BCFC: Talk to Frank

Late on Monday evening, Birmingham City / Birmingham Sports Holding Chairman Frank Zhao Wenqing made a statement in reply to an open letter sent to him from Blues Trust and other supporter groups.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, it can be found on the Blues website at this link.

The reaction to the statement online was about how I expected it to be.

There were the humorous Conor McGregor “Who the fook is that guy” gifs.

There were a fair few memes of various celebrities flipping the bird, as well as the obligatory #BSHLOUT hashtags.

There was a bit of criticism that Zhao hadn’t written the statement himself, which I have to admit I think is a tad unfair as I know that despite trying to learn Mandarin for three years I couldn’t draft a statement in that language.

The main reaction though was one of disbelief. A quick poll I posted on Twitter had more than 62% of over 1,500 respondents saying they didn’t believe the news money was ringfenced for repairs.

Clearly the deficit of trust in the club I wrote about in Monday’s piece was a very real thing.

Who is Zhao and why did he make this statement?

One of the things I’ve come to appreciate while writing about the Blues ownership situation is that while I can remember names and faces easily, many people can’t.

Throw in a bunch of Chinese names that people don’t recognise and I can understand why some get confused about who is who.

It’s important for Blues fans to know who Zhao is, because he’s the most important member of the board both at the club and at Birmingham Sports Holdings.

This makes him the most powerful person involved with the club outside of the owners themselves.

Frank Zhao
Frank Zhao

When I was in Hong Kong for the Birmingham Sports Holdings AGM, I noticed from the screen with the directors participating via Zoom that Zhao used the English name “Frank”.

As we already have directors with names such as Edward Zheng and Shayne Wang, I figure it’s easier to fans to remember the name Frank Zhao.

The statement made by Zhao was a direct response to the open letter which was delivered to the club by Blues Trust on February 8. The original letter can be viewed at this link.

There were three clear requests in that letter:

  • A clear exit strategy provided by the owners to include specific timelines
  • Open and honest communication provided on a regular basis
  • A Fan Advisory board to be set up with immediate effect.

While those are honourable aims from the Trust, sadly it’s obvious that there are major obstacles that mean that the board cannot comply with these requests with any ease.

For example, as much as we want the sale process to be as open as possible, there are legal reasons why much of the process must remain confidential.

Similarly, as much as timelines would help us understand how long we need to be patient for, it is impossible to set deadlines for things like negotiations.

Much like a player transfer, negotiations will take as long as they will take and they are either done or not done.

While some will revel in rumours of a deal being “close”, I’ve seen enough things fall through to accept that “close” doesn’t actually mean anything.

Likewise, the only way the board can give open and honest communication on a regular basis is to communicate in a open and honest manner, regularly.

No amount of words can erase the fact we have had two statements from the Chairman in 18 months.

In fact, I’d go as far to say that I think for many, the feeling is similar to my own in that the communication ship has long sailed and the only communication wanted is confirmation a sale has been completed.

The third request is probably the most complex, and deserves deeper discussion.

A Fan Advisory Board

The third request made by Blues Trust was for a “Fan Advisory Board” to be set up with immediate effect.

Zhao’s statement confirmed that “internal conversations” would get underway at the club, with the club intending to “continue the dialogue with supporter groups to determine a proposal that all parties are happy with.”

Premier League clubs have already implemented this idea as part of the Premier League “Fan Engagement Standard” (FES).

All Premier League clubs are required to publish a Fan Engagement Plan in January of this year, to be updated at the start of each season.

Point 8.14 of the Government White Paper “A sustainable future – reforming club football governance”, which was published in February, confirms that this idea is to be replicated to other clubs in the league system.

8.14. The ‘Fan Engagement Standard’, which the Premier League is planning to implement for their clubs, is welcomed by the government. This will see Premier League clubs introduce Fan Advisory Boards and nominate a board-level official responsible for the club’s fan engagement activities. The Regulator should make its own assessment, but it is expected that clubs that comply with these new rules would meet the Regulator’s requirements for fan engagement.

