This season has seen the great resurgence in the fortunes of Watford Football Club, not just in the results, but the manner in which they have been achieved. At the time of writing the hornets sit proudly atop of Division One, garnering plaudits from all quarters for what's being achieved. But it would appear that it is not just on the field of play that large strides are being made, as behind the scenes the club is striving to restore Watford once again as innovative leaders in offering people more than just 90 minutes of football.
Following what appeared to be a succession of public relation gaffs and marketing blunders last season, Watford employed Ed Coan as Director of Marketing and Communications. There appeared to be an almost immediate upturn in the way Watford related to its supporters.
I met with Ed, who had in the 1980s been Watford's PR Manager, on the day of Gillingham match, he was eager to speak, though before we started he made it clear that the catering and merchandising were not his department, and he wouldn't be able to comment on queries relating to them. There went my first two questions!
I started by asking him if he was aware of the damage that had been done to the club during the Mark Jones era?
"To be honest, it was difficult to judge, as I was sitting on the outside looking in, but I was aware that people weren't happy. You only had to read the
Watford Observer to know that."
"I had left Watford at the end of 1989, but continued to be involved through my freelance Marketing and PR consultancy, which specialised in sport. I continued to edit the programme, though I wasn't directly employed by the club. My own view was that when we won the play off final the club could sell itself no problem. Within reason you can sell anything in the Premier League, but what it wouldn't do was market itself. What the club did when it went up is sell itself, full stop.
From the outside I became increasingly frustrated with that as I could see what a huge opportunity the club was missing, even should we return, be it this year, next year, whenever, the euphoria that surrounded that first promotion will never be the same. I do think the club missed the boat on a lot of issues, particularly merchandising. But as soon as we got promoted we were odds-on favourites to come down again, and with that kind of thing staring you in the face, you have to go to the worst case scenario and allow for it, and the reality was we did go down. I don't think we put many things in place to see us through the medium term.
"When Howard Wells departed I came back with the initial brief to try and get the whole thing back together again. In marketing terms, we had 12,200 season ticket holders in the Premier League and I wanted to do as many things as I could to try and retain as many of them as possible, allowing for the fact that there was considerable number of people who weren't fans at all, but had perhaps bought a Premier League season ticket. We introduced things like the drinks bottles, stickers, postcards, the scarf for those who went to Middlesbrough, just to let supporters feel that whatever the pricing structure last year, here was a club that was trying to do something. I like to think we reaped the benefit of that with regards to the number of people who renewed season tickets. In marketing terms it was about the 'Ps', Price, Promotion, Product, Purchasing process and the Positioning of that product. Well the price was too high in the Premier League, mind you not if you had bought in early, the product, well you couldn't knock the product, but were we publicising it well enough?
"You can learn from other clubs, I had a couple of conversations with Charlton, who had come down the year before, and I asked what kind of things they did, and the way we approached things was not too dissimilar."
Whilst fans receiving free gifts and presents from the club is admirable, as someone who sits in the family enclosure in the Lower Rous I point out to Ed that the facilities there are far from ideal. The food outlets are appalling and the toilets woefully inadequate, with it basically being a Family area in name only.
"We've designated five areas as "Family Areas", but the next step is to actually make them that. There's a million things I want to do here, and I'm picking them off one by one, but the next thing I want to do here is improve the family facilities. I know from the 1980s that apart from the fact that we had Family facilities, which is great, they were also highly sponsorable places. People want to link themselves with this image, and it also gives them a chance to give away some of their products to the kids. I know that in blocks P and O we have a problem, it can't be fixed just like that, but we are aware of it."
I ask if it would be fair to say that Watford have at times concentrated on keeping the corporate customer happy rather than their own season ticket holders?
