Clibbens speaks...

Last updated : 17 December 2017 By Paddock Pundit

Carlisle United chief executive Nigel Clibbens denied there was a "siege mentality" at Brunton Park as he faced tough questions over the future of the club and its hierarchy's approach to communicating with fans.

The director conceded, in an interview on BBC Radio Cumbria, that he had perhaps not spoken enough to supporters through the media in recent times.

But he insisted there was "nothing to hide" about the running of the Blues and that he had an "open-door" policy.

Clibbens said he appeared on the radio, before yesterday's home defeat to Port Vale, after the station had read out letters from disillusioned fans the previous weekend.

He said he recognised there was a "clear desire" from supporters to hear more from the top of the club, "took on board" accusations he had not spoken to supporters often enough, and conceded he had "maybe fallen behind" the frequency of appearances that fans would prefer.

But he said: "There's no question of a siege mentality.

"When the club does things wrong, we need to be held to account, and I'm happy to come and address issues that fans have got."

Clibbens was pressed by commentator James Phillips about a range of subjects at United, including its ownership succession plans, its debts and financial relationship with Edinburgh Woollen Mill, supporters' matchday experience, budgets and the way United communicates with its fanbase.

On the club's future, he said the current owners were "getting too old" and they all conceded that regime change remained an "issue".

Clibbens, though, said the current loan facility provided by EWM - headed by Cumbria's richest man Philip Day - provided "comfort" to the club as they tried to improve on all fronts so as to be more attractive to potential new owners.

"The shareholders on the board accept there needs to be a change of ownership," Clibbens said. "They have tried to do that with a number of people and those failed.

"That's disappointing to everybody, and caused all kinds of angst within the club, and disquiet.

"The need hasn’t gone away. The priority from the club at the moment is to get the club in a position where it is more attractive to get people to come and be interested in the club.

"That means being better on and off the field.

"We've been successful in forming a relationship with EWM, which is giving us the time and space to do that, and security and comfort, and [is] de-risking the club financially.

"That is a big step forward, but the issue hasn’t gone away.

"In simple terms it [the club] needs new owners who fit the requirements of what good owners should be like."

Clibbens said the club is still making a "high loss" despite improved retail, ticketing and commercial income, because it has "hugely" increased its spending on the team.

He said that, without additional funds, the club could afford to spend £1.4million on the football side of the operation - but extra "football fortune" from cup ties and player sales, plus money borrowed from sources like EWM, mean that figure is currently closer to £2.5million.

It was confirmed last week that directors Andrew Jenkins, John Nixon and Lord Clark had converted loans into non-voting shares at United.

When it was put to him that the club had simply moved its debt to another source (EWM), rather than reduced it, Clibbens said: "On the amount owed to the shareholders, ever since I walked in the building everybody said that money is a barrier to new people coming in and needs to be written off, not repaid.

"That has happened. [The non-voting shares] don’t really mean anything. The audited accounts will show that money has gone away and the club has no liability any more.

"That has allowed us to spend more money than we otherwise would have been able to, without the overall debt of the club going up.

"Yes, their debt has been replaced by EWM debt. But the overall debt of the club is the same or has gone down a little bit in the last two years, despite the club racking up big losses."

Clibbens admitted that a situation where losses continued at the same rate "couldn't go on forever".

But he said there was no sign that EWM and Day would pull the plug on the loan funding they first offered the club in March.

"The discussions we've had with them [suggest] we don’t think that’s the case," Clibbens said.

The chief executive, though, admitted the fact EWM have adopted a confidential stance over their support of United, whilst also taking no day-to-day involvement in the club, was a "difficult area".

He added: "The nature of the relationship with EWM is they want to support the club, play their part in this city, see the club prosper, but they don’t at this time want to be involved directly in the club and don’t want to becoming involved in these kind of discussions - they're not comfortable with it.

"I respect that and hope fans will. I agree it's not ideal but it is where we are.

