Colchester United owner and Chairman Robbie Cowling has issued the following:
I hope everyone had a great Christmas and I wish you all a belated Happy New Year. I can’t imagine that many of you will have too many fond memories of 2021, when we spent so many months in lockdown and being kept away from our normal lives.
The cases of Covid infections may have been high recently but there does seem to be some real optimism that we are approaching what they are calling the endemic stage of the virus. I hope that is true, but I don’t have a better insight than anyone else or a crystal ball so I won’t make any promises now with regards to Colchester United that I can’t keep in the future.
I haven’t written a statement for a while so I thought the start of a new year would be a good time to update you all with a few matters that seem to keep cropping up in my inbox. Sadly, so many things have cropped up that I’m rather late and we’re midway through the first month already.
The Ticket System
I will start with the ticket system which is still coming under attack. Firstly to give a massive thanks to Chris in the ticket office who has dealt brilliantly with the situation and in particular all the recent home match cancellations. I know another written explanation won’t change the opinions of some but it does clarify the club’s position and I will try my best to never mention it again in another statement.
Prior to reopening the stadium to fans again at the start of this season following a season of almost complete lockdown, we had to determine how we could get as many fans as possible into the stadium as safely as possible whilst also considering the changes we could be faced with over the season. The EFL advised us on the four scenarios that we would need to work with and these can most easily be described as ‘Unrestricted’, ‘Socially Distanced’, ‘Covid Certificated’ and ‘Locked Down’. At that time, we did not know which would be our starting option but we knew we had the space to accommodate our normal attendances under all of those scenarios other than lockdown and introduced our current, albeit temporary, system that was designed to operate under all circumstances.
As the Chairman, I know some decisions I make will be unpopular but I always make what I believe are the best decisions for the club. I normally know which decisions, even though I deem them necessary, will be unpopular but with regards to our decision to use the space we have available at the stadium to keep everyone safe, I totally misread the reaction, which I still struggle to understand. We went out of our way to devise a ticketing system that would make the stadium safe and the only sacrifice for a fan was the lack of ability to select their actual seat. They can choose the section they want to sit in but we then allocate their seat. It means a family or group can buy separately but attend together without having to sit shoulder to shoulder with other groups.
Attendance does need to be verified a couple of days before a game but that has the added benefit of allowing season ticket holders to decline a game and get the ticket cost refunded to a Privilege card.
I honestly thought such a system would be appreciated and allow more fans to attend because they would feel safer and know they would not pay for the games they had to decline. I have received some emails from fans who say this is the case and they like our system but when it comes to voicing their opinions in public they are clearly in the minority.
I remain shocked that fans would stay away because of the lack of a specific seat choice. We have all had to make sacrifices in our lives during these uncertain times such as the way we shop, travel and in extreme cases how we might defend our Australian Open tennis title.
The system we have in place for this season is irreversible and is therefore in place until next season, when I too hope we are in a position to go back to our previous system which allowed us to select our specific seats. The safety of everyone at the stadium is far more important to me than my popularity and certainly more important than the club's attendance numbers and how that affects my pocket. However, I do hope everyone can accept it for what it is and get behind the team for the rest of the season.
On The Pitch
I know fans judge the team against previous years and how they performed say two seasons ago against how they are performing this season. That’s reasonable. I however have to judge things differently and I do so by comparing the playing budget I make available for the playing squad against the other teams in the same league.
The EFL share anonymised budget information which shows where our wage spend is compared to everyone else.
Before the pandemic, thanks to support from my other businesses, I was able to subsidise the club so that it had a top eight budget for League Two and that was supported by academy players like Sammie, Frankie, Kane, Kwame and Tom who didn't count on the budget. Therefore, I could reasonably expect us to get in the top eight.
The last four years that we were in League One, we could only afford a bottom four budget so for three of those years managers like Joe Dunne and Tony Humes did a remarkable job outperforming their budget and keeping us in that League.
The club relies on subsidies from my businesses which were very badly effected at the start of the pandemic. At that time, I couldn’t afford to invest in the squad and I had to let four senior players leave. Last year's performances were not a surprise to me as I wasn’t able to give Steve Ball and Wayne Brown any additional budget and I was proud of the way they helped the club get through a very difficult campaign.
Like everyone else, I hoped for better this season but the loss of stadium revenue combined with the lower subsidy I could commit to at the start of this season has led to a budget that is currently seventeenth in League Two. To give you some perspective, the highest budget in our league is just shy of being twice what our budget is.
Therefore, we are currently performing below what I can reasonably expect but not as badly as some want to make out. Having one of the lower budgets is not what I want for the club and fortunately, the hard work of my staff in all of my businesses during these most testing of times has helped most of those businesses to recover and I am now in a position to provide some additional financial support to the club so that we can make a few signings during this window.
It has been an incredibly frustrating few weeks and having to catch up on five games, the first of which is against Forest Green tonight, is going to be a challenge. A massive well done to all of you that are travelling to watch the game. I can rarely get to midweek away games due to my work commitments but I know Hayden and the team really appreciate your extreme efforts to get to games and I’ll be watching like many more of you on iFollow.
Of the four games that were cancelled due to Covid, two were cancelled by the opposition, (Hartlepool then Forest Green), and two were cancelled by us, (Orient then Sutton). We are currently testing the players and staff every day and we seem to be on top of things. Once we get over the expected spike due to the schools re-opening, then I think we might get a clear run until the end of the season. Fingers crossed.
Like many of you, I was extremely disappointed that the referee decided to call off the game against Rochdale. A torrential downpour before the game had left a lot of standing water on the pitch but our staff had worked hard to clear a lot of water from the surface and the drainage was working really well to pull water through so that it did not get water logged.
I felt at the time the game should have at least started and I know both teams wanted to play. However, I also understand the referee has to make his decision based on his opinion and he felt the pitch was dangerous.
I appreciate these matters are all adding to people’s frustrations and some think we could have used our pitch covers to keep the pitch dry so that the game could have been played. The covers take about two hours to put on and the same time plus twenty bodies to get off once they are laden with water. Each of those tasks are dangerous if it’s windy, when the covers and some of the bodies could end up on the A12. (OK the bodies bit is an exaggeration but the covers bit probably isn’t).
Even if we had covered the pitch on Friday, when it was too windy, we would have had to remove the covers from the pitch just in time for the torrential rain to soak it anyway.
We have our trailer screen back to make our temporarily situated Fan Zone more complete and we have installed all of the necessary connections so this should be in operation for the rest of the home games this season. I say should because the screen can’t be operated in strong winds either.
Vaccinations At The Stadium
The club should be very proud of the part it has played in this pandemic. Our Community team led by Corin Haines have been outstanding and our stadium has also played a major role as a vaccination centre for the NHS.
The operation at the stadium is very impressive. I guess many of you, like me and my wife, have visited the stadium for your jabs and will have seen what a brilliant job the NHS staff there are doing for us all. We really do have a wonderful NHS.
I would like to give a special mention to Tim Waddington, Sean McQuaid, David Gregory, Karl Smith, Brian Humphries and Lewis Kitching who between them have been working all sorts of unsocial hours to ensure we can facilitate the vaccination centre at our stadium and to allow the NHS staff to do what they do so well.
I know we don’t have our complete freedom back yet but our club is doing what it can to be a part of the solution.
And finally my best wishes go to Hayden and the team for tonight’s game.
Up the U’s