Geoff Chapple Interview – Woking FC
The Conference (now the National League) has changed massively over the past 15 years. More than half the clubs in this division are professional, many with recent football league experience and adorned with substantial budgets. I caught up with former Woking FC manager and current club secretary, Geoff Chapple to find out how a semi-professional side prepares for a new season as a small fish swimming with giants.
- How difficult is it for a semi-pro side to compete in the National League full featuring so many professional teams?
Extremely! The main reason is financial. The teams coming down get parachute payments and the bigger teams such as Forest Green or Grimsby, who have just left us, run on budgets of £1 million to £2 million annually. Woking Football club as a part time club run on a budget of £300,000. That will give you some idea.
Money doesn’t guarantee you success, only eleven players go out on that pitch. If you can put out eleven players with the energy, intensity and desire you can do a bit like Leicester City. The National League is almost like 3 leagues in one with 5 or 6 clubs that really are big hitters and then York and Dagenham coming down will have parachute payments. Clubs like Woking, Guiseley and Aldershot will have similar budgets but some include a cup run in their budget but we can’t afford to do that so it will be extremely difficult.
- How do survive on the gates you get?
Well we are extremely lucky because we are well supported and we try and budget around an average crowd of 1,600 but we have made a loss every year for the last 5 years. In all my time in football I think if you break even you are doing well. If you can get a cup run and I always did, it can make a huge difference. I remember in 1991 against Everton the gate receipts were nearly £92,000 which is probably worth half a million today! For a part-time club our attendance is very good and would probably increase if we could become a little more successful.
- What pressure are you under to pay players bigger wages especially with more agents in the game at this level now?
I’ve never had a lot of time for agents but you have to move with the times and there are some good ones about. What a player earning £200-300 a week wants an agent for is beyond me but they’ve got them! We’ve got the budget and we tell the players up front what it is and it’s up to them. Obviously we try and sell the club which is not difficult as we have one of the best pitches in the league and a nice stadium. It really is a unique club so we’re lucky there but if the player was playing for money then Forest Green could offer him £1,000 a week and we could maybe offer £300 to £400. It doesn’t take much working out when you try and get a squad of 20 into £300,000 over 40 odd weeks, it is tight.
- Where does the money to run the club come from?
Gate money will bring in somewhere under £200,000 and boost the budget which I contribute to myself will bring in around £30,000. I think the manager contributes to that as well. Various sponsorships on top of that but we have investors that cover the losses. We want to become self-sufficient but don’t own the ground, we have a 125 year lease at £1 a year but it is hard to generate money when you don’t own your own stadium.
- What are Woking FC’s football ambitions?
Football League! Are we ready for it? No, we are nowhere near but we will take it with open arms. Once you’re there you try and adjust and you get £1 million in terms of payments for just being there. Most would be swallowed up for new floodlights and police control rooms but that would be our aim.
- What are your thoughts on the plans to expand the football league to 80 members and have a regionalised division 3 north and south?
Best piece of news I’ve heard in 40 years. I grew up being and Aldershot Town supporter from the age of 4 and I remember the Third Division North and South from before. Aldershot used to play Reading and there were massive gates. I remember being at Aldershot’s ground in a crowd of 19,000. Brilliant! If they want to improve attendances and reduce travel it would be great. Sadly I don’t think it will happen as I’ve heard a lot of clubs are voting against it.
- What is your opinion of the standards of referees and pitches in the National League?
Pitches have improved greatly, our pitch is like a bowling green and other clubs are first class. Referees, I try not to criticise them too much. The game has quickened and referees find it harder but they only have a second to make a decision. There are too many people on TV who make a living criticising refs but I just wish they could have the option like in rugby. Communicate with someone in a control box who has the game on video for the critical decisions. By and large I think they’re decent.
- Do you have any special relationships with league clubs or other managers to benefit Woking in the loan market?
Yep, I still maintain my contacts from my time as a manager. They were Chris Hughton at Tottenham, Tommy Taylor at Cambridge, Barry Fry and Mick McCarthy. Gary Hill our manager has his contacts, particularly Bournemouth and the best thing is they give us these players free of charge but then we are also helping them out. These managers now that sending players to Woking will help them take off and if we play them we don’t pay them, it’s a great deal. Mick McCarthy was great when we needed a striker. He sent us Jack Marriott and he did brilliantly and it wasn’t long before Mick rang me saying he wanted to move him onto a league club. He goes to a league club and plays 5 minutes in a month and is then sent back to us to get him going again. Now he is full time with Luton and doing very well.
- You have unearthed some real talent such as Harry Arter and John Goddard. How hard is it to carry on finding these gems?
Our scouting network is ourselves so it is difficult but you’ve got to get out there. Take Merstham for instance. We played them in the Surrey Senior Cup and they murdered us and they are two or three levels below us. They had a striker called Charlie Penny and a player who controlled the midfield called Fabio Saraiva who were both excellent. We’ve got both those players now and it might take them some time to adjust but I think they will do well. We are all looking for the next Jamie Vardy!
- You are looking to sign manager Gary Hill to a new contract, how important is stability of management to Woking?
People always used to ask me what is the secret to success and I used to tell them it’s continuity. Gary knows the game very well at this level and I’d like him to write some new history for the club maybe with a cup run or an FA trophy final at Wembley. He is liked by the fans and they have never turned on him even when we had a bad run this year so continuity is vital.
- Do you see Woking picking up older male fans who are disillusioned by modern money football?
It is hard to tell. We are getting a lot of new fans but these are mostly those moving to the area and looking for a club to support. I can understand why people turn away from the modern game with all the money that’s washing about. It is quite obscene really and costs the fans a fortune to watch games in the Premier League. I don’t know how they afford it especially with two or three kids.
- How do you protect yourself against losing key players for next to nothing?
We got £4,000 for Harry Arter which was a joke and people criticised the club and the board of directors but it has nothing to do with Woking FC or the board. It went to tribunal and you never get what you ask for. I can’t tell you what I got for Goddard but it was more than I would have got at Tribunal which would probably have been around £8,000. I rejected two offers of over £20,000 before accepting the Swindon one but it is very difficult to protect yourself from bigger clubs nicking your players.
- What are your hopes for this season?
To be competitive on our budget and have a nice cup run. If we can stay free of injuries then we always have a chance.
Photo courtesy of getsurrey.co.uk
words James Richards