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Chairman on the spot

Wanderers chairman Phil Gartside talks exclusively to BEN Chief Soccer Writer Gordon Sharrock

Q: LATEST figures show the club to be around £30 million in debt - that's a lot. How are you dealing with it?

A: It's true that we have debts of around £30 million but £12 million of that relates to the new hotel and does not affect the football club. The hotel will pay off its own debt in the course of time and is already producing income of £750,000 a year for the club in rent.

Of the remaining £18m, there are property related loans amounting to around £5m, what we call 'soft' loans of £3m and football finance monies of around £4m. Our actual working overdraft is around £5m, which is quite manageable.

Our problem is that some of the loans we are carrying are short-term and they are squeezing us so we are currently working on obtaining a mortgage, which would give us a long-term payment schedule and take the pressure off.

We've raised £3m in the last couple of years and we're looking for more - possibly through a rights issue, although the best time for that would be when we were in the Premier League.

Obviously reaching the Premier League would offer us a whole host of opportunities - a link up with media partners, extra income from gates, extra commercial revenue ... it's not just about the £15 million or whatever the guaranteed figure is - it's about the spin-offs it can generate.

Put the 'Premier League' label over a toilet door and you'd fill the place! It's the big attraction.

The reality, if we don't get up there, is that we will still be being squeezed and still finding it hard to attract punters and commercial income.

The Premier League really is the golden vision. The football gets harder but commercially things become much easier.

So it is true that we've got a difficult job ahead of us, if we don't get up there.

Q: SAM Allardyce suggested this week that without Premier League cash or significant investment in new players, Wanderers could soon be heading the way of Wolves. Do you share the same fears?

A: We all know it will be difficult financially again if we don't go up. I don't enjoy waking up every morning knowing the club is under financial pressure but, as a director, I was partly responsible for putting it there and I'm doing what I can to get rid of it.

But I'm confident that with Sam's ability, his contacts and his skill in persuading players to sign for us we'll be okay.

The stadium and the structure of the club helps too. Sam tells me that when he was manager at Blackpool he used to sign players in a hotel then take them to see the ground. Now he brings players to see the ground and the training facilities first ... when they see what's here they want to be part of it!

Obviously I hope we will be in the Premiership but I don't fear for our future if we don't go up. Sam will beg, steal and borrow again as he has done in the past.

And, although we haven't appeared to spend a great deal of money on players, it's not just transfer fees that are a measure of your investment.

Last year we lost Eidur Gudjohnsen, Claus Jensen, Mark Fish, Michael Johansen, Paul Ritchie and Allan Johnston. But Sam's brought in more than six to replace them: Michael Ricketts, Simon Charlton, Anthony Barness, Leam Richardson, Per Frandsen, Ian Marshall, Colin Hendry, Nicky Summerbee, Tommy Wright, Matt Clarke and a couple of other loan players. That was the way Sam tackled the situation.

We couldn't pay out the big fees but we still took our wage bill over budget to the tune of around £1 million. In fact we've spent more money than we'd budgeted for on wages in the last two seasons because we were pushing for promotion.

And Sam's already planning for next season. He has two players lined up who would be significant additions to our squad, whether we were in the First Division or the Premiership.

Q: EARLIER this year you and Sam Allardyce went to the South of France to meet Alan Murphy, a multi-millionaire who was reported to be considering investing in the club. What was the outcome?

A: Alan Murphy approached us with a football finance idea - not to buy the club or anything like that. He is a Liverpool fan not a Bolton fan. I don't really see anything happening on that score. But we've talked to a lot of people as possible investors - some with massive amounts of money but you've got to be sensible about who you bring in. It's as important to have a team in the boardroom as it is to have a team at management level.

And it's not only about money. Some clubs who have had lots of money have failed because they haven't been united at board level and at management level.

You've got to get the club right from a business perspective, a boardroom perspective and a management perspective. It has to be run properly.

In that respect we have done well recently because over the past two years, one of our directors, Eddie Davies, through the Bermuda Trust Company, has loaned the club £2 million and given us tremendous support. Eddie is a Farnworth lad and a lifelong Wanderers' fan who now lives in the Isle of Man and he has put more money into Bolton Wanderers than any other person in the history of the club. But we can't constantly rely on that sort of generosity.

We have to run the business properly.

Q: FOUR years after the creation of Burnden Leisure, was it a wise decision for the football club to become a publicly listed company?

A: We reversed into a company (Mosaic Investments) that made £11 million in cash available to us and without that we wouldn't have been able to do some of the things we have done - finishing the East Stand, for instance.

Has it been beneficial? Well, it's made us run the club more professionally because we are bound by the rules of the Stock Exchange. That forces a discipline on you that we've been forced to adopt. So it's been good in terms of the structure of the club.

And it might be beneficial in the future if we want to do a rights issue.

It costs us very little, especially since we dropped to the Alternative Investment Market and, if the climate was right, it could help us raise money so it's certainly been worthwhile.

Q: THE award winning Reebok Stadium is impressive but, looking back on the move which is still a bone of contention with many supporters, was it really the right thing to do?

A: We've got a facility as good as anybody's - if not better - and it's improved the profile of the club no end. The only downside is the cost and what we spent on building it

It raises expectations too. It's been built to such high specifications that people coming here think we are a wealthy club and we are not.

The fact is that we've got a long term asset with short-term debt but we don't for one minute regret making the move. We couldn't feasibly have done what we needed to do at Burnden Park.

The only regret is that we're carrying a lot of debt as a result.

Q: HOW concerned are you about the lack of atmosphere and the size of the crowds?

