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Smarter Fans

Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy - British Council
 This article was generously provided to ClubFootball by the British Council, which operates in China as the Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy.

 

Fans are getting smarter, and blame for poor performances is shifting from the players and manager to club directors.
 
Every chairman of every board of directors in football should have felt a shiver run down his or her spine after around an hour of Leeds United’s FA Cup replay defeat of Gillingham.
 
Leeds were then two goals to the good, the takings had been safely consigned to the security boxes and television contribution was already a matter of the day's accountancy. But from out in the stands at Elland Road rose a chorus which signalled a new dawn in the relationship between fans and their club.
 
"Back the team, sack the board," came the chant, confirming that the honeymoon for the new breed of football businessman was over. Knowing how to run a large corporation, and keep the City happy no longer blinds the fans to football reality.
 
Today's British fan is no longer content to push through the turnstile and hand over their hard-earned money. They want to be involved in how that money is spent, how it is managed.
 
Leeds' supporters, depressed at losing star players from Elland Road, recognised where responsibility lay. Not with manager Terry Venables but with Chairman Peter Ridsdale and his fellow directors who had gambled on Champions League consistency and lost.
 
Ten years ago Venables would have been blamed by the terrace choirs. Now the manager is just another employee, dependent on Moses handing down the boardroom commandments.
 
The temptation remains for an embattled chairman to buy himself time by sacking the manager: Joan Gaspart has done just that at Barcelona by dismissing Louis Van Gaal. But Gaspart may have bought himself only a few weeks' breathing space.
 
The fans are on to him - and chairmen the world over.
 
A tale used to be told of how Sir Alan Sugar marvelled at Tottenham Hotspur's fans in his early days as club owner and chairman. Sugar's experience in the home computer industry had taught him that if the product were questionable then sales and the company would crash. Yet Spurs fans would pack White Hart Lane to capacity, week in week out, whatever the quality of the team - or lack of it.
 
But that was then. Seats have replaced terraces and the higher prices have drawn a more demanding breed of thinking fan.
 
The media has played its part. Newspapers, magazines, television, radio and Internet newsletters pore over the finances and politics of football. The match is almost the week's least important event, rather than its focus.
 
Fans are now striving to put the soul back in the game.
 
Supporters trusts have sprung up at clubs all over the country, all over the Premier and Football Leagues. Not always successfully. Club boards have varied from welcoming to downright hostile; many official supporters' clubs have viewed the new trusts with suspicion as rivals.
 
A different concept has driven a number of fans' co-operatives, forced to act to save their clubs. Lincoln City, for example, became the first community-owned club in the Football League in 2001 when control was assumed by a co-operative. But even that is no guarantee of success on and off the pitch.
 
Inevitably, the fan revolution has been gathering pace out of the Premier League limelight. But that does not prevent the fans understanding the issues of how and why money may be wasted and who is to blame.
 
Ridsdale and counterparts such as West Ham owner Terry Brown are in the firing line right now. The battle has been a long time coming.

 

 

Keir Radnedge, February 2003

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