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|DAVE ALLAN INTERVIEW 23-12-05
Dave Allan is Middlesbrough Football Club's Media and Communications manager, a position that he has held since 1997.
Dave leads a department responsible for all communications with the club's supporters and the general public, liaison with the media and publications and the production of Boro's award winning matchday programme, Red Square.
A lifelong Boro fan, he formerly worked within ICI's internal communications team and won several industrial journalism awards.
Dave is the author of several Boro books, including Doom to Boom, The Boro Alphabet, Yer Jokin' Aren't Yer!, Who's that Team They Call the Boro? and the recently published Riverside X.
Dave very kindly took time out from his busy schedule to take part in a question and answer session with ComeOnBoro.com. For the second part of the interview, some of our regular readers have posed questions to Dave concerning current off the field talking points.
COB: As a lifelong Boro fan, could your current role be described as your dream job?
DA: I'm sure I can speak for most MFC staff who are Boro fans - and that's the majority of them - by saying that it's fantastic to work for the football club you support. I'm in the fortunate position of being able to combine my love for Boro with my work.
Dream job? When things are going well, definitely. But when we've just lost, I'm as gutted as any fan and there have been occasions when I'd much rather have gone home like everyone else, instead of having to liaise between the press, players and coaching staff regarding post-match interviews. You've got to be professional about it, but it's hard when you're disappointed or angry.
COB: What was your first ever Boro game?
DA: I was a relatively late starter as a fan and didn't go to my first match until I was 11. My Dad took me to Willie Maddren's testimonial, a 5-5 draw between Boro and Scotland's 1978 World Cup squad. I seem to remember Billy Ashcroft scored a hat-trick, though I'm not sure he ever did that again. I was hooked from then on in.
Before that, I remember crying with frustration that my older sister wouldn't take me with her when she set off for our FA Cup quarter-final with Orient.
COB: Who is the best Boro player you've ever seen?
DA: It's got to be Juninho during his first spell with us. He was out of this world at times during the 1996-97 season. Of course, we all forget the games when he was anonymous, but his tricks and runs were a sight to behold when he was on fire. But I was a big fan of Craig Johnston's and David Armstrong's when I was a kid, and then there was Bernie Slaven, of course!
COB: You are the author of several excellent Boro books. Do you write them as part of your job or are they 'side projects'? Which book did you enjoy writing most?
DA: A bit of both. Book publishing wasn't something Boro had ever taken on until the Riverside era, but I felt it was an area we could develop and it's generally gone very well, though some books have naturally sold more than others.
The football club itself has published books like Doom to Boom, Boro's Best, The Boro Bible, Who's That Team They Call the Boro, Riverside X and diaries like Alan Miller's and Mark Schwarzer's. Those are written in-house by members of the Media Department as part of their job.
I'm part of the team that pulls them together, along with Graham Bell and Richard Mulligan. Our website guys, Mike McGeary and Gordon Cox, helped out with Riverside X, while in the past the likes of Adrian Bevington, Mark Hooper (both now with the FA), Martin Walker (now Sunderland FC) and Chris Kershaw have been involved.
Other books I've done in my own time. It started when I was ghost-writer for Bernie Slaven's first autobiography, Strikingly Different, and it was great to work with Bernie again on Legend? Bernie told me that he wanted to put a DVD together of all of his goals because he wanted to raise money for a local charity, but he was struggling to compile the goals. I suggested that an update of his book would probably sell, so we went for it.
It was a fantastic gesture by Bernie, because the book sales have raised over �20,000 for the Ann Charlton Lodge, but Alastair Brownlee deserves a lot of credit too because it couldn't have been done without his help. He sorted out all of the financial side and got the books into the shops, leaving me to the writing and dealing with the printing and design.
Combined with the update of Willie and Hilary Maddren's book, Extra Time - The Final Chapter, I hardly had a night off for six months, working until 2 o'clock in the morning, but it's great to see the finished products and even better when you know they are selling. It was an honour to work with Willie when he was so ill. He was always so welcoming, despite his obvious difficulties and troubles.
