Unmodern Man Interview: Dave Cormack & Rob Wicks

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It’s not often you’re sitting outside a boozer of a Sunday afternoon, nursing a few pints to help ease a stinking hangover, trying to protect a 4 ft ornamental lamp from divebombing seagulls while your other half continues her rampage around the shops of Edinburgh’s Old Town. But such is life and there I found myself a few months ago.

A few pints in and a direct message from Aberdeen FC Chairman Dave Cormack popping up on my Twitter only added to the sense of the unreal. Dave very kindly reached out with the offer of a chat about all things AFC and even managed to rope in Commerical Director Rob Wicks to talk through some of the finer details of the various fan engagement initiatives the club are working on.

The full video of the interview is at the bottom of the article.

Unmodern Man: One of the big things that I’ve been keen to talk to you about is the top down change in mentality at the club recently. It’s something that I’ve written about before on the blog – the need to get that winning mentality throughout the club, and not necessarily setting our stall at the beginning of the season to finish third and maybe get to a cup final. How important has that been to you and how big a factor was it when it came to appointing Stephen as manager?

Dave Cormack: Stephen Glass summed it up when he was appointed as manager, that to be known as a successful Aberdeen manager, you’ve got to put a trophy in the cabinet. I think when you start from there then that’s clearly the aim for us. Everybody knows the £60-80m a year that Celtic and Rangers are paying in wages and we’re certainly the third highest (in the league). As we mentioned before we started recording, our wage bill this season with the squad we’ve got is going to be higher than last season.

It really is about going about our business from the Academy through the development path to try and level the playing field. For example, we had a really young squad last night who went up to play Brora Rangers. They are a top Highland League team with real men. And we basically had an under 18 team out there and we won one-nil.

If I go back to the Eddie Turnbull era, if he’d stayed with us we’d have won the league. Celtic were a top team then, winning finals including European finals and we went and beat them in the 1970 Scottish Cup Final. Aberdeen back then were young boys like Bobby Clark, Martin Buchan, Joe Harper, Arthur Graham was only 17 years old. But if you’ve got the right leadership, you’ve got the right attitude, you’ve got the right development – it’s a recipe for success.

It really does come from the top. Philosophy-wise we want to play attacking, entertaining football. So we’ve invested and continue to invest. We did not divest through this last period in the youth academy, many clubs in Scotland did and cut back on what they were spending. We’ve kept everybody employed at this club, on and off the field because we need them. I think that will stand us in good stead.

There’s no reason why we shouldn’t go out every game believing we can win that game. And that means going to Glasgow with the intent of winning.

Rob Wicks: I think winning on the field is one thing. And great performances on the park certainly help us from an off-field perspective. We’ve got a very young, very enthusiastic, very committed group of individuals who take ownership of all the different departments in the club, and they come together really well.

I think wherever possible we try and punch above our weight, and we have a very strong commercial offering. From a hospitality perspective, we’ve got new catering partners on board. They’ve done a terrific job for us out of the training ground. We’ve brought in a range of new partnerships that the club’s not had over the last three or four years.

That’s really helped to boost us commercially. We’re about 23% up in commercial revenue over the last few years, so that’s giving us a strong boost. The fans have stepped up in terms of DNA and season tickets, particularly through the pandemic.

Unmodern Man: I reached out to some other fans on Twitter and one of the biggest topics of discussion was around the possibility of reintroducing alcohol at grounds. Does the club have a position on that? Is it something that you’re making representations to the government and the governing bodies on?

RW: We see it as fairly fundamental and very important if you think about the amount of lost revenue that the clubs have to forgo as a result of those regulations. We aren’t actively engaged in a representation sense. But there are a number of clubs who are looking at the broader commercial piece right across Scottish football in terms of what can we do better as individual clubs and as a League as a whole. The alcohol side of things is certainly something that forms part of that discussion.

For example, we certainly want to see a supporter’s bar along the lines of what we’ve seen at the likes of Hearts. I’d like to make it 75 metres long and take the title away from Spurs as having the longest bar in Europe!