A: The lack of atmosphere concerns us because people are coming here for entertainment and enjoyment and atmosphere is all part of that experience.

But everybody is suffering the same way.

The general belief is that, if you're playing well and you're top of the league, you can expect to create an atmosphere. If you're struggling you won't.

I don't really have a great concern over the size of the crowds. I can remember in the 80s and early 90s when the average was 5,000. Plot a graph of attendances and, apart from the two seasons when we were in the Premiership and the figures jumped up, numbers have improved year on year to where we are today - an average of 16,000 which is fantastic.

But it's disappointing to look at the gates in our division and see about 10 clubs with better average gates - especially when we were second in the table for so long.

We just didn't seem to be able to attract the really big crowds. We're not moaning about it, we're just trying to find an answer to the problem.

I hear people suggest that we've sold our better players and that the quality of the football isn't as good but I really don't go along with that because we've been in the top six all season, second in the table for much of that time and, even now, we're the second highest scorers in the division. So we must have been playing pretty well.

Anyway, I'd maintain that winning games is what sends supporters home smiling. When I get up on a Sunday morning and we've won, I'm happy.

But I'm prepared to listen to suggestions.

The focus groups we've set up have worked on a variety of things. We've listened to what people have had to say and we've reacted.

The 'Happy Hour' was one initiative and there have been others. The Seats for a Fiver idea we had for the Grimsby game was successful but we can't do that every week because we wouldn't cover the income we require. What it has taught me is that people will respond because I was worried that, even if we gave away free tickets, we wouldn't fill the stadium. So we'll do it again and we'll look at repeating the gesture to season ticket holders we made with the Bring a Friend for Free offer for the Norwich game, although we'll never know how many of the 5-6,000 who turned up free would have come to the game anyway!

I've been criticised for not trying enough things but you can't try everything and you have to be selective. We are trying to be a club that talks to its supporters and listens to what they have to say. We want to be pro-active and we want to try new things.

Q: WHY have you changed the club badge on the new-style shirt, losing the familiar scroll and the famous red rose?

A: Personally I preferred the badge that was on the shirts when I first started supporting the club - the town crest with the elephant on it. I'm a traditionalist but we have marketing people who tell us what's popular and what is not and they've come up with this.

It's progress, I suppose. We didn't build the Reebok Stadium to look like the old Burnden Park. We had to move on and that's what people are saying we must do with the logo.

Actually we have three logos at the c lub at the moment - the one with the ribbons, the badge on the old shirts and the diamond-shape adopted by the new hotel - so our corporate identity is not clearly defined. At some stage we're going to have to get that sorted out.

As for the 'old' badge ... it isn't really the old badge at all!

Q: SEEING Ipswich riding so high in the Premiership do you ever wonder what might have been? Are you jealous?

A: Actually I'm pleased for Ipswich. They've worked hard, got their club on the right footing, done it the right way and they are nice people. I'm really pleased they've had a successful season in the Premiership.

But we were within one minute and 20 seconds of beating them in the play-offs! Whether we'd have beaten Barnsley in the final, we'll never know.

Am I jealous when I think about Ipswich playing in one of the European competitions next season? Yes, I'm jealous as hell!

I can't say whether we'd have done as well. Who knows? Having Marcus Stewart scoring all those goals has been a big, big help but they've only spent a few million (Hreidarsson was one of their only big signings) and their team has stayed mainly the same as the one we played in the play-offs.

The funny thing is that Ipswich came onto us for both Eidur Gudjohnsen and Claus Jensen last summer. They couldn't actually meet our valuation but they offered us players in exchange.

I won't name them because it wouldn't be right but I can tell you that the players we were offered have done really well in the Premiership!

I know the people at Ipswich and I know they are pinching themselves. They really can't believe how well they have done. But Charlton have done all right too so it makes you wonder how good that league really is at the moment. Not as tough as when we were last up there by the looks of it!

Q: WHY did you recently give Sam Allardyce a new long-term contract - the famous '10-year deal'?

A: In the time he has been here, Sam has changed everything. There's only Phil Brown and Faz Page (the masseuse) who were here when he arrived some 18 months ago. He's brought in new ideas, modernised the training methods and improved the monitoring of players medically as well as fitness-wise.

On the field you only have to look at the statistics. In his first season here we finished in the play-offs with 76 points, this season we'll finish with at least 86. Year on year we have improved. You don't only judge success on whether you've won promotion - just as long as you're making progress.

Sam's strong on the youth development side too. We've already seen the emergence of Kevin Nolan and there are a couple of other good young kids coming through.

Overall no-one can deny that Sam has been successful here.

But as well as success, we are looking for stability, which I believe will bring success in the long run. Look at many of the great managers who have been successful: Alex Ferguson, Dario Gradi and, in the not too distant past, Brian Clough - they all had time to work at their clubs.

You might argue that being there a long time was down to them being successful but I'd argue that they've been successful because they were given time.

We were at Wolves the other night and they are an example of how instability can affect a club, however strong its traditions.

Thanks to the money from Sir Jack Hayward, they've got a wonderful stadium and they've spent on players. But the one thing they haven't had is stability - stability in the boardroom and stability at management level.

That is what we are trying to establish.

Q: WHAT are your thoughts of the play-offs?

A: On paper we'll be going into the play-offs hopefully with four straight wins and four cleans sheets, some 10 points in front of our nearest rivals.

The trouble is that it doesn't always work out that the team finishing third wins promotion. But it didn't do Ipswich any harm last year.

We're probably going to need a bit of luck. Who knows?

What I do know is that considering the effort the team has put in, nobody deserves to go up more than they do.

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