As Neil Black prepares to face Panthers fans, Paul Balm reckons it is an opportunity that we should not miss
The question and answer session with Neil Black is on Tuesday before the game against Cardiff. It starts at 6:00 p.m. and it will be held in Saltbox. I know that’s a lot more mundane and straightforward than my usual introductions but the Panthers have said so little about it in the last couple of weeks that I thought it was worth reiterating because I want to see as many people there as possible. Six o’clock on a Tuesday night isn’t perfect for everyone but if you can get there you should.
It would be very easy to be cynical about the event. It’s only going to be an hour long and the fact that it’s before a game means there’s little or no chance that it will over-run. You have to say that’s pretty good planning by the club. You could almost call it Machiavellian. They know they’ll get a good crowd but they also know that those people will also want to go to the game so they won’t want it to run over either. Of course they hadn’t taken Panthers’ current form making it tempting to not go to games but that’s a different story.
I don’t have much faith in finding out anything of any substance either. I was at the last Q&A that Neil Black did and the only thing I really remember was how well he controlled the crowd, letting them talk about the things that a group of fans will talk about when they get together like form, players coaching etc. rather than the reason the meeting was arranged in the first place – the increasing distance between the club and the fans (sound familiar?). He indulged the audience, letting them discuss on ice affairs that, whilst undeniably important to all those there, didn’t leave much time to address the matters in hand. If that happens again then the hour will be gone before we know it and nothing will be achieved and an opportunity will have been wasted.
I’m very sorry to say that I don’t really trust the club either. I know how awful that sounds and I don’t really want to have to say it but there’s no point doing anything if it’s not done with truth and that’s my greatest concern. We’ve seen time and time again the Panthers massaging the facts to match their own agenda. How often has news of a poor result been ushered off the website as quickly as possible by a slew of stories about shirt winners, car-park sponsors and other less important, but supposedly feel good “news”? I fully expect the same to happen on Tuesday night. I wouldn’t be surprised if people the management see as being “on their side” for want of a better phrase have been primed with easy questions that Neil Black already knows about and has had time to prepare for.
The timing of the meeting seems a little odd to me. If I was the one scheduling this I’d hold it at the beginning of the season, when there’s a real chance that something can be taken from the meeting and used immediately by the club. Holding it now as the season draws slowly to a close feels a bit like it’s all too late, anything substantive that comes out of it will almost certainly be held off until next season or quietly forgotten about in the summer months. Of course, it could be a case that the timing is absolutely spot on. It all seems a little convenient that after years where nothing like this has been organised by the club (I’m almost certain the one I mentioned earlier was organised directly with Neil Black) one is announced just as the Supporters Trust is gathering momentum. Coincidence? I think not.
I hope I’m wrong on every single one of those counts I really do. This is what a lot of people, including me, have been saying is needed for years. I may have concerns; they may even be justified but we’ve got to give it a chance to see what actually happens. The worst thing that could happen is that no one turned up due to their concerns. Why would they do it again if no one went to the first one? Would you bother, if you thought no one else did? You might once but when they proved you right you wouldn’t do it again. Once bitten, twice shy and all that.
I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it again but, if the club play this with a straight bat, this is an opportunity for both sides to learn something from the other. Something useful, something important. Even if that something is not to do with an issue you are interested in remember that this is a club that is often seen as being aloof, secretive, even disinterested to their ticket buying fans giving you information.
If you do go and you do get the chance to ask a question, and please believe me when I say that I’m not trying to be patronising here, make it a good one. Think about what you want to know about. Ask questions that will challenge Neil Black. Take a look at the way the club is run, what troubles you about it? What do you think could be done better? Hypocritical as it may sound after all that I’m not necessarily the sort of person who would stick my hand up and ask something at an event like this, but if I was I’d be asking about our lack of a strength and conditioning coach particularly in the light of our continuing injury issues. Three or four (I’m starting to lose track) consecutive seasons have been blighted now and it seems like no lessons have been learned. I’d also want to know why other teams seem more willing or able to move quickly in the transfer market to cover leaving or injured players. If we are trying to compete with these teams, why are we doing it with one hand tied behind out backs all the time? Who holds the rope and who is tying the knots? I have other less urgent questions like the club’s lack of attention to detail or disinterest in our shared history beyond the last few years but they’ll keep. In order to achieve anything we first need to sort out where the priorities lie.
Tuesday is an opportunity. The game, for us at least, is pretty much irrelevant. The opportunity to get answers on why we have reached that situation isn’t.