The timing isn’t ideal now, just coming out of COVID. But in the not too distant future, I think that’s a conversation that has to be had because as a revenue source for the club it’s really important.

DC: I think that there have been moves towards looking at this, but Police Scotland were the ones that just absolutely were against it. I think it absolutely needs to be revisited. 80% of the games at Pittodrie we’ve got no police. We all know the games that might be challenges for having alcohol. But rather than tarring every game with the same brush, there’s definitely an opportunity to test this.

Ron Gordon (Hibs Chairman), who has become a good friend of mine, we’ve talked about whether we could have a fan zone where there are fans from Aberdeen and Hibs enjoying a beer before a game. I don’t know whether that’s possible to pull off. But unless we try it, unless we educate people, unless we try some of these things (we’ll never know).

But we will pursue that. It’s a key cornerstone for us – the fan engagement before the games. We’ve talked about getting a marque on the cricket pitch (behind Pittodrie)…at the right stage, we will test that approach. Even things like using the Beach Ballroom. As long as it’s affordable, so the beer and the food in a marquee would have to be affordable. I learned that from Atlanta United, from Arthur Blank the owner.  You make the beer and the food reasonably priced so that people don’t have to go to a pub to get the experience and they’re doing it here before the game.

There will be more in the next week or two on the homecoming game which we are gearing towards Ross County. We’re aiming to do some stuff with the younger fans there inside the South Stand and probably the Richard Donald Stand.

Unmodern Man: Glad to hear it’s on the radar. I wrote a piece a while back looking at other European countries and their fan experience versus ours. Scotland is down at the bottom in terms of what we are allowed to do. Fundamentally the question was why were we being treated differently?

DC: I couldn’t agree more. We’ve absolutely got to work with the government and with the police to demonstrate that we’re good custodians and we know how to run events.

Credit: Stephen Dobson

Unmodern Man: One of the big success stories on the fan experience side of things has been the Red Shed. With fans coming back in this season I can only see that going from strength to strength. Have you looked at the possibility of introducing safe standing in that area?

RW: It’s become a bit of a pet project for me and I’ve had chatted to a number of folk about it. The reality of the engineering that would be required given the ground that we’ve got in the Red Shed, the ageing concrete that’s there and the depth you’ve got to go down to create a safe environment is something that probably isn’t going to be practical within the confines of the Merkland stand. But it is very, very much on our radar for the new stadium.

We’ve seen it more and more in Scottish football and clubs looking at it. It’s something that we want to look at for the new stadium. This will be part of the fan consultation piece. It’s going to be really important to get a sense of what those sort of numbers would be, how many fans might be interested in being in that area and then specifically where that area might be located within the ground.

So it is unlikely for the Merkland just given the constraints and the sheer cost. We have looked at it elsewhere in the ground. The only place that is in any way vaguely practical is in the Richard Donald Stand. We’ve actually had some sample seats sent up to us and we temporarily installed, and you start to come to issues with sightlines. It’s not something that was perhaps thought about when that stand was built. But as I say, it’s something that we are very keen to see further down the line in the new stadium.

Unmodern Man: That sounds promising. Essentially, I think with the different initiatives that we’ve talked about today we should be looking at creating away day atmospheres at home.

DC: Exactly!

RW: Another few things I want to mention. Folk who are in the South Stand are going to see some changes. We’ve got some really nice branding is going up behind the south stand next week for our homecoming game. We’re getting some super looking banners that are going up that look back at some of the club’s success and some of our history which are going up on the outside of the Main Stand. We’ve expanded the role and the personnel within our supporter engagement team as well. There are going to be more people in a ‘fan greeter’ capacity.

Unmodern Man: I think on a similar track the segmentation thing that you’ve talked about recently – where you’re not treating every fan like they’re looking for the same experience – that’s fundamental for me.

