Thomas Sandgaard joined CAST members on Thursday evening for a Q&A session via Zoom webinar. This is how it went:
Heather McKinlay (HM) thanked Thomas (TS) for joining and introduced Sam Cooke (SC) Heather Alderson (HA) and Richard Wiseman (RW). She explained that we had had some questions in advance, but invited people to ask questions in the Q&A, too.
Bob Miller: Thomas, every Charlton supporter I know was absolutely thrilled when you assumed the reins at the club. A year or so ago, you suggested that a five-year plan was being put in place. In view of the currently struggling and often mediocre play at the club, where does this plan stand at the moment?
TS thanked those who had joined the call. “I am still as ambitious as I was before I bought the club.” He said that it still remained his goal. “We’ve definitely gotten out of the starting blocks slower than I thought.” He said that even with a squad that was put together very quickly before the start of the season, we had been able to produce pretty good results, and he had hoped that would carry through. He talked about the fantastic run we had gone on under Johnnie Jackson. “For sure we won’t get promoted this year.” He said that he was already working on improving the team and the infrastructure, which will help us become statistically more likely to win games. He said that his goal was still the same, and he’d still be doing what it takes to get there.
“I should probably also add that there’s sort of a limit as to how much money I can throw at buying the best players in Europe.” TS said that there’s a salary cap, but also that we have to be realistic about being a League One team, and who we can attract. He said that we need to be smarter and more diligent, so that we can be ready for future progress.
HM said it was good to hear that we’re still ambitious. She said that some other questions had come in about investments, and quoted the figure of £8m of losses TS had said on BBC Radio London he expected to make. She asked whether there was a limit on the amount of money TS would be able to invest in the club.
TS said he had been very fortunate with the business he had built in the US, and that there wouldn’t be a limit as to how much money he has available to invest in the club. He said that was the good news. It is also a business, though, and he said he wants to get closer to a position where the club is breaking even as soon as possible. He said there are questions about why it was sold to Roland, and why Roland was able to sell it for £1. He said that the club, before Roland, had had an operating loss of £100m, and that he was definitely not going to run the club like that. “Whatever those people did was over the top and irresponsible.” We’re definitely not going to be another Derby.
TS said that Roland came in with a different business strategy, namely to cut costs and not be very present, which included making decisions on the footballing side that were “maybe not very good”. He said that as an employee or a footballer, Charlton was not a great place to be, so Roland’s strategy hadn’t worked either.
He explained that he had increased spending on the playing squad by more than £1m from last season to this season, and said that he is going to continue to do that. TS also said that he is investing a lot of money in the academy, which he said he believes is a good investment, whether the players play for Charlton or are sold to bigger clubs.
TS continued that work is being done on infrastructure, which he said is a bigger struggle than the football side. “The fanbase we have, the dedication, the size of the fanbase we have is there to fill the stadium every time. We’re not creating enough revenue on the business side.”
HM picked up on the £100m operating loss figure, which she said was being questioned among fans on the basis that that doesn’t include any player trading figures, which so much of football finance is about. When the club was sold to Jimenez and Kevin Cash, there was very little debt on the club at that point, perhaps £7m, and they sold onto Roland. By the time Roland completed his tenure, there was debt of £75m in the club.
TS said that in terms of the debt, it wasn’t reflective of some of the losses. There were very loyal Charlton supporters who had put money into the club, and later foregoing their loans in order to show their support to the club. “I’m not so stupid I cannot read numbers. I know math. We don’t need to discuss that.”
HM asked whether TS had any role model clubs.
TS said that that split into two categories: clubs like Gillingham and Oxford which have low operating costs, but don’t have the ability to make much revenue; and clubs like Brentford which had focused on player development. He said that Charlton are starting to bring in individual coaches to help players break through with their careers. He said that Brentford didn’t really have an academy, and that he is doing the opposite because “we have an amazing foundation with one of the best academies in the country”. TS continued that he was continuing to develop the player side and focus on buying and seller in a better way than we have done in the past. In terms of being financially prudent, we can’t be like Gillingham, because we have a huge fanbase which we can mobilise. “Hopefully long term we’ll make a profit due to smart player trades.”
