“Remembering your roots”

Every club now has a community scheme, but some are much more effective than others. We looked at how two first division clubs have tried to balance ambitions on the field and engagement with their local area. Millwall chairman Theo Paphitis outlines his strategy to Andy Lyons

Is there a tension between trying to get Millwall into the Premiership and trying to maintain the community pro­grammes the club has established?
No, they go hand in glove. Without the community you haven’t got a football club. The community scheme is about remembering your roots. If we get some success on the playing side along the way then that’s great too, but it shouldn’t happen in a way that prejudices the connection with the community. Without the club funding our community scheme couldn’t operate but it is run separately from the club as a charitable trust. We have just taken on the Lions Centre, which is what used to be the council leisure centre around the corner and that is the hub of our operations. What we’ve got here dedicated to community is probably more than what a lot of people have got dedicated to their entire football club. That’s been key from the day I arrived. It means we can get kids to come to us. Going to schools with a couple of people in club tracksuits giving away a few freebies is fine, but actually geting them here to let them spend a day at the club, see the stadium, see the changing rooms, play on the five-a-side pitches with some professional FA qualified coaches – that’s totally different. Also, it allows us to have classrooms and computer equipment. Football is the key, but we don’t bring them in just to knock a ball about.

Do you feel you have an identifiable catchment area that is “your” community? Or are you in competition more widely with, say, Charlton?
We have to draw our support from the local area. Past generations of our fans have now moved further out to Kent and other areas, now new supporters coming through. Southwark and Lewisham are our catchment areas, they’re multicultural places and that’s a fact that we reflect in our support now, and among the young players we’ve got in our Academy. Charlton’s crowds have gone up because people want to see the clubs they’re playing against. You’d soon see their crowds come down if they struggled. That said, Charlton have done incredibly well, they’ve got good links to community too. I don’t see that we’re in competition with them exactly. The fact is we’re on the border between two big London boroughs, Lewisham and South­wark, and no one else is going to have the same im­pact on this community as we can.

You’ve got clubs in London now, Arsenal, Spurs and, dare I say it, Chelsea, who are big organisations not just within Lon­don but internationally. And of course they’re going to get at­ten­­tion and their players become famous names and the rest of it. So it’s up to the other London clubs to look within them­selves, within their own surroundings, to generate interest. This season we’ve got the highest season ticket take-up in our history, so that’s hopeful. A bit of success goes a long way. You can try to catch up, but really I’m not too interested in what Ars­enal and Spurs may be doing, I’m focused on what we’re doing.

Millwall regularly make the news when league tables for arrests and racist incidents come out. Is that simply because you take a stronger line on these issues than other clubs?
We’ve banned more people than any other club, but that’s not because we’ve got a bigger problem than anywhere else. You’ll see the same sort of trouble at  grounds throughout the country. The fact is that we won’t tolerate racist abuse. If people come here to our stadium and start that kind of business they can expect to be not only banned but prosecuted, and that’s not the police prosecuting, that’s us, the football club. In fact, our arrest figures were actually down last season, even though our aver­age gates went up a couple of thousand. And of course every time we’re at the top of an official report into arrests at football grounds, you get some young journalist ringing us up and it’s “I’ve seen the statistics, is racism a serious problem for you?” Actually it’s a problem for everybody, but the reason we’ve got the highest numbers is that we take it seriously and we won’t put up with it. I’m a first generation immigrant myself, so if I don’t lead from the front who’s going to do it?

As far as fighting is concerned, when we go away and there’s a problem, it’s always a combination of factors, not just our fans. We had very few problems last year at home, we’re right at the bottom of the list in fact. When people talk about “the Millwall problem” that’s just cheap journalism.

Millwall have recently been involved in a court case over the alleged poaching of their Academy players. How did that affect your ability to retain locally developed talent?
The Academy costs us around £750,000 a year to run and it’s a way to bring through our own players. It’s vitally important for a club like ourselves. But if you’re successful, that gets noticed, and you get agents around, people always trying to get in the back way. We had three lads, Cherno Samba, Goma Lambu and Alex Tiesse, all of whose familes came over here as political refugees from west Africa originally, but had grown up locally and had been brought through the Academy. Two ag­ents got involved, one apparently paid for the boys to take legal advice about cancelling their registrations with us. It ended up in court and cost us a lot of money in legal fees.

