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3rd November 2020

It only took 10,776 days…

In the last year or two, whenever I’ve written anything about the NPL construction, I’ve often commented about how real it’s starting to become.

True, it will always be the case the more the roofs get put on, the seating gets secured, and the grass becomes ever greener.

But yesterday, the date that has taken 29.5 years in the making has got announced.

It’s really happening now.

I have to admit, it’s a surprise to find out the planned opening will be a midweek fixture, though I guess there’s a couple of reasons for that.

Firstly, it appears the club doesn’t want to pay any more to QPR than we have to. We could have shacked up at worse venues, and I’ve no doubt if test events were still allowed about a thousand of us would be there on Saturday.

We’ve spent all this time, money and effort getting home, so let’s play there as soon as we can.

Secondly, it’s obvious there’s going to be a fair amount of people outside the venue for that first game.

Your editor will be sorely tempted, certainly, and I bet many of you reading this think likewise.

An opening game in the evening will make some people stay at home, which they won’t do if it was a weekend.

It’s the sort of game that Sky would cover, simply because of what it is, so I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if it gets moved to a Thursday or something.

Yes, it’s the ultimate sods law that the first time we play at home in close to three decades, we won’t be able to see it after all.

But once we play that first game, that’s it. The circle is finally finished off.

I don’t buy this notion from elsewhere that it’s not a “home” game until fans are in the stadium. The game will happen, it will exist in the record books, and it will be us back where we belong.

True, it’s a rough break that it will be behind closed doors, but that only increases the anticipation.

I’m sure you can wait a few more months to finally see a game in the flesh, it’s knowing you’ve got something waiting for you but you’ll just have to wait for the chance to get to it.

And if anything, it will make that euphoric first game in front of a full house even more special…

It’s all if-it-all-goes-to-plan mind you, which I fully suspect it won’t. It got pointed out in an SW19 update a few months ago that there’s a potentially better opening fixture on the 14th November, against Wigan.

An international weekend, no less and something that would genuinely grab the attention. And dare I say, something less anti-climatic.

As stated above, I fully expect there’s a couple of reasons why we’re aiming for a midweeker against Donny, but maybe we could just hold off a couple more weeks?

There might be reason to expect one more delay. Joe Palmer helpfully told us what still needs to be done. I quote:

Whilst there are a number of things that need to happen before then, such as connecting the electricity, erecting the floodlights and holding a test event for a behind-closed-doors match, we have no reason to think the stadium won’t be ready to host behind-close-door matches from then onwards.

The test event will include a dry run of a behind-closed-doors match during the week following completion, when we will have all our essential backroom staff at the ground and the team will arrive as if it is getting ready to play a game.

If that all goes smoothly, then we hope to be issued our final safety certificates to stage matches behind closed doors.

So there’s a fair amount to do before we can even kick off on the 3rd November. One link in the chain that breaks can put it back another couple of weeks easily.

They’re still expecting completion on your editor’s birthday, I see. That’s about twenty six days time, at the moment I type this.

Actually, if we’re aiming to play ASAP being behind-closed-doors might help us, because there’s a fair bit more to do than just fit out the hospitality suites:

The rail seating won’t be installed until early December. This was held up by the FSIF approval process as we were unwilling to risk placing an order until we knew that our grants would not be compromised by safe standing.

So, we’re agreeing a handover date in December with Buckingham, our contractor.

There will be various other bits and pieces to be completed by then, including finalising the utility connections, and testing and commissioning activities and some minor decorations

Rail seating is something that is genuinely going to enthuse a lot of people, so for the sake of another month we might as well get it in.

Other than that, it’s all the tidying-up/bits-and-pieces stuff that inevitably takes longer than you expect.

There’s more:

The perimeter wall behind the east and north stands is going to be erected over the coming months.

The design of the wall has been the subject of some negotiation with our neighbours, as we need to get it right for the phase one stadium we are building now, rather than the eventual 20,000 stadium.

The wall should be finished by the spring, and we’ll be negotiating arrangements with the relevant authorities so that we can accommodate fans (when permitted) even if it isn’t finished.

I have wondered what happens with the wall that separates the ground from the north/south street. Again, if crowds were back – what would we have to do while it’s being built?

The next bit is quite interesting:

We’re intending to install a 5-a-side pitch in the north-west corner. That will be carried out as a separate project over the coming months. This will be funded from grants, so isn’t adding to the financial pressures on the project.

Isn’t that where the car parking for the stadium was going to be? I suppose if that’s no longer going to be an issue, and we can make some extra dough on the side, it makes sense to put something there.