SC picked up some questions from the floor. One from James Maddison, which many others had asked, was about Johnnie Jackson and his future.
TS said that it was an important question for a lot of people, and that he had been very keen to get Johnnie on board immediately. “He really made a difference and had a great run to begin with.” He explained that an initial contract of a year and a half had initially been agreed, with an option to extend for another year. He said that there are a few trigger points, including in relation to a lower severance payment if he leaves in the summer. “It was very expensive to say goodbye to Nigel.” TS continued that if everything works well, Johnnie will be here for two-and-a-half years to start with, and we will want to keep him there if so. He explained that JJ has a lot of incentive and other bonuses in his contract. “It’s a very attractive contract for Johnnie with a lot of upsides.” “He’s well-spoken, nice to work with, a really pleasant person, and he has a charisma that really represents the club well, so that we can be really proud of having him as our spokesperson.”
SC asked about whether TS had considered bringing Alan Curbishley in in a bigger capacity.
TS said that Curbs is doing a fantastic job as a commentator, and he was an excellent choice when Charlton TV was being built. He said he had come to know Curbs quite well over the past year, and that he offers a wealth of knowledge. “His strengths from being a head coach back in the day were clear on the man-management side. He has a really good approach to things in a way you would compare to Sir Alex Ferguson. He’s got some great qualities, and the more I get to know him, the more I think that had to do with his success back in the day.” In terms of bringing him in on the football side, TS said he hadn’t had any conversations with Curbs about that. He said he viewed him more as an informal advisor, and didn’t get the feeling that Curbs wanted to get back into management, but they hadn’t really talked about it. TS said that he always enjoys talking to Curbs, Browny and Scott Minto.
Aliwibble asked: As the club are soon to lose two staff with more than 50 years' combined experience, institutional knowledge and cultivated relationships within the wider football world, the absence of a dedicated CEO with experience of English football becomes even more glaring. Why it is you don't feel it is necessary to appoint one?
TS said that a lot of things need to get straightened out. Mick’s resignation was purely for medical reasons, and he has to drive a lot to get to work, so it was only a matter of time. He said that we’ve had someone in the groundsman team who has struggled medically for a while and recently handed in his resignation. Chris Parkes has retired, and the club is in the middle of recruiting for that position. He said that he’s really sad about Mick and Nathan leaving us, because they are really dedicated people. Chris Parkes isn’t leaving us, but is becoming more of an ambassador. TS said that there are many things around the club that need to be turned around. “I feel that, with my business experience, I wouldn’t want to leave that to someone.” He said that, when we hire a CEO, he doesn’t think it would be someone with football experience, or, if it is, it would be marginal. “I want this to be run like a real business, and it’s my job to make sure that we do that.” He said that, down the line, we might need a local CEO to catch “some of the weirdness, some of the old bad habits around the club, more than I can do working remotely”. TS said he is very confident about his own abilities and understanding of football. He said he gets a lot of criticism for not having come into football the traditional way, but “that doesn’t mean I don’t get it”.
HM asked whether a local CEO is something TS is currently looking at. “I’m softly having conversations about it to find the right person. It’s too important a job to give it to anyone other than the right person.” He said it doesn’t matter whether that takes six months or two years, and it’s not something he’s rushing. “It’s part of rebuilding the club. Of course it is.”
Sarah Monahan asked about the players who are going to be out of contract at the end of the season.
TS said that we started with players who were almost all out of contract at the end of the season. Lots of the players he brought in were on short-term contracts or on loan. He said that we made a few improvements in January, namely Jaiyesimi and Stockley. He said that this summer we were finally ready with the recruiting system they had been worked on. “We got into it very late, and I got into some very heated conversations with Nigel Adkins.” He said that it is very important to him that the club is in the driving seat when it comes to negotiations, and not agents. TS mentioned Sam Lavelle and Corey Blackett-Taylor, along with Leko. He talked about the decision to bring Chuks Aneke back, despite his inability to consistently play 90 minutes, because of his goal-scoring record and impact. He said that that was the best we could do on the striker side in that window. “To me, it was still so important that we got someone in who could give us that firepower.”