"As a club, and me as chief executive, I honestly believe it is in the best interests of the club, that this is a great option for us to be with them and to develop that relationship."

Challenged on the risk of the club relying on a firm who are not directly associated or accountable at the club, as opposed to their previous reliance on chairman and co-owner Andrew Jenkins, Clibbens said: "We've got the comfort provided by the legal agreements between [the club and EWM], so we can carry on trading, as a going concern.

"We have independent accountants who check all this. If they have concerns about our ability to keep trading, they tell us. They are comfortable with where we are. As long as we don’t breach that legal agreement, that risk doesn’t arise."

Asked, meanwhile, about a big fall in attendances over nearly 10 years of the current ownership, Clibbens began by pointing out that crowds had increased over the last two seasons.

On lower gates this campaign, though, he said: "They are slightly down, which is disappointing, but how much of that is to do with the club, and how much is to do with performances, is really difficult to say.

"The key, fundamental part is we need every single fan that we can to be on board - the club and fans to be working together and united, if we are going to have success."

Former United midfielder and News & Star columnist Chris Lumsdon then pushed Clibbens on the perception that criticism is often taken by the regime as "personal attacks" and had led to a siege mentality in the club.

Lumsdon also questioned the chief executive on issues with the "matchday experience" at Brunton Park.

Clibbens admitted that needed to improve, but said: "It's difficult in this stadium to make the changes we need to make. That's a fact. Anything we do will be tinkering around the edges.

"We do our best, with initiatives like [what we have done with] the Sunset Suite, but we appreciate it's not good enough. We are struggling to meet the expectations of fans at this time. I accept that."

On the same subject, Phillips and Lumsdon both suggested to Clibbens that club bosses were not proactive enough in seeking media publicity for such initiatives.

"Having spoken to Andy [Hall, United's media officer], I think this is an area of concern for him," Clibbens replied. "He feels we do make the calls. Maybe we don’t make enough calls and I take that one on the head."

Phillips replied that this was perhaps also an area for the club's marketing director, Phil King, who he said he had spoken to only once this season.

"Maybe it is," Clibbens said, also claiming that the club had contacted BBC Radio Cumbria seeking publicity for a ticket initiative only to be told they "couldn't come on."

Phillips said he had been unaware of such correspondence from the club.

The director, meanwhile, said that prior commitments, including a meeting with Keith Curle, meant he was unable to respond to the station's request to speak about initiatives such as an anti-racism day, and the club's pioneering role in a now EFL-wide scheme that obliges clubs to interview black and mixed-race candidates for coaching positions, over a two-day period.

Phillips asked, though, why the media had to ask for this, when the club ought to be seeking such publicity themselves.

Clibbens said: "If we've got the balance wrong and fans think they are not getting what they need from the club in that regard, I take that on the chin."

The chief executive added that there was "clear intent within the club to be more open", as displayed by the four detailed articles he had written for the official website in recent days.

Asked about the confidentiality of certain matters, which has frustrated fans - including Project Blue Yonder and the mystery "billionaire" - Clibbens said: "I would rather spend the club's money, its scarce resources, on making the club better than on legal fees that would arise from the club breaching the legal agreement in naming him [the "billionaire"] early."

On ownership, Clibbens again said none of the current owners wanted "any cash" out of any ownership change. "The next people to come in will be getting it for nothing," he said.

"No cash will be going out to the owners. There never has been. No value is going to those guys for those shares. It wasn't going to happen with any of the deals that have been on the table."

Clibbens, meanwhile, said they have asked the radio station for the contact details of a fan who had written to say that, despite watching United since the 1960s, he was now too disillusioned to return.

"The ones who feel they are disconnected, I want to speak to them," he added.

"In terms of individual fans, we have an open-door policy. My door is open all the time. I want to hear concerns so we can deal with them.

"I want to make the club better. I want us to be as together as we can be."