It will be popular, if nothing else. Hell, you only had to look at how often the one at KM was used.

With this still needing to be done, one wonders if the opening date has been brought forward because fans can’t return right now.

Which would be some irony, if nothing else.

The whole when-will-supporters-return thing is a bit intriguing from the club:

There have even been dark murmurings that we might not see fans at football until next March, although I can assure you there is a lot of activity going on behind the scenes.

Pressure is being continuously applied on behalf of Football League and National League clubs, with local MPs up-and-down the country lobbying the government to ease Covid regulations.

While everyone’s number one priority is safety, there is a powerful argument for a more pragmatic approach to live, open-air sport – and a real push to see fans back before Christmas.

There’s a lot of lobbying behind the scenes right now, especially from EPL clubs. We’re starting to get pushes for things like pooled testing and quick swab tests because more and more people realise we can’t keep locking down everyone forever.

Even if that’s what the medical types want.

A 20-minute swab test on the day you plan to go to a game would help get some crowds back – if you can get in 3000 people who have all tested negative that day, why deny them entry (and the clubs much-needed dough)?

Speaking of income, the plan for the New Sportsman/Batsford Arms to open seems to be coming along, and let’s face it – with the amount some of our boozehounds will consume in there we’d pay off all debt within a month.

You can read the rest of what our CEO said yourself, but the most important thing is that there’s the first stadium-related date in about thirty years that means something.

We may not yet get to play at home on the 3rd November 2020 after all, but we’ll be damn close to it.

Of course, just like there will be the post-Covid world, there will be the era after Plough Lane opens.

Once the euphoria dies down, and normality resumes, the next stage of AFCW’s development begins.

This week, Imperial College Business School released their findings of a consultation they did with the club about our future direction.

If you can wade through some of the management-speak, it’s basically confirming what a lot of us have known for some years – this club needs a new sense of direction and an overhaul.

A big one at that.

That AFCW itself recognises that the way we do things is no longer sustainable is a good thing.

Too many times in recent years, it’s given the impression that there’s nothing that needs radical change.

After all, we’ve done all right for the first eighteen years, so why change it for the next eighteen?

Having “outsiders” telling the club that it doesn’t have much of a focus beyond NPL, that its organisation is inefficient and that there’s too many people on a part-time basis running the place should now act as a catalyst for proper, meaningful change.

For as long as I can remember, there’s been talk about “change” but it’s never been exactly forthcoming.

With all due respect to those who work in the Civil Service, too often we look like something from the Department of Administrative Affairs rather than a L1 club.

Imperial College picked up on a couple of things, like the CEO effectively making all the decisions.

That’s clearly a hangover from the days of Erik Samuelson being in charge, and that’s something we can certainly bulldoze.

I’m not sure who they were referring to by the “vested interests” comment, probably who many wouldn’t expect, but at least IC aren’t pussyfooting around.

I bet some reading “Not all possess the adequate requirements or skills for their positions” may have felt a bit uncomfortable too.

This is always one of the major negatives about volunteerism, especially at a place where it often replaces full-time positions : you rely on those wanting to help, and you’re lucky if they’re good at something you need doing.

The club may not have been able to afford paid positions with the right people in the past. Now, it can’t afford not to.

All in all, those in charge have been told that they have to change things, by people who don’t have an axe to grind**.

** – though I believe those who have made similar comments to IC over the years are certainly not those with a grudge – they’ve only ever wanted the best for their club.

While I do believe there’s an appetite for major change now, anyone still trying to resist it has run out of excuses.

The focus on getting Plough Lane done is finally nearing the finishing line, so that can no longer be a distraction.

A number of people currently involved will be looking to step down sooner rather than later, and we simply cannot expect others to effectively work full time on a volunteer basis.

Being in the middle of Covidageddon doesn’t make things easier, and if anything it means we have to be more robust and organised.

And unlike the previous eighteen years, we now have a sizeable loan/debt to get on top of, and failing to do so will be genuinely damaging.

What is ultimately decided remains to be seen, but it will be hard to justify tinkering around the edges – it’s basically got to be as deep-cleansing as IC suggest.

The club itself asked them to look at us, and we’re effectively obliged to act. Many will point fingers if we don’t, and AFCW will be struggling for answers why.

There won’t be a better time for a new start and a new structure, and I do think there’s more willpower to change these days.

As often said on SW19, AFCW changes forever once we play our first game back home, and that’s more apparent than ever before.

Or to put it another way – if our first game back is on the 3rd November, the hard work starts on the 4th…

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