"I think that is changing, in fact I'd say some corporate supporters think it is the other way around! Three years ago when I came back briefly as acting Chief Executive, when I took on Glen Calveley I said in the Watford Observer that there was no customer service here, but who are our customers - the fans. I went on to say that the supporters were our biggest 'Sponsors', deliberating emphasising in inverted commas the word sponsors. If we add up what we get from sponsors income and what we get from gate income, the supporters are our biggest customers. I got loads of letters from people saying, "How dare you call us sponsors!" What I was trying to say was that you are just as important and we've got to look after you a bit better. For instance the season ticket book this year contains discount vouchers and special offers in the shop. I'm not just paying lip service to this, we promised far too much last season that we did not deliver."
The relationship between the Club and local authority became a bit frosty recently, though the olive branch would appear to be being grasped by both sides now, how important does Ed see the relationship with the local authority, especially with the plans for ground development?
"I can see no reason why the two clubs at Vicarage Road, and I include Saracens in this, can not be in partnership with the council, it seems completely odd to me that we aren't. If you asked somebody in, say, Leicester High Street "What do you connect with Watford?", they would say the Football Club. But the Football Club is so intrinsically at the heart of the town, as are the council, it seems crazy to me that there should be any antipathy between the two. If we are going to develop the East side of the ground we are going to have to work together, and we have to be on side with local residents.
"We are involving ourselves with the local community, at half time against QPR I went out onto the pitch and presented a cheque for £2000 to the West Watford Community Association out of the club's charity fund. Now that we've said we're staying we've got to involve ourselves. I'm not just saying that, we're not just getting involved because it's right that we should - but it also makes sound commercial sense. We must get our image right, and image and reality must be the same thing, otherwise it's pointless. If you get it right companies and organisations will want to come to you. It's no coincidence that we know have a six figure deal with a local company, Freedom 2000, who are sponsors of the club's Families, Youth and Community department. Total Oil also want to be involved, the creche is sponsored by Asda, the shoot out by TGI Fridays, we can say "Look, you attract a family audience, so do we", it makes sense, instead of going for just more hard nosed business agreements."
So we are once again 'The Family Club'?
"If we were the family club now, we'd just be another club, everyone's The Family Club. What I want to do is push it, we want to be the Community Club, and truly that. Not just 'That's a nice line to put on the front of the programme', we want to be seen to fully interact with the community."
But to be a genuine Community club you've got to get the local Asian community through the gates haven't you?
"It's not an easy thing to do, because you can be accused of tokenism, I think you've got to make it genuinely appealing. But yes here in West Watford we are in the middle of an Asian community and I would love more Asian people to come to the games, and we've got to find a way of doing that."
We then move onto the 'From us to you' brochure the club posted out to every season ticket holder and member last season.
"It's a benchmark for the club, some may see it as a Marketing man's fantasy, but we've got a mission statement in there, and we've got to live up to that in every area we can. Watford learning is a massive project, we now have a fully equipped classroom, and very soon we will have a homework club, these are big steps. We are developing tremendous links. These are all good things, but it's no good us doing all this and no more people come through our gates to games, otherwise we might as well decided we are in the education sector and start a school . We have got to come up with programmes that translates that to more active support of the club, and once they do come we've got to actively encourage them to come again. It's not enough to say "Here's some free tickets, come and watch the game. We've got to look after them and encourage them to come to another game, really build that thing called support, that thing that transcends wining losing, and I feel this club has that in abundance. Back in 1987 we did a survey where 87% of Watford fans thought a community approach was important as winning. But we mustn't forget that the emphasis must be on what the first team does, but when they are not winning, as happened last year, we were giving people the reason to give us the benefit of the doubt."
In an age where money is God, and Success just a gateway to more money, it's refreshing to hear someone so highly connected with, what will hopefully be, a Premier Club talking about genuinely making innovative inroads into areas previously ignored by football. As the board of Directors at Watford Football Club seem to share those ideals there is indeed much to be optimistic about. Ed would be the first to acknowledge that they are not there yet, but throughout our chat there was no indication that Watford would do anything but continue to strive to meet their mission statement....
"To provide attractively priced spectator facilities so the entire family can support Watford Football Club in comfort - and to be a positive force for progress in the community, which we'll serve in every way we can."