In the mean­time, the agents filled their heads with garbage, they wouldn’t train with us for six months, they were touted around the country, they lost form, they lost their places in the England schools team. But guess what, all three have signed professional forms for us now. I’m in no doubt that these ag­ents have links to Premier League clubs, one in particular, who I think may have had some­thing to do with paying the legal costs. Just think, three lads whose parents weren’t at all well off, ended up hiring a top West End law firm to challenge the legality of their registration. Amazing that, isn’t it?

Has the licensing of agents made any difference to such practices?
No, the whole’s thing a sham, it’s smoke and mirrors. It’s probably the worst regulated profession in the world. We have to deal with agents, and some can do a decent job for you. But I don’t know why we bother with things like licences. There are certain agents, about half a dozen, who are actually banned from our stadium, we won’t even have them watch a game here and I wouldn’t bring in a player they represented. In fact, that’s happened recently, I’ve had to tell a player that we weren’t going to do a deal unless he got himself a new agent and we wouldn’t give a new contract to someone we’ve already got there if he was represented by a certain agent. They’re completely untrustworthy, they’ve only got their own interests at heart and all they do is upset the club, upset the players and generally damage relations within the club.

Millwall are one of the smaller clubs that is a plc and the share price has not exactly been buoyant. Has it hindered the club financially or in terms of increasing participation by fans?
It’s a situation I inherited. The club is run as a public company and that will continue. We’ve got 40,000 shareholders and our share price has doubled lately. It did have an effect on the way the club was run in the past – there were big debts when I took over. We’ve just moved down from the main market to the AIM market in the last few months because it’s cheaper to administer. It means we’re accountable.

As far as getting fans on the board is concerned, we’ve got them already – we’re all fans on our board. I’ve been watching the club since 1972. In fact I had to sack two of my favourite players, Keith Stevens and Alan McLeary, when they were joint managers, though Alan’s now back on the coaching side and Keith’s still a friend and he’s manager nearby at Fisher.

You obviously want to strengthen your squad, but is it hard to recruit the right players without spending too much on wages?

It’s a major problem. It makes me laugh when an agent comes to me to talk about salaries and says “My player only wants £7,000 a week, that’s what the kids get in the Premier League’’. And I have to say: “Well, good, he can want it somewhere else.” It’s madness. We often can’t afford to take on squad players from higher up. But what is happening increasingly is that play­ers are out of work until they get real and accept what’s on offer lower down. There is a big gap between the divisions and it’s growing. We get just under £2 million from TV for being the First Division. You get a couple of hundred thousand in the Second. That’s not to say that you can’t run a professional football club lower down, of course you can, but it’s not sustainable if people like me do things that they can’t afford to do. 

What is your view on the PFA’s threat to strike if their share of the TV money is not maintained?
No one is saying that players in general aren’t getting their fair share of the money. We know that players, especially at the top level, are getting more even than what’s available. Across the board wages probably outstrip the net income of the clubs, which is ludicrous. But the PFA are saying that they as an organisation aren’t getting what they should and I think they have a good case. I don’t understand what the football authorities’ position is in this area. As a chairman I probably shouldn’t be saying things like this, but I think the PFA do a brilliant job. Yes, sometimes I’m across the other side of the table from them, but I respect their position. I recommend that all my players use the PFA to do their negotiations, not because they’re softer than any agent, but because I know they’ll be looked after well.

The argument that we haven’t got the money be­cause “we give it all to the players anyway” doesn’t really wash. If you have less money be­cause you’ve given a fair slug to the PFA, all that means is that you’ve given the top players less. The more money the clubs keep, the more they’ll give to the top earners. So maybe we should give the PFA more, because they’ll do what they always do and feed it all the way down, which we don’t do so well as football clubs.

From WSC 177 November 2001. What was happening this month