On the face of it, the idea sounds like a good one as in an ideal world it will bring a fan perspective to the people at the very top of the club, reducing the disconnect between directors and fans.

However, I think the implementation and role of a Fan Advisory Board is a much more contentious issue.

For example, I have already seen criticisms from some fans on social media that a Fan Advisory Board would only exacerbate feelings of a closed shop of fans who are only allowed into the group as they are willing to toe the club line.

I’m not quite that cynical in my own beliefs but I am concerned that the idea needs to more than a bunch of buzzwords aimed at pacifying fans.

I think there would need to be real thought about how fans are invited onto such a board, ensuring that not only do they represent a true cross-section of the fanbase but also were competent enough to offer constructive opinions and criticism that would be properly taken on board.

I know that I would feel uncomfortable about being invited to perform such a role myself, simply because I’m painfully aware from past experience of how being invited to “secret meetings” can leave me wondering if I’ve become a corporate shill.

I think it will be some time yet before that white paper becomes government policy, and as such I can’t help but wonder if Zhao has offered some bland words in recognition knowing that it might not be his problem by the time it becomes obligatory.

The Stadium

For me, the most important part of the whole statement was information that was volunteered without request regarding St Andrew’s.

It is a point of concern to me that speculation suggested the repairs scheduled for Summer 2023 were dependent on investment into the Football Club. I can confirm, categorically, that this is not the case, and the finance for this operation has been ringfenced by the board accordingly.

It might be paranoia on my part but I can’t help but wonder if the talk of speculation was at least somewhat aimed at myself.

I’ve been consistent in my published scepticism that work will be started at the end of the season and I’m somewhat surprised at the categoric confirmation that money has been ringfenced.

The last we heard about repairs was the fans forum in December 2022, when Blues Trust reported (my emphasis):

The design will be finalised during February and is expected to include safe standing across the Tilton. To comply with regulations the works will also include a small safe standing area for away fans in the Railway Stand. Assurances were given that professional advisors and contractors are able to meet the start date as soon as the season closes in May. However, for this to take place Board approval will be first required in April.

With it currently only being the start of the March, it would appear either people were given the mistaken impression that Board approval wouldn’t be in place until April; or that the continued social media negativity has worn the club board down into approving it early in the hope that people will be mollified.

The problem for the board is that as stated previously, many fans just don’t believe them any more.

It’s not hard to understand why either.

The stadium repair saga has been ongoing since December 2020 with nearly a year wasted thanks to the ineptitude of former CEO Ren Xuandong.

Fans are still not sitting in their regular seats in the lower Kop a season and half after being assured work could be completed by the start of the 2021/22 season.

Unfortunately for Zhao and the club, fine words butter no parsnips and despite that categoric confirmation I cannot believe that the stadium will be repaired until it actually is. I don’t believe I’m alone in this belief either.

As much as I understand why Zhao made a statement, I’m afraid it’s obvious to me that whoever helped him to draft that has not grasped the situation currently.

I think it would have helped to have waited two weeks to present the news about the stadium alongside the timelines from the contractors.

This would have given the statement more credibility and I think would have helped to reassure people that the repairs truly are going to be carried out.

Likewise, the fluff about the Fan Advisory Board was not much different from the fluff that was stated about it in the December fans forum.

Rather than giving vague reasons of “internal conversations” that mean nothing, I think that Zhao could have at least given an idea of some of the obstacles that need to be overcome for it to happen, or some ideas of what they would require from fans to be considered for such a position.

Most of all, I think that Zhao should have countered the idea of a “faceless board” by speaking on camera, even if for only a short while.

I get that we’re never going to get an interview with an outsider, but even a short piece to camera filmed and edited by Blues TV staff would have helped to reassure people that he is involved at the club and that he is real.

I can accept that Zhao may not wish to speak on camera due to English not being his first language but I’m also sure the vast majority of sensible Blues fans would be understanding of that.

In Hong Kong, BSH company secretary Robert Yam Pui Hang and director Jerry Yiu Chun Kong both answered my questions in English which I was very grateful for as my Cantonese is non-existent.

Is it too much to ask Zhao to front up too?