DC:…If we aspire to get to 15,000 season ticket holders in a new stadium then we have to target these different areas. Going back to the Red Shed there was an absolute demand there for a couple of thousand people to be in there and to be raucous. We’ve had street artists come in and decorated it and it looks great. So hopefully you can see we’re looking to target everyone.

Unmodern Man: One of the big stories of the past while has been this idea about potentially staying in the city with the council offering help to get a new stadium going down at the beach. Is it fair to say staying in the city is the preferred option all things being equal?

DC: It’s a good question and obviously there has been a lot of stuff around about it. The stadium being at the beach was never an option for the club when we went for Kingsford. We’ve spent the last 20 years and £4m looking for a new home.

The city council have got good aspirations. TECA blew me away. I went to the BBC Sports Personality of the Year event with some of our executives over from Atlanta and was absolutely blown away about what TECA can do for the city. If you look at Aberdeen – I walked down Union Street two or three years back. and I was just embarrassed. As a kid, we lived in a council flat in Garthdee, my mum would dress me and my brother up to go in town shopping. So, I believe that the regeneration of the city centre is crucial for Aberdeen; having more shops, pedestrianising Union Street, making a real feature of the Beach Boulevard.

But the stage we’re at right now is that the Council are leading on all of this and we’re an interested party. I think there’s a recognition amongst business that losing the club to the city centre will be a major economic challenge for the city. I’m excited as an Aberdonian for what the master plan.

If we’ve got a stadium there it needs to be something where we ‘sweat the asset’. We don’t want something that’s used once every two weeks. We want something that’s used from a community perspective…We’ve got an opportunity there to build something that is club and community oriented that would bring significant economic value.

The city council is looking to be bold with this regeneration because we’ve got one opportunity to restore the city centre. The beach is an unbelievably beautiful asset and everything that’s there is at the end of life. You’ve got to take your hat off to Dundee with what they have done regeneration wise. And we need to do the same, in my view, as a city in Aberdeen. If the Stadium, from a community perspective, is to be part of that, we’re absolutely up for the conversation of making that a reality.

Unmodern Man: I think we’re all aware of how big a boost Cormack Park has been in attracting players to the club and helping the coaching staff. Long term, are there still plans to develop the facility further?  

DC: It’s a good question. Let’s say the beach project becomes a reality, then clearly there are things that we would want to do at Cormack Park as well. It would be great for us to be able to have a reserve pitch where you have the bleachers and you could play the women’s games there, for example.

When you think about other things we’d like to do here, it would be nice to have an indoor pitch. Obviously, we can use the Sports Village but it’s (an indoor pitch at Cormack Park) is about a £2.5m project. I remind people as well that the training ground here was supposed to cost us £9-10m, and we spent the best part of £14m on it. There were things that we’d have had to do in three or four years time anyway and so we made the decision to do them a couple of years ago rather than wait.

Any requirement to extend things here would be on the basis, for example, of the decision to go to either Kingsford or down to the beach. But ideally, we’ve got another pitch here where we can play reserve or women’s games with bleachers where people can watch. But probably the real priority would be to get an indoor facility.

Unmodern Man: One of the big successes over the past few seasons has been the DNA scheme, and the contribution that’s made to the club has been massive. You’ve talked before about that scheme potentially evolving and maybe moving towards a subscription type model. Could you expand a bit on what you think that might look like in years to come?

RW: We were sitting yesterday in the Legends Lounge in the Richard Donald Stand having a meeting on this very subject. And it’s something that we think is very important for us as a club as we move forward. We’ve got people who are buying Red TV. We’ve got people who are obviously in and out of the retail store. We’ve got season ticket members, we’ve got DNA members etc. The single sign-on product that we’ve introduced is a really important step. And I use this opportunity to appeal to fans who haven’t yet gone and signed up to the single sign-on to do so because your experience with the club and your engagement with the club is going to get that much easier.

And that leads us long term to be looking at a broader membership product. We almost think of a matrix system where you might say I want some red TV, I want to sit in a stand as a season ticket holder or I want DNA, and so this particular form of membership is what suits me best. But we’re looking at all those different tiers as to what might work best and suit the fanbase as a whole.