COB: How much work went into the production of the latest book, the superb 'Riverside X'?
DA: It's a lot of work - and we always forget just how much when making the decision to tackle another! First of all, I had to decide whether it was a book that would have sufficient demand, becuase there's little point in bringing out a product that loses money. Thankfully, sales so far suggest it has been popular.
We pulled together the team who would write it and discussed ideas for the different features and who would do what. We gave the job of designing and printing it to Hillprint, who also do our matchday programme, and they carried out a superb job. It took a few months to get done - with all the interviewing, research, writing, compiling the stats, picture research, editing and proof-reading. I think we all enjoyed doing our bit and hopefully enough fans will think the hard work was worthwhile.
COB: There have been times, most notably in the Ravanelli, Emerson and Juninho era, when certain southern based publications appeared to be very against us and wanted us to fail. Do you enjoy a good relationship with the national press?
DA: We value our relationship with all members of the media - but that doesn't mean to say we always see eye to eye, either with the national or local press. We're on different sides of the fence and are approaching the club from different perspectives and with different agendas, so it would be unrealistic to believe we will always agree on everything that is written and said about the club.
During the era you mention, when Robbo was in charge, we were the target of some criticism, but we were also a massive news story too - in fact, our profile was probably bigger then than any time before or since. But it was crazy at times too.
What Steve McClaren has brought is more stability and he has brought an end to the majority of the more shocking stories. I moved up to Rockliffe to work closely with the manager when Steve was appointed, as I didn't have the same remit under Bryan. What we've tried to do is ensure we give an image of a very professional football set-up and I think the press gives due praise for that. And it's not often you'll read about a Boro player criticising the club nowadays.
We've got some real friends in the national media, but they've got a job to do and that does sometimes involve saying things we might prefer they didn't.
COB: And the local press as well.
DA: I think I've got a great working relationship with the Gazette lads, especially the likes of Eric Paylor and Phil Tallentire. They are often caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, as the fans might expect them to be very critical but they also know they don't want to go too far to the point where it affects their relationship with the football club or individuals. After all, Boro sell papers, so they know they need a good relationship with us.
We've also got close ties with the likes of Century, BBC Radio Cleveland and The Northern Echo, while we've got our own in-house media too, in the way of the club website and matchday programme.
COB: At this stage in the season do you think that 20 points from 17 games is enough?
DA: No, it's disappointing. Steve McClaren has said that - so have the players and so too did Steve Gibson when he did the phone-in on Century. I honestly thought we would challenge for a top five place this season, but that's looking tough right now.
COB: The January transfer window opens soon. Are there any potential signings that you are able to talk about?
DA: It's a fact that the manager would like to bring in a player or two in January but it's not in the club's interests to name names at present. I'm sure fans will understand that it doesn't make sense to let other clubs know at what stage we are in trying to sign certain players or who exactly we intend to go for. We would prefer to keep it all quiet until the player is signed but that's often impossible as agents have their own agendas, as do the selling clubs.
COB: What do you think are the factors that have contributed most to the team's inconsistent league form this season? Are we going all out to win a cup this season? Also, what league position would the management team be happy with at the end of the season?
DA: Personally, I think we've really missed Stewart Downing - and Zenden too. That left hand side, with those two and Queudrue, was a major strength last season. But the defence has struggled as well, so I'm sure the manager will be looking closely at what needs to be done there.
I know Steve does want to do well in the cups - and he is furious about what happened against Blackburn. There's still a long way to go in the Uefa and FA Cups but I think the teams he puts out will prove he is serious about them. I think they would be happy with top six or seven.
COB: As a lifelong Boro fan, what do you personally think of the team's performances and results so far this season?
DA: Probably the same as every other Boro fan. There's been some great performances - like Manchester United and away at Birmingham - but then there's been the home games against Sunderland, Chalton and now Blackburn. We're not doing as well as I thought we would, but hopefully we can turn it around.
COB: What do you feel is your biggest achievement in your role of Media and Communications manager?