HA asked how he expects it to pan out for next season. TS said that the club is trying to be more consistent in getting good football players rather than just those who are good at getting the long balls. He said that we will continue to build a squad that could do well at Championship level. TS said that we made some improvements in the midfield, but he’s looking to make more. He said that that will always be his key focus. He said that if George Dobson had better players around him, he could play at Premier League level. “I’m going to focus a lot on the attacking midfielder, and also players who can get the ball up.” TS also mentioned Ryan Innis being out with injuries, and that we need to make improvements at the back. He said that there will be a minimum of a couple of players who will give us a significant boost.
John Edge and Pat Taylor asked whether it is unrealistic for our academy players to have a decent number of games for us before we sell them. HA identified Mason Burstow in particular. TS said that he hoped we could continue to develop players who can make a real impact in the first team. He said that there are games where we see what the academy players can do, and that those players are taking part in 11 v 11 internal training games, so that when those players do get a chance, they’re already performing at the same level. TS said he also hopes that, when the academy gets Category 1 status, the talent will be increasing, so that the U23s, who are performing really well, will be even better. “It’s a very high priority for me. We need to give them as many chances as possible.” TS said that it’s a fine balance.
As far as Mason Burstow is concerned, TS said that he hadn’t been at the club for very long. “I know that that guy has been scouted for a long time before he even got a chance in the first team, and I remember already when he got his first few minutes having a chat with the people from Chelsea.” TS said that the negotiation was slow, and eventually a couple of other clubs started scouting him and talking actual money. He mentioned wanting a good sell-on clause, and said that everything fell into place in terms of the money. “I still think he has a very long way to go to get to the highest level, but he’s got the potential.”
HA asked about whether TS can unpack for supporters the different staff play in the recruitment process, and what difference we should see from Martin Sandgaard’s involvement. TS said that Martin isn’t known to a lot of people, save that he’s gotten to know everyone at the training ground. “I’ve known him for quite a few years. He managed about 80 people on our production side here, and he has done that well.” TS said that he is really good with data and building systems, and that’s very useful in football where you’re tracking 12,000 players. He said that Scott Fraser is a good example of that. He said he had been forgotten after he came to Ipswich, and they used him wrong, so there wasn’t that much competition for him. TS said that Martin’s analysis showed that he was exactly what we needed. TS said that Steve Gallen’s main skill is negotiating, and a combination of Steve and Martin is “amazing”. He said that Johnnie has an input, and that everyone is working towards making sure we’re developing a more consistent playing style.
TS said that Martin’s system is part of the recruitment process, but you still need to watch the videos and get into the car and see players physically. He said that he watches the videos, because it’s important to him to see the players that are being looked at. TS said that Martin uses statistics to pick the players up, and then has a list for each position, so that we don’t waste time and can be focused on negotiating.
HA asked whether the players know their statistics. TS said he’s sure they know some of them, and that some of them go up on the chalkboard at the training ground. He said that we have a lot of data. “We will be working a lot on that going forward, and that will be part of the area we call individual coaching, where each player will have just a few things they need to improve on to improve their overall game.” He said that the club will be bringing in more data analysts to support that aim.
SC said that there have been a few questions about keeping players fit and asked whether TS could shed some light on why there are so many injuries. TS said that even before he got involved, there have been problems with injuries. He said that there was a change in the physio department shortly after the season started, and it has gotten even better. TS continued that the club is looking at training, and whether changes need to be made there so that we have a squad that can hold up better. “I think we will have more intensity in our training.” He said that, having looked at it for a long time, resting players more doesn’t work, and we need more intensity. TS mentioned Mason Burstow, who should be able to run for 90 minutes, but is cramping up after 80 minutes, which is a result of how we train, and shouldn’t be the case. TS said that it won’t improve overnight, but it’s something he is working on.
Sasha asked: how many players do you realistically expect to sign this summer?