DC: The club has been used to getting probably £2m a year from season tickets over the summer months and obviously this helps the cash flow. But keeping that aside, I think it’s our belief as a management team that we should be moving to a monthly membership approach. It might take us a couple of seasons to get there because it’s important to get it right. But if we’ve got a membership scheme and people can choose who they want to be. And if people pay on a monthly basis like they do their mobile phones it certainly is more helpful to individuals financially.

It’s not about the board and then the fans, it’s about all of us. It’s about the right thing for the club moving forward because it has to be sustainable. We will spend £14-15m this season on running the club, and the vast majority of that is on wages. We bring in £2m from 8,300 season tickets holders. We’re delighted to have these people because that’s the lifeblood of the club. But 8300 season tickets cover a fraction of the costs of running the club. The DNA membership is an opportunity for people; to get discounts on season tickets, to get discounts on retail but it’s also an opportunity for them to help the club out. It’s an option. I know there’s been a bit of friction over DNA/non-DNA and hopefully, this overall membership scheme will put back to bed because we’ll all be AberDNA.

But the £700,000 from DNA on top of the £2m is a godsend. Without that, we would be nowhere near the wages we have been able to pay. And to put it in perspective, this season we’re just coming out of COVID and we’ll probably lose £2.5m as a club. And that’s okay because make allowance for that but to be sustainable we have to drive up our season ticket sales and offer value to all the fans.

But overall, we’re all members of the football club, it doesn’t matter if you’ve got one share or no shares – we’re members of Aberdeen Football Club.

Unmodern Man:  Appreciate the honesty with those figures you’ve spoken about. I’d assumed with getting fans back into stadiums we’d be in a money making position again. So I think what you’ve said there puts things in perspective.

DC: At the end of the day, from 4 years ago, our football wage bill has doubled and a lot of that is down to the competitive nature of the league. Four or five years ago Rangers were just back into it, Hearts and Hibs were up and down, Dundee United were out of the top flight for five years, but we’re in a different ball game now.

We are speculating to accumulate. Myself and others are backing the club. We’ll cover it, we’re investing significantly and will continue to invest significantly to get our season ticket base to rise up. But that’s just the perspective of where we’re at.

Unmodern Man: Moving away from the stadium discussion let’s look at some of the other hot topics at the minute. Something that was being discussed on Twitter in the past few days was the respective values of Scottish based players versus some of the guys you see moving from the English Championship. How frustrating is it for you guys when you’re getting offers for some of your best players for a fraction of what those players in the English Championship are moving for?

DC: The reality is that it’s our goal not to do bad deals, whether that be buying or selling players. We’ve got a big squad. People can argue about the balance of it but I can tell you that the wage bill for this season, with all the acquisitions we made early on, will be higher than last season. As I’ve said, we’re predicting about £2.5m losses this year so it becomes a bit of a challenge. However, having said that, Stephen (Glass) and Steven Gunn and Darren Mowbray, our new Head of Recruitment, are working every single hour of the day that’s available. We’ve been out looking at players we want to bring but it takes two to tango. Some of the players we’ve looked at their clubs are wanting 4 or 500k for a player that has a year left on their contract. Given where we are with this year’s projection, we just can’t do it. That doesn’t mean to say we’re not looking to bring players in, but Stephen wants to bring players in that will make a tangible difference. Or there are younger players like Lewis (Ferguson) who are out with our Academy who we can develop and monetise. If you’re going to have a philosophy of operationally losing £2m a year, you have to balance that through player sales.

I’m comfortable with the position that we are in and we will add as appropriate to the squad but it has to be the right value. We are being quoted for average players £8-10k a week and that’s not sustainable.

We’d like to bring in probably another striker and some other positions. There’s a January window as well that we are looking to add one or two other players. Also, maybe we’ll get one or two players in January on precontracts for who we’ve been getting quoted ridiculous money.