DA: Well, I'm proud that we've kept up such a good relationship with the press at a time when our own in-house communications have developed beyond all recognition, with the club website, the stadium TV and now the electronic messageboard, plus our close relationship with Century and Radio Cleveland.
The matchday programme is now established as one of the best, if not the best, around. Despite its demise following NTL's decision to pull all funding, Boro TV was a proud first in that no other club had its own TV channel at the time, while I was proud to get Red Roar/Riverside Roar magazine up and running some years ago (and I'd love to get it back on the shelves), while the book publishing side of things has been good too - we were the first football club to have our own publishing arm.
And I was pleased to be so involved in recognising our past in a very visible way - getting memorabilia on display, the old Boro and international shirts, the international honours board, Richard Piers Rayner's superb artwork, getting all of the kiosks and bars named after Boro stars, along with the Legends banners outside the stadium. We're also still on with improving all of the concourses by erecting great Boro pictures up on the otherwise drab walls.
Harry Haverton: We know that it is imposssible to please all of the people all of the time but is it possible to do more for the ex-pat fans? One of the ComeOnBoro writers travelled to every single away game last season bar one and come the Manchester City game, he could not get a ticket. He wasn't a season ticket holder then as he didn't live on Teesside at the time but surely dedication like that should entitle him to the similar priveleges as the season ticket holders?
DA: It's a difficult one, Harry. Personally, I have some sympathy for your view but we've made a commitment to our season ticket holders, that they will get priority over all others - and the longer you're a season ticket holder the bigger your priority. What would long-serving season ticket holders say if they start missing out on games they want to attend because we've given priority to someone who has beento all the away games rather than the home games?
But we do now have an ability to record information about fans who buy tickets on a match by match basis and I think some sort of points system will come. Whether that gives them a priority over season ticket holders, however, I would very much doubt. Ultimately, the football club needs money to sustain it's current level - and much of that money comes from our season ticket holders. It makes sense to reward and incentivise them.
Natalie Morrell: Middlesbrough Football Club has come in for some harsh criticism for it's relationship with the fans in the recent past, most notably with the Alkmaar tickets situation. What, if any, measures are you taking to combat this negative image that appears to have developed as a result of Alkmar?
Still on the subject of the Alkmaar tickets. I was one of the many disappointed fans who went over to Holland without a ticket after booking my travel early as the travel companies always increase the prices as the game approaches. Do you think that the situation with the Alkmaar tickets will occur again this season, i.e. only the fans who travel with the club will be able to purchase a ticket?
DA: The club did come in for a lot of criticism, Natalie, but in my view it was unfair. For whatever reason, some fans believed there was some kind of conspiracy afoot between the football club and police in both England and Holland. But the truth was far simpler, even though it was frustrating for our fans.
Due to problems that occurred during Rangers' visit to Alkmaar last season and the small ticket allocation we received, the Dutch Police wanted us to only sell tickets to fans travelling on the official flights. We always knew that was tough, but if we had ignored their advice and there had then been trouble we would not have had a leg to stand on. Even a couple of weeks before the game, we again asked if we could put on general sale any tickets not taken up as part of the joint travel package, but a message from the Mayor of Alkmaar - who was in charge of the police there - made it absolutely clear that if we didn't sell all of our tickets then we should return them to AZ.
This situation had never previously arisen and I would be surprised if it arose again this season. Hopefully, it never will but no-one can promise that because it's out of our hands. In terms of combating the negative image, I think the best thing we can do is continue to do what we believe to be the right thing for the majority of our supporters, while trying to take the club forward. It's a delicate balancing act and I am looking to start an open two-way dialogue with fans to get more feedback from them on the key issues that affect the supporters.
Micky Boro: I pay to go to most home fixtures and would like to take my family to more matches but simply can't afford it. Is there anything the club can do to provide an affordable family package? We seem to have problems filling the north and south ends of the east stand. Could the club not make these seats available at heavy discounts for family supporters? This has got to be good for the club now and in the long term, it will help fill the ground (bringing in more ticket and merchandise revenue) and attract more youngsters to the matches who will be the future support of our club.
