faulkner was often vilified in caricature-like fashion in some quarters by Villa fans, but supporters who have actually met him normally had positive things to say. I first tried to meet Faullkner – ironically at Parliament – a couple of years ago, when he was due to be on a safe standing panel discussion to raise awareness to MPs on the matter. At that time Aston Villa were the only Premier League club to publicly back safe standing, but with just over an hour to go to the beginning of the debate, Faulkner pulled out. When I arrived his name placement card was still there such was the eleventh hour nature of his withdrawal.
The reason for his absence was apparently due to Randy Lerner jetting into the UK and Faulkner being called to meet him. It was a little odd. Surely Lerner and Faulkner must speak and plan things ahead. It was November 2012, so it was hardly an emergency meeting to sort out a big signing (unless you count Simon Dawkin’s loan in the following January window!).
When I finally met Faulkner, it was at Villa Park. It was prior to the Aston Villa Supporters’ Trust AGM at the end of last year. He took me for a whistle-stop tour of the newly refurbished player’s tunnel , during which he exuded a genuine enthusiasm for the club. It was a Thursday night and later as we looked out onto the Villa Park pitch from the Trinity Road stand, we both bemoaned the lack of European nights at such a great evening setting. Faulkner was surprisingly open chatting about the club and self-deprecating in his humour . His recent quip about his charity abseil is a good recent example of his candour – “A few people have requested that I do this abseil from the Holte End without a rope.”
The unlikely face of Villa
It could be argued that Faulkner spread himself too thin at Villa. Should he been doing co-commentary on AVTV for Next Gen games (an exercise to prove he was a ‘football man’?) or be going to the trouble of sorting out individual fan’s Villa shirt buying problems?
Normally, a club’s CEO casts a shadowy figure in the background, but in Faulkner’s case, due equally to an increasingly reclusive chairman and a manager uncomfortable with the media, it prompted Faulkner to come into the foreground more. If he was the CEO when Doug Ellis was chairman and Big Ron was manager, you probably wouldn’t have heard of him.
Since the club has been enduring its worst period in recent history, due to the Villa CEO’s omnipresent persona, Faulkner like Billy Kid, was always in the line of [supporter] fire.
Faulkner a hope for supporters?
The last time I met Faulkner was at the back-end of last season to talk about supporter issues over a couple of beers, as a handful of other fans have. It was a chance for a sensible and honest exchange. Now that kind of meeting is virtually unheard of for Premier League CEO’s to do with supporters and Faulkner has to be respected for that. It proved useful for MOMS to at least get a sense of attitudes at the club and insight into what was going on.
Obviously, a lot of my conversations with club staff have always been under an understanding of confidentiality. It allows for a more honest discussion from both sides, but ultimately helps inform MOMS and our readers and members. Anybody who reads MOMS will know we hold the custodians of our club accountable to supporters, and the club respects that. At the same time, there’s a practicality to what you can achieve until relationships are formed and trust is gained.
In the short-term, on top of safe standing, Faulkner was supportive of the relaunched Aston Villa Supporter’s Trust, the Witton bridge paint job initiative and through my last correspondence with him, he was enthusiastic about the potential for supporters to have fun celebrating the 140th anniversary of the club this season.
You have to start somewhere and these issues were stepping-stones for supporters and the club to communicate and work together. To break down perceptions of ‘us and them’ and the feeling of being consumers not supporters. Basically, the start of the road for supporters to have a proper voice.
Obviously, the proof is in the pudding to whether there was actual intent by the club or if it was simply friendly posturing by Faulkner. To be fair, we had only just began discussions. While I was indifferent to the news of Faulkner’s departure in the general scheme of things (considering the club’s performance and the fact he was going to go anyway with the club’s sale), it was a surprise and it was a shame from the perspective of seeing what genuine progress on various supporter issues could have been made with Faulkner during the next season.
A football man?
Over the years Faulkner has been accused by Villa fans for not being a ‘football man’. It was something that bugged him.
He joked at the last Aston Villa Supporter’s Trust AGM (at the end of last year), that if he could have anything on his grave stone it would be ‘Paul Faulkner was a football man’.
The whole ‘football man’ saying is generally a criticism leveled at any football club CEO when things aren’t going so well. ‘He’s not a football man, but he’s a great business man’ is almost a football cliché, with Spur’s Daniel Levy the most recent victim of it.
[quote_center]’The catalyst to the Lerner/Faulkner fall out had been Faulkner insisting more had to be spent on players to sustain the club'[/quote_center]
From the sanctioning of the over spend of Martin O’Neill’s reign to the nonsensical appointment of Alex McLeish, it’s hard to build a case for the Villa board to be classed as football men. In fact, the ever fraying fortunes of the club firmly lay on their doorstep. Debates have raged in recent times about Villa needing a director of football or at least an ex-Villa manager/player on the board. There certainly should have been something in place to provide both guidance and also a check on the autocratic power that the manager of Villa has for controlling the football direction of the club.
Why did Paul Faulkner leave Aston Villa?
Randy Lerner has been through a few CEOs – Steve Stride, Richard Fitzgerald and Michael Cunnah – but Faulkner was very much his man having been a shining star during his time at the Lerner owned MBNA before his time at Villa. With his appointment as a Premier League representative on the FA board, Faulkner was obviously getting more and more at home in the footballing world. At 36-years-old, he’s still young too and would learn from his Villa experiences. His FA role was tied to his role at Villa, so the suggestion by Lerner for him to have a non-operational role at the club wouldn’t have gone down too well.
Also, MOMS received a call from the same person who’s last call, last season, informed us about the bomb squad, an incoming Dutch winger, Danish striker and Norwich goalkeeper, before the press got wind. All came to pass. They said that the catalyst to the Lerner/Faulkner fallout had been Faulkner insisting to Lerner that more had to be spent on players to sustain the club, as they were treading a precarious path with an austerity mentality that had left the club flirting with relegation the past few seasons.
It’s common sense, but look at the bottom-line, if the club isn’t sold this season and Aston Villa are relegated, Lerner has a serious problem on his hands and the club will devalue dramatically.
Hopefully Faulkner’s absence doesn’t mean Lerner is stubbornly prepared to take that risk.
Life After Faulkner
At the aforementioned AVST AGM, sitting alongside Faulkner that evening was Robin Russell, the club’s chief finance officer, who will now fill in at CEO in the short-term. While the meeting between supporters and the two board members was off-the-record, the most alarming thing about it wasn’t actually anything that was said.
It came after, I think it was myself, questioning what the club’s back-up plan had been if the high wages paid in the pursuit of Champions League qualification failed? I suggested the club had been compromised ever since due to a lack of the board’s foresight and preparation. In answer to this, Russell made the gesture of playing the violin.
There was a few in the audience that night who was surprised by such an attitude and gesture. He also rubbed his hands when a hypothetical question was raised about what Villa would do if they sold Benteke for big transfer fee.
Put it is way, Russell certainly isn’t a ‘football man’. He’ll basically be making sure that Lerner leaves the Villa scenario with as much cash in his bank as possible.
In Parliament, when I mentioned that the Aston Villa Supporters Trust had enjoyed a promising relationship with their own CEO, the shadow minister replied, ‘Yes, but what happens when he goes?’
Well, we’re about to find out, a little sooner than we expected. UTV
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