Club decision makers meet with Blues fans
On Thursday (20 January 2022) evening, Birmingham City Football Club hosted an informal evening with the local media and a small selection of fans for an open question and answer session. In attendance was Board member Edward Zheng, Technical Director Craig Gardner, Chief Commercial Officer Ian Dutton, Governance & Regulatory Manager Ciara Gallagher and Chief Finance Officer Mark Smith.
Zheng opened the event by apologising for the lack of communication that has led to the breakdown in relationship with fans and gave birth to misinformation that has been circulating online.
Joined by the Club’s external Project Manager for the stadium repairs, the following topics were discussed with the corresponding answers offered by those in attendance:
St Andrew’s Stadium repairs
The Club’s Project Manager, Michael Moran, addressed attendees directly detailing the extent of the repair works required under the stands and explaining the difficulties, setbacks and complexities experienced to date.
Concerns were first raised when an initial structural survey assessment found “tell-tale” signs of potential issues, which upon further investigation, led to the initial closure of the stands. External contractors were originally instructed based on a scope of works that included: the refurbishment of steel rakers that support the upper; dealing with corrosion; and restoring the stadium to the original design brief. As work began and further areas were exposed, additional issues continued to arise, and to this day continue to add to the complexity and budget of the repairs.
Repairs of the upper tiers and lower tiers had to be treated as separate contracts due to the vast differences in brief and it was necessary to maintain the safety of operatives working beneath the stands. With only one principal contractor allowed on-site at a time and with limited resources available due to a nationwide skills shortage, the decision was made to focus on the repairs to the upper tiers only for reasons of both the safety of the operatives working on site and the speed at which the Club would be able to get supporters back into the stadium.
Work on the upper tiers required highly skilled operatives, qualified to work suspended from ropes to access the higher parts of stands and be confined-space-trained for the areas beneath the stands that are constrained. This also required rescue personnel to be on-site and detailed evacuation plans were put in place to comply with health and safety regulations. To date, the rescue team has been required on several occasions where there is a greater risk to health and safety, such as working around precariously positioned lumps of concrete and areas of landslip.
Corrosion across the steel rakers in the upper tiers was repaired and specialist brackets had to be designed and built to replace missing bolts. The original brief identified 60 brackets were needed, however as the works continued the total amounted to 165. This was during a time when resource and materials were extremely limited.
Examples of the corrosion can be seen below:
In order to open the upper tiers in the shortest possible timeframe, the Club ensured the maximum available number of operatives were working 11-hour shifts for seven consecutive days – this was heavily incentivised, with overtime and bonuses paid for hitting deadlines being put in by the Club.
The combination of the increased scope of works, along with the additional costs involved in seeking and retaining the required number of highly-skilled operatives for the maximum time possible, meant the total cost of the repair works was five times the original quote provided.
Mark Smith made it clear that financing the repairs was not the issue, rather, the extensive, complicated and growing list of repairs added to the delays in handing over the stands.
Board members and senior management staff were also involved in sourcing and purchasing the required materials having understood the urgency of opening the upper tiers as quickly as possible.
The work required on the lower tiers is far more complex due to these being built over the former terraces in 1994. With huge pieces of concrete, electric cabling and various debris leaving less than two feet of access in many places beneath the lower tiers and middle gangway, accessibility continues to be the biggest issue, as seen in the images below:
As it stands, the work that needs to be completed in order to open up the lower tiers involves refurbishment of the steel rakers and dealing with the corrosion that has incurred dating from the original build. Given the extensive difficulties in accessing various areas, the Club has been left with limited options:
1) Concrete encasement of steel rakers: this would include removing the current precast concrete terrace units, encasing the steel rakers in concrete to reduce ongoing maintenance and meet the Construction (Design & Management) Regulations and reinstating the terrace units.
2) Refurbishment of current beams: this would be the quickest solution if suitable access was available to work under the stadium. With that not being the case, the precast concrete terrace units will still need to be removed to facilitate the works. However, the problem of poor access for future maintenance and inspection will remain which is in contravention of the Construction (Design & Management) Regulations.
3) Ground bearing stand replacement: this option would consist of removing the current stands and rebuilding them to comply with the Green Guide. This option would take much longer than the previous two and would require pitch access, however, would be more cohesive to facilitate safe standing in the future.