DA: I think attracting young fans is key, but I don't have decision-making power on ticket prices, Micky. I think our season ticket prices are competitive in terms of the Premier League and we have introduced schemes like cheaper season tickets for under-9's and 16-21 year olds that most clubs don't have. We're always looking at how to attract more fans and the fact that attendances are down this season obviously focuses attention. Our average attendances had been on the up for three or four years until this season, of course, which suggests fans were happy on the whole, but there's a clear fall-off this season.
Graham Frankland: What plans do the club have in hand to deal with the current problem of a half empty stadium in non Premier league games. Also, what do you attribute this problem to?
DA: The reasons for the problem are probably many fold - and different depending on who you speak to. Pricing is obviously a factor and we have to look at that, but it's not the only one. We have introduced schemes designed to attract particularly our younger fans but it hasn't been a total success.
The amount of football being screened on live TV - in general, but Boro too this season - certainly doesn't help. You can now spend most of your weekend watching one live game after another. There's a feeling that it has gone as far as it can go.
But then there's factors like the buzz seems to have gone in terms of seeing Boro play in Europe. Many fans just don't want to see us play in Europe, especially against teams that aren't household names. I'm sure they will turn up for the likes of Stuttgart and, fingers crossed, Roma in the last sixteen.
SAS Boro: Do you see the season ticket or matchday prices reaching a maximum (capped) figure at any point in the future and do you think crowd figures are being effected by too many televised games?
DA: See my answer above for the one about televised games. It's clear that it is affecting attendances. Though we also believe a major problem now is the fact that most Boro games are being screened illegally in local pubs. That's a situation that has to be tackled, as difficult as it is.
In terms of ticket prices, I don't think the maximum price is as important as a broad range of prices to attract all fans. Ultimately, we're trying to raise the income that the club needs to compete at the highest level, something that I believe the majority of Boro fans want us to do. Without the income and the backing of the fans there's no way the club can continue to punch above its weight in the way it has for some years now.
SAS Boro: Do you think that Uefa Cup attendances would improve if the group stage was scrapped and it became a knockout competition all the way through?
DA: Probably, yes. It takes fifteen games to win it at present. That's too many in my opinion. I think we all enjoyed the novelty last season, especially as Lazio were one of the teams who came to the Riverside, but this time around it's not been a hit, especially with the likes of Dnipro and Litex Lovech. No offence intended to them, but can you name one of their players even now that we've played against them?
Dean Stephenson: Does the financial model/business plan that the club work to allow experimentation with ticket pricing? For example, if the tickets had been five pounds for the Litex Lovech match, I am sure that the attendance would have been higher. How does the club feel about the attendance for that particular match?
DA: We do try to be flexible, and the tickets were a fiver v Litex for season ticket holders aged under 16 or over 65, while they were the equivalent of a fiver for adult season ticket holders too as they paid �15 and got a �10 MFC Retail voucher too.
What people like Steve Gibson, Keith Lamb and Alan Bage are trying to do is maximise the income for the good of the club, as it is all reinvested in the club and the team. Unfortunately, the attendances haven't increased pro-rata with the ticket prices being decreased. So we have just reduced our income when we have made price reductions.
Steve Manger: What are MFC's plans for the development next to Rockcliffe? Rumours are that it will include a golf course and a hotel. Will there be any facilities built for the 'average' fans?
DA: We first got planning permission for a five-star countryhouse hotel a few years back and plans are now afoot to develop that idea. I can't give you any further details at the present time, but it would be an hotel first and foremost.
Simon Dixon: What is the club's view on unofficial fanzines and websites? Do you support them or would you prefer it if none of them existed?
DA: I get on well with Rob Nichols at FMTTM. He's a good lad and a massive Boro fan. We often bump into one another in town. I arranged for Rob to interview Steve McClaren only a month or so back. It would be ridiculous of me to say I had a problem with them - as Boro website editor Mike McGeary and I used to do our own fanzine, Bread n' Boro. Unfortunately, it never challenged FMTTM's supremacy! Fanzines have their part to play, just as official programmes do. I think many fans buy them both.
