Is it all just bull?
There is a lot being said about how things need to get better in football. But it's getting harder to see the evidence of this happening.
Poverty of ambition seems to be a defining characteristic of our time. That’s possibly because in many places reality is so bad that any improvement would be better. In UK politics, and in many other countries too, the sheer chaos brought about by various grifters and charlatans has meant that just being competent is inspirational enough for most – just do the basics right and drop the drama. It’s hard to inspire people by extolling basic competence, but it’s also wise to recognise rhetoric has its limits.
One of the reasons I write The Football Fan, in fact one of the reasons I have done most things in my life, is because I believe it is worth trying to make things better. I’m conscious I risk going a bit mid-life crisis here, but lately I’ve been wondering what better actually means. I’m not as susceptible to a stirring speech and inspirational slogan as I once was, but I also don’t think we get more accepting of the status quo with age. I still think there is a lot wrong in the world, but I guess I’ve got different expectations of how it changes.
Don’t worry – the football stuff is coming. The domestic season has ended, although there still seems to be some football elbowing its way onto a screen somewhere, so the break has provided an opportunity to lean back and take stock. I’ll admit my jaded state of mind was largely caused by what happened at my club, Tottenham Hotspur, where the seemingly endless soap opera and limitless hubris of those in charge just ended up sapping my soul. I know – boo hoo for me, the poor fan whose club isn’t about to go out of business, plays at a great stadium but which doesn’t really seem to know what it’s for.
Trouble in the family always seems worse, but I know fans at many other clubs – most notably right now Southend and Wigan – will wonder what I have to be downbeat about. But when we talk about football in this newsletter, we talk about the whole game. Of course the relationship we have with our own club colours our mood, but there are bigger issues to consider. And I’ll confess that when I do so, the question of why the hell do we bother has come to mind.
Last weekend the European Cup Final took place, and the fact that Europe’s marquee competition was won by a club owned by a nation state contributed to a general sense of unease about the game. Yes, City play great football, but to not question how they have been possible to do so requires considerable self-delusion. That there was a depressing inevitability about the win speaks volumes. And the tendency of too many City fans to adopt the bunker position in response to legitimate questions about their ownership is profoundly depressing.
But the final also brought all-too familiar stories of the awful experience the fans attending it were forced to endure. Last year I wrote a piece called The truth about fan experience in UEFA competitions. I could write the same piece again today. Despite all the words written and said by UEFA about how lessons had been learned and how this must never happen again, it was clear that absolutely nothing had been learned. As journalist Miguel Delaney said: “Some of the most basic elements when staging a football match have not been implemented.”
UEFA has no place left to hide. When it comes to organising major events, the organisation is incompetent at best. At worst, it simply does not care about the people who attend its events. Even the VIPS aren’t guaranteed special treatment. But there is no great confidence that UEFA will change, or that any changes will be made in the way fans are treated at the events it stages. We’ve been here too many times before. We need to see real change if we are to believe it.
There is supposed to be change in England, too. After the convulsions caused by the attempt by six of the country’s leading clubs to destroy the nation’s football infrastructure and wreck one of the UK’s most successful exports, there was a fan-led review, administered by the government, that concluded an independent regulator was needed and that supporters needed to be treated much more as stakeholders.
Of course, all those in football whose actions had led to a situation in which they had to be told what the right thing to do was were agreed that they should do the right thing. Never in doubt. Perish the thought anyone would think otherwise. And so on and so forth.
But what’s happened? At Premier League level much effort has gone into constructing a swanky new Fan Engagement Standard that blunts much of the fan-led review’s progressive intent and establishes a lowest common denominator bar. Levelling down while the country talks about levelling up.
The new supporter boards – pointedly named ‘advisory boards’ at those clubs that want to remind fans of their place – are being set up with varying degrees of success. Again, I’ve written in depth about the review and subsequent White Paper here before, and I still think that overall it is a positive thing. But already there is a noticeable difference between those clubs where the ownership and board have some commitment to involving fans, and those where they are determined to do the minimum possible to comply with the White Paper.
The White Paper was never about delivering people’s control, although for some owners conceding any control at all amounts to the same thing, and a smart business will embrace the opportunity. Bringing people inside the tent is invariably better than keeping them outside, not least because you are able to share the very real details of the compromises that inevitably come with power.
Key to making the process work will be communication and transparency, because fans need to see the process and how it works. Those clubs who have swathed the process in confidentiality clauses will learn that at their cost.
And yet, for all the frustration with the constant attempts to undermine every bit of progress or the even more straightforward failure to match words with actions, the fact is that despite the poverty of ambition we are forced to deal with, there is still ambition.
I suspect we are in for a few years of trench warfare in which it will be very difficult to convince most fans any effort to change things for the better is worthwhile. I hope those of you who have decided to subscribe to The Football Fan will stick with it as I try to make sense of it all. I’m off to the FSA and FSE conference next week, so I will write again after that.
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