The Club is currently awaiting proposals from external contractors regarding the options above, with a decision as to how the Club will proceed expected in the next month.
Regarding timeframes, the Club’s Project Manager advised that should the Club proceed with options 1 or 2 above, the contractors are hopeful the lower tiers will be open for the start of next season. As was the case with the upper tiers, as individual areas are signed off, there will be partial handovers of the lower tiers.
Photos below show in more detail the extent of the work that was undertaken in the upper tiers:
Fans and journalists in attendance raised questions around the ownership of the Club including who owns the Club, is the Club up for sale, why has there been a lack of communication from the Club and the owners, what impact does the sale of the stadium of, are the Club looking for a new CEO, and what are the long-term goals for the owners of the Club.
Zheng confirmed the Club is ultimately owned by the majority shareholders Paul Suen and Vong Pech. With regards to direct correspondence from the owners, the Senior Management Team agreed to take this request back and see if they would be able to communicate via any medium to the fans.
The Board stated that the Club is not up for sale and the owners have no intention to sell. Like any business, it does have a value but the owners have invested, and continue to invest, heavily in the Club.
Regarding the lack of communication from the Club, Zheng described the large cultural difference that has impacted this. He advised that professional businesses in China tend to act first and talk later. Communication is not put out until action is completed. However, it has been acknowledged and is agreed by the Chairman and the Board of the Club that this culture has to shift and communication lines will be more open moving forward.
Reassurance was given to attendees regarding the sale of the stadium, with information provided on the protections in place domestically given the stadium is a community asset. In addition, the Club confirmed that the 12-year lease currently in place is outside of the usual protocol. For transactions of this nature, the Hong Kong Stock Exchange regulations do not allow for longer than a three-year agreement, however, dispensation was sought, and agreed to, in order to allow for an extension to 12 years providing additional security to the Club’s supporters.
It was confirmed that recruitment is ongoing to appoint a new CEO to work with the Senior Management Team and operate at the Club in a day-to-day capacity. This position will be appointed by the Chairman. Given how important it is to secure the right person for the job, this is not a decision that will be rushed so the Board of Directors and current Senior Management Team are working more cohesively to carry out improvements across the Club whilst this is on-going.
Finance and football strategy
As was discussed with the spend on the stadium repairs to date, it was confirmed that the Club does have an allocated budget to sign players where considered appropriate. It was communicated that the Club is in a far healthier financial situation than it was three years ago when it breached the EFL’s Profitability & Sustainability (P&S) rules. However, lessons have been learnt from previous mistakes and there is great consideration regarding P&S in all dealings at the Club, thus supporting the decision to adopt a more balanced outlook on the transfer dealings during the window. The Club will not be entering into transfers or contracts that could push the Club towards a potential P&S breach once again. This is a prospect that the Senior Management Team will not allow at any cost.
Craig Gardner provided details on the recruitment strategy, stating that the Club will seek to invest in young talent capable of playing at a higher level. Any addition of more senior players will be based upon the specific requirements of the playing squad at that time.
As Technical Director, he outlined the three-year-plan as agreed with the Board whereby the Club will look to consolidate over the remainder of the season and into next year, with a view to competing in year three.
He also highlighted the clear pathway in place for young players from the Club’s Academy into the First Team. This is evidenced by the current First Team squad involving more Academy players than it has for the last decade.
Continuing the theme of progress, the appointments of Darren Carter and Marcus Bignot within the Women’s coaching staff has instilled a togetherness amongst the squad. Access to facilities at Wast Hills Training Ground has also improved significantly with the aim of helping the Women’s First Team to compete with Premier League funded sides in the Barclays FA Women's Super League.
Gardner also provided an insight into the culture of the football side advising the launch of a leadership group involving heads of departments and two senior players has been implemented to further improve standards. This, he states, all forms part of a large shift in culture at the Club.
Gardner described a growing recruitment team at the Club and added that he has forged strong relationships with other clubs, using the connections he has built up over the years to identify potential players. All footballing decisions at the Club sit with Gardner, who confirmed the Board have full faith in his strategy, which he continually develops through daily correspondence with the Head Coach, Lee Bowyer.
The Club outlined how the evening’s event formed part of a wider, more transparent communication strategy that will see regular fan-facing activity with senior figures, and noticeable changes across the Club for every Blues supporter.