Unmodern Man: Do the club fully understand the implications of Brexit on transfers going forward? Are we in a position where the Scottish market becomes even more important to English clubs because of the restrictions in place down there?

DC: The reality is, with the offers that the likes of Aberdeen and Hibs have had for players, that hasn’t borne fruit. What I will tell you is that Brexit has hammered English clubs. There are Championship clubs and League One clubs in England with real financial problems right now with financial fair play. On one hand, being restricted more to UK players you’d think would help us. On the other hand, you have financial fair play.

Brexit hurts us a little bit as well. We were just expanding our scouting network into the Slovak countries and now we have to justify players coming in. We had to justify Christian (Ramirez) coming in. But that’s another factor for us now looking at the European market. Can we bring players in that aren’t necessarily internationals playing for Croatia, Bosnia and places like that?

One thing I will mention is that you’ve got the Scandinavian countries who are developing more technical players. There’s a guy called Tom Vernon who set up the Right to Dream Academy in Ghana. They’re just setting up now in Egypt as well. They bought FC Nordsjælland in the Danish Super League in 2015. In the last two seasons, they have sold three young players, one to Sampdoria, one to Ajak and one to Cincinnati in the States for a combined €21m. And they just sold a player they took out of their Ghanaian Academy, Sulemana, to Rennes for €20m.

We have to look at ourselves and say, what the hell is wrong with our players? Why aren’t these clubs looking at our players? That’s something Scottish football needs to look at. And I do think that there’s a feeling out there, mainly in England, that Scottish football’s got real challenges financially, we’ll just go in there and rape and pillage, and offer what we want, and that pisses me off. It really does. I do not want us to be taken advantage of. And as much as we’re going through financial pain, if people think that we’re going to just take it because we need to take it, then no way. We’re going to get value for our players at Aberdeen.

Unmodern Man: Around the Colt teams situation – obviously we’ve got the Rangers and Celtic colt teams in the Lowland League this season. What’s the club stance on Colt teams being in the Scottish leagues?

DC: We’ve got to look holistically at the whole picture. Right now the SPFL doesn’t have a clear vision, strategy or plan. Many of us feel that the broadcasting assets that we’ve got are highly undervalued at £25m a year or whatever is from Sky, which is more than we had before, but we think it should be £50m a year if you do all the comparisons. What we need to do as a league overall is to define who we want to then get the right people in place to get these commercial deals done. If we can add £10-15m a year into Scottish football, then everybody gets lifted up. A rising tide lifts all ships; whether it be elite full-time teams or part-time community teams.

Coming back to the Colt sides, our perspective, and many other’s perspectives, is why didn’t Hearts and Hibs get invited to the Lowland League? Why was this done separately from all the other teams and we didn’t know about it? I think the Colt teams have merit. I think if there’s going to be the opportunity to have Colts teams then it needs to be a fair level playing field for every club who want to do it. It’s not a case of two clubs throwing £3m at the lower league teams. It has to be a wider conversation about what the right thing overall for Scottish football is.

Unmodern Man: One last question for you, Dave. What have you got to say about these rumours of you being spotted on the pitch at Livingston when the winner went in?

DC: Haha. My days of running on the pitch are gone! I was actually at Wembley in 1977 when we beat England. Last weekend, I know you were there, I know a few boys that were on the pitch because they’ve texted me. I just think that was pent up exuberance, no malice. It’s just fantastic to see. You haven’t been to an away game with a thousand Aberdeen fans for a long, long time.

Livingston is a really tough place to go to. That pitch and the style they’ve got. Not many teams are going to come out of there with a win. And we’ll take that ugly win. We’ve all been through a lot and my message really is that we want to do the best for our club. We’re not perfect. We make mistakes but judge us on how we respond. We’ll not agree on everything but we’re better together.

Massive thanks to Dave Cormack and Rob Wicks for giving up their time at such a hectic point in the season. Also to Lisa Sheran at Aberdeen Football Club for making it happen.