TS said there are some who won’t be re-signed, and some who will be loaned out. He said that others whose contracts are running out are starting the negotiation process. He said he would expect to make somewhere between two and four major signings, maybe five. He said that he would expect to make that up with fairly inexpensive but good quality loan players, which gives us a chance to reshuffle a little bit. “It might be that one of those major signings is a very experienced player, and the rest are prospects for the future on three- or four-year contracts”
HA said that there had been a few questions on ticketing and the issue of filling the Valley. The first one is the idea of ‘Fill the Valley’, which many supporters have given support to. Given there have been some negative experiences, HA asked TS to outline his strategy for filling the Valley.
TS said it comes back to his strategy for the business side, which is to increase revenues. “I have a strong belief that we can increase sponsorship revenues and ticket sales, get more food and drink sales, and increase hospitality sales.” He said that he is willing to make the investment in not necessarily seeing bigger short-term revenues, but first and foremost getting every seat filled. He said that if a sponsor sees a full stadium, it’s more likely they’ll be willing to get involved. “That’s where it all starts.” TS said he has tested a number of things, including things we may not have noticed, and some have worked and others haven’t. He said people have been handing out tickets at events at the O2, but hardly any of those were used. TS said that giving season ticket holders the ability to bring three friends was initially very popular but dropped off. He also mentioned initiatives with grassroots football clubs and schools in the area, which he said has some momentum. TS also mentioned an initiative with the University of Greenwich, but said there seemed to be absolutely no interest there in them coming to football games. TS said the club is using consultants on this. “I’m not letting up until that stadium is full. Period.”
HA said that a question had come in from Richard Clarkson, who tried to buy tickets so that people could sit together, wasn’t able to, watched in on Quest, and saw a half-empty stadium. TS said that he wanted to apologise for that. That was very embarrassing. “Can we really not figure that one out?” He said that was something that got a lot of attention internally and has now been fixed. “It should not be like that. I apologise for that.”
Related to that, HA said that people are questioning the value for money with their season tickets due to the free tickets available. She asked what TS’s strategy for season tickets is for next season. TS said he intends to put a good effort into ensuring the club has as many season ticket holders as possible. We have a little over 10,000 season ticket holders at the moment, and TS wants to continue to build on that figure. “That’s the basis of how we grow our club. We want to make sure that they get as much attention as possible, and we serve them as well as we possibly can.” TS said that, in parallel with that, we need to bring more people into the stadium, which might include people who have never seen a football game before, or never seen a Charlton game before. He mentioned that we have never really extended our reach beyond Greenwich, which we need to do, because there are fans all over London, and all over England. TS said that South London will get a lot more attention.
HA said that many supporters are appreciative of TS apologising. She asked whether it will be worth buying a season ticket, as opposed to waiting for freebies. TS said it definitely would. Tony asked what plans there are to improve the matchday experience. TS said that there is a long list of things that are being improved. Boxes are being upgraded. The mascots will be much more involved, so there will be experiences around that. Even though nothing is finalised yet, TS said he wants the players to be more involved, and It’s important that fans have more access to the players. “It’s part of what I’m paying them for.” TS said that, in general, there needs to be better interaction and communication between the fans and the club. TS also said that there are plans to increase the international fanbase. He said that there will be a new store, because we have a new sponsor for the strips, which he thinks will be a much better experience, along with a much wider range.
HA asked whether TS could give us any hints on the products that will be available. TS said there will be so much more to choose from. There will be four or five times more items. He said he expects there to be more modern clothing that young people expect to find in a club store. He said that that will be a much better experience. TS said that he is also working hard on the food and delivery of the food at half time. He said that there have been small increases in revenues per fan in the stadium, but the main component is having large numbers of fans in the stadium, which we haven’t seen. “With better service and a better offering, I also hope we can increase what people consume when they’re in the ground, instead of getting the beers in and nothing else.” He said he hoped people had noticed improvements, but he has higher ambitions.
HA picked back up on the player interactions. TS said he’s looking at a structured process for signatures and meeting players, and a system that the players know. He said it’s a big part of the experience. “I want the overall experience, from when someone leaves home to when they get back, to be as great as it can be.”