Andy Morgan: Why don't you publicise your charity works more? Many people have the perception that there is still a great distance between the club and the fans because of the lack of media reporting outside of your own publications.
DA: That's a great point you make, Andy. It's commonly accepted in Premier League football that Boro and Charlton, and possibly our friends up the road at Sunderland, do most in the community. Unfortunately, good news isn't big news, even in the local press nowadays. Only this week I've discussed with the Gazette the possibility of getting more articles published about our community work. We send out press releases and even have a professional photographer cover them, but we don't get the coverage they deserve, though the players' visits to give out presents on the children's wards of local hospitals got some great coverage in the Gazette, Echo, Sky Sports News, BBC and Tyne-Tees TV. Sky are probably the best at covering our events.
Simon Dixon: Do you think that it would be good policy for Middlesbrough merchandise to be made available globally? We are convinced that it would help increase the fanbase if Boro shirts were available in sports shop chains across the UK and in other countries.
DA: This is one that Graham Fordy, Head of Commercial, and Steve Gibson have often discussed but it's always been their view that the club's profile will grow with success on the pitch. It has grown hugely, but we are realistically a big regional brand, certainly not an international brand and probably not a national brand yet, though that is coming.
All the merchandise is available globally via the internet or the telephone. The point is that if we allow say JJB Sports in London or Manchester to sell our shirts then we also have to allow JJB Sports in Middlesbrough to do so, enabling them to compete with us in selling our own product. When you consider the relatively low numbers we would be selling nationally and that these can be bought anyway via the internet, it really doesn't make sense to undermine our local, very successful market.
Peter Holmes: From a PR perspective, is there anything in particular that the club could have done better recently?
There's always things you can look back on and think we could have done better. I think we need to improve our two-way communications with our fans, especially season ticket holders. They are the lifeblood of the club but we need to make sure they know that and feel that.
But you can only influence what you can control. I don't control ticket prices, so there's little point in me saying ticket prices should have been cheaper. I know there is an argument that says that we should have gone for a �5 and �1 ticket offer for one of our cup ties, perhaps the Litex game, to attract fans in and reward season ticket holders. Steve Gibson made his own views clear on this when he was on Century's phone-in, but there's obvious pros and cons.
It's clearly great PR, but the problems start in the message it gives out in terms of devaluing the competition. If Sunderland had beaten Arsenal, what price might their fans have expected to play if they had been drawn to play Doncaster in the next round?
COB: How would you assess your own contribution to the ten years of relative success since we moved to The Riverside? Do you think that the ideas for the the club's progression are still fresh?
DA: I hope I've played my own small part. The club has come on in leaps and bounds since 1994 when I joined the club. First and foremost, that's down to Steve Gibson, and the way the fans have got behind his vision. But lots of other people deserve credit too - the likes of Keith Lamb and Graham Fordy have been integral figures during ten years that has seen us go from Ayresome Park, 10,000 attendances, mid-table in what is now the Championship, without ever having reached a major cup final and the Anglo-Italian Cup as the nearest thing to European football to The Riverside Stadium, disappointment at 27,000 attendances, Premier League football, our first major silverware after three previous cup finals and two successive seasons of Uefa Cup football.
There is no doubt that we need to keep inputting new ideas to continue to progress the club. But there is a very good team behind the scenes at the Boro that I'm sure will continue taking the club forward. What it also needs is the fans to continue to back Steve Gibson's vision. That is difficult because the level of expectancy is so high nowadays, so disappointment is felt so much more easily. Boro have been transformed and left their old image behind, but it's difficult to recreate the buzz that surrounded the signing of players like Juninho and Ravanelli. We would need to sign the likes of Ronaldinho to do that nowadays, but the transfer market means that is out of the question. Ultimately, the key is getting it right on the pitch and then maximising the opportunities that creates to take the club forward on all fronts. With fans and the club working together, I'm sure we will do that.
After this interview was published, many readers wrote in with their coments, to which Dave has responded.
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