David Deighton is Notts County’s former ticket office manager, who experienced two takeovers during his time at Meadow Lane. This is his account of what it’s like to work at the club during a change in ownership, including the short-lived Munto Finance era…
Life as an employee at a football club is scattered with polar opposites: extreme lows during rough patches and exhilarating highs when things are going well. With takeovers, the pendulum tends to shift towards the former and it can be quite a stressful transition, with everybody from the admin staff to the manager worried about change and, ultimately, job security. During five years working at Notts, there were two takeovers within the space of nine months, the first of which prompted arguably the most surreal spell in the club’s history. But, we’ll get to that shortly…
I was only 21 when I landed a job in the ticket office, under the impression that it was an admin role with limited responsibility. “Just selling a few tickets” I told my friends. Ideal, I thought. John Armstrong-Holmes was the chairman and Ian McParland was in the dugout; the office was quaint but extremely hard working. We had a loyal, core fanbase and, ticketing-wise, we were equipped accordingly. I’d barely the time to get my feet under the table before everything changed – quickly.
One morning, the office staff were called into a meeting with a tearful chairman, who announced that he had finalised a deal with a Middle East consortium, who were promising significant investment. Just think, months earlier I’d been sat in the stands watching Notts lose yet another Tuesday night game, making it two years without a mid-week victory.
Staff were quick to pepper questions at each other in speculation:
What the hell’s going on?
Why are they investing in Notts County?
Will I be replaced with a more experienced person?
For me, the biggest worry with takeovers was the scrutinisation of my job. I won’t lie, it takes its toll throughout the club. Everyone and everything gets the fine-tooth comb treatment, from the maintenance of the pitch, to what’s posted on social media, to gross matchday figures, to the kind of paint used to decorate the tunnel. The list is endless.
It’s certainly stressful and you need thick skin, as processes are changed, your motives questioned and your ability to do your job put to the test. I won’t lie, being called into a room with Russell King, Sven-Goran Eriksson and Peter Trembling glaring at me, expecting a predicted attendance for the upcoming match was pretty terrifying. I was prepared but what if I was wrong? What would happen?
The day after the takeover announcement, Peter was introduced to the office. I was expecting him to have a tour of the place and settle down in the chairman’s office. However, barely a word was spoken to anyone. The outgoing chairman pointed in my direction and Peter made a b-line for me: ‘I want to see a detailed analysis of our season ticket sales, today.’ He meant business.
A small sign of the new regime’s big ambitions: I was relocated from the main admin area to the front ticket office on a full-time basis. This was a massive change; I was being isolated from the rest of the team, but we were expecting much more interest in Notts County and with the threat of big money, who was I to argue?
At the time, we were also due to play our neighbours Nottingham Forest in a pre-season friendly and I can still remember looking down at my shaking hands when, upon arriving at work, I saw the queue for tickets trail back to the Navigation Inn. Things were accelerating at an alarming rate. It’s meant to be just “selling a few tickets”, I remembered, rolling my eyes.
I guess this takeover was pretty unique in the way that the unbelievable surprises kept tumbling in, as though someone had entered a cheat into a game of Football Manager. Off-season is typically a busy time for off-field football club employees, but this was something else. And, it was about to get even crazier…
One particular evening, I was working late with a colleague, when he was dragged into Peter’s office. This is the conversation that followed:
“We are announcing a director of football tomorrow; can you guess who it is?”
“Err, I’m not sure. Glenn Hoddle?”
“No, but I can say you’re going to be very, very busy… It’s Sven-Goran Eriksson”
“Look, here’s the email…”
Talk about a baptism of fire. The next day, we were instructed not to take any calls and, even though nothing had been announced, the ticket office was inundated with calls from every major tabloid and TV network going. “No comment” was the office’s most popular phrase that day.
Sven’s time at the club was a whirlwind, with season ticket deliveries to fans’ doorsteps just one of numerous PR exercises that brought along a media circus each time. Then there was Sol Campbell and Kasper Schmeichel’s arrivals. Still, you’re pinching yourself thinking: how is this sustainable? I know I’m not ruining the ending for anyone when I say it wasn’t.
We sensed this rollercoaster was going to be a short ride when the late-night Fridays in a closed bar with the owners stopped and there was a sudden need to shift a lot of half season tickets. I received a call:
“How are sales going? We to need to sell as many half-season tickets as possible.”
They were happy to give us an incentive.
“If you reach [undisclosed target] then you can have the sofa that’s sitting in reception.”
Bonus! At the time, several members of the ticket office team and I house shared, and the black and white Notts County branded sofa looked ideal for our living room. I mean, come on, who else had one of these? The hard sell began and we managed to smash the target, despite some reluctance from fans, who were also fearful for the club’s future. The famous sofa remained in our house for a few years, before we moved out and sold it on. I wonder where it is now?
Sold For A Quid
As much as Peter and CEO Gary Townsend (R.I.P) tried to save the impossible dream, funds just weren’t forthcoming and they eventually had to throw in the towel in the best interests of the club. In came new chairman Ray Trew with Luke Negus-Hill, Jim Rodwell and Jason Brewer – a group of men who were shrewd, cold, but extremely focused on the task at hand and in-depth analysis of the club’s inner workings started afresh. The same concerns, the same processes but a different, more realistic outlook.
Rather than focusing on Champions League football, the focus was shifted to the infrastructure and making the stadium a profitable location to support on-field progress. Suites – most notably the Meadow Lane Sports Bar and executive boxes – were brought into the 21st century, the media department was given the tools required to market the club effectively and the operations staff were assisted in getting the ground up to full capacity again, after being restricted by the local council due to safety concerns.
For a while, we really took advantage of the momentum and everything seemed to be going in the right direction. It was a great place to work and, following a rocky few months of uncertainty, there was a relief to have a realistic outlook again, without false hope. Inevitably, there were changes behind-the-scenes, mainly to streamline us so that we’d fit into a sensible business model. Again, it was a nervous time, particularly during the close-season following the League Two title win, but the positivity at that time assisted in keeping morale high.
The main difference between these two takeovers is clear to me: Munto were fronted by two experienced people coming from a footballing background; they knew the ins and outs of each department and tried to make educated decisions based on their experiences. Had the money materialised, I have no doubt that we’d have been running like a Premier League club. The following consortium was packed with successful businessmen who had no hands-on experience in the day-to-day operations of a football club and I believe it was often a trial-and-error approach to see what worked. Perhaps this is where some of the perceived bad decisions originated and it shows that football is unlike any other business model. Transferring success from other industries provides no guarantees.
In Hardy’s hands
One common theme with each takeover is the anticipation and unwavering passion from supporters. Each new owner has been eager to please the loyal cohort from day one, from Munto’s grand signings and programme girls, Ray’s MLSB makeover and free beer, and now Alan Hardy’s free pie giveaway. One message I do have for Mr Hardy is to not take the good times for granted.
My hope is that Alan Hardy and whoever he brings in to Meadow Lane will listen to the people who know how to run the club – the long-serving members of staff, who have kept the place going over the years. They have a wealth of experience and existing plans are put in place for a reason. Changes need to be thought out and not hashed together in days for a short-term fix; they need to ensure that the club can prosper for years to come.
With the ageing fanbase, I’d love to see a strong campaign to attract and retain young supporters, rather than searching for the initial influx. From experience, it’s not sustainable or healthy and it’s been a long time since the club has been able to tick both of those boxes. Here’s hoping for a less stressful and more successful run for fans and staff alike under Mr Hardy’s stewardship.
Photos: Matthew Hoyland