HM asked if TS wants to talk about the academy and the plans for Category 1 status, as well as ownership of the Valley and Sparrows Lane. TS said that ownership of the stadium and training ground remain current. “We are in very active talks with Roland about those assets.” He said that he would much prefer to own those assets. “That’s important to me.” He said he is still making investments at the Valley, including to the pitch, and that any improvements are at his expense. TS continued that there are huge improvements being made at the training ground, which he hopes will last for many years to come. As far as Category 1, the costs have come down from £5-8m to £2m. He said that that is what he’s investing in getting the academy to Category 1 status. TS said that he has bought some fantastic buildings from a Premier League club which we are getting ready to move into, and the academy will then move into the old brick building, which is an obligatory element of Category 1 status. TS said that, as of yesterday, the buildings are pretty much ready on the inside, with another couple arriving in the next week. He said that in the next two months there will be an audit, which will form the basis of how our Category 1 application goes. “Will that be by the end of the season, or in six months? That’s hard to say.”
Rebecca asked what the aim is for the Charlton Athletic Women’s team. TS said he will be pushing for promotion. He said that the women’s leagues have evolved tremendously over the past few years, and it’s hard that only one team gets promoted. He said that we need a pyramid, so that you have a real chance of promotion, and a real risk of relegation. Two teams getting promoted to the Women’s Super League would be the right thing to do.
Tom and Rosh asked whether TS has considered some friendly investors to share the load. TS said that he had not at this time, and that it’s probably not necessary. One possibility is a potential acquisition of the Valley and the training ground, but it might make more business sense to have some friendly real estate investors. He said that it might also be that we end up in “that weird place in the Championship where it would take a long time and a lot of money to get into the Premier League”. He said that he thinks he can avoid that by “just being smarter about how we run this business.”
Mike asked what went wrong in last summer’s transfer window. TS said that one of two agents “really managed to screw up two main targets for us”. He said that “when you literally have a deal in place and you see them being shopped around other clubs, that’s very frustrating.” TS said that, other than that, he thinks we got a good start on building the club we want for the future. We brought in several young, hungry players who will continue to improve. “I don’t think we got a whole lot wrong. We missed out on a few opportunities. Realistically, you should probably expect that, but I’m very competitive.”
Alan asked how we will meet TS’s ambition of a top-two finish. He said that he hoped to have a healthier and physically stronger team than we’ve seen in the last two, three or four seasons, and that individual player coaches will play a key role. He said that the club hasn’t yet booked the pre-season tour.
SC asked how realistic it is to get to a break-even point in League One. TS said that Charlton has a unique feature, which is the Valley, and that a full stadium will be the biggest component in at least getting close to a break-even point. “There’s a lot that needs to be turned around in the first team.” He said that having longer-term contracts and doing better on player trades will help on the bottom line, but that revenue is the number one focus.
HM asked what the score is going to be on Saturday, and whether we’re going to get back to winning ways. TS said he knows we all want him to be optimistic. “You consider the latest run, the amount of injuries we have, though we do have Stockley back and should get a few minutes out of Scott Fraser, so it doesn’t look as bleak as it has.” TS said he thinks we’ll win narrowly or draw, because Sunderland are on a good run and it’ll be a tough game. “We need to turn this around. Let’s say we’ll win 2-1.”
HA asked when we are going to see both the women’s and the men’s team play at the Valley. TS said that he’s been working today on scheduling a game in late April or early May, and potentially combining an U23 game with a women’s game at the Valley. He said that if we can make it a combined experience with very little time between the two, it’ll be even more exciting for fans.
HM thanked TS for giving us his time and facing up to a variety of questions, and thanked members for joining us. She said that we would like to make this a more regular event, and TS said that the more we can talk about what we’re doing right and wrong, and what we’re learning, so much the better. TS said he’s been “at least as frustrated as anyone else. We all love football, but we all love winning.”
HM mentioned, finally, that we are coming up to the second anniversary of Seb Lewis’s death. CAST has arranged for the funds left over from the memorial plus some general CAST reserves to be used to subsidise the away coach travel to Doncaster, with 200 tickets for the coach costing £5.
We are very grateful to Lauren Kreamer for this thorough and timely report.