WHETHER you like it or not, TV programmes like X Factor and Britain’s got talent are very popular and watched by millions. The audience participation aspect of these programmes is quite contagious, if sometimes rather contrived.
Audience engagement in football doesn’t always get treated in the right way. I cannot help feeling that some football authorities adopt a kind of “games for the chimps” approach, throwing balls into the crowd for fans to bounce around, the synchronised chanting counting down to kick-off and other patronising gimmicks.
But how about fans selecting a team? In some ways, it’s a throwback to the past when selection committees used to pick the team to play on the coming Saturday. It was a concept that still hung around non-league football until the 1960s, maybe later at some clubs. A few years ago, Ebbsfleet were playing around with this idea through the MyFootballClub scheme, but I don’t think the fans ever got to pick a team – proving that it’s a difficult thing to pull off.
Actually, decision-making by consensus, generally, is not easy, although it is something that has been championed in corporate life in countries like Germany. For football, it is extremely difficult, because in a room of 10 people, you will likely have 10 different opinions that have been moulded by personal likes, prejudices and dislikes.
That’s why it will be interesting to see how a new club fares in the coming season. It’s called United London FC and in 2016-17, they will play in the Essex Alliance Premier League, with their home games on Hackney Marshes in East London. The man behind it, Mark North, is as keen as mustard – he must be, he was standing at Liverpool Street station in the City of London this week, dressed in full football kit, trying to conjure up support for his venture!
United London FC are, to quote their website, “the world’s first managerless football club”. They are giving the club’s supporters and backers the chance to select their team.
Where they differ from other system-challenging ventures is that Mark and his colleagues have no axe to grind. Clubs such as AFC Wimbledon and FC United of Manchester were formed out of mistrust and frustration, but Mark says United London FC are not “against the regime” in any way. He says the club can offer some distraction from the glamour of the Premier League and focus some attention on grassroots football.
United London will compete against the likes of Chingford Athletic, Rainham Working Men’s Club, London Falcons and the team they kick-off against on September 3, Old Esthameians. You sense that Mark North cannot wait for the action to get started. He believes he has a number of players who could play at a higher level – no surprise given that around 700 players are released from clubs at the age of 18. What happens to these lads?
Some of them may well be heading United London’s way. Mark North’s squad is mostly young and some may need time to adjust to playing adult football. Mark is certainly saying the right things at this early stage, proving he’s already familiar with the game’s lingua franca, urging a team ethos where everyone “plays for each other”. He wants to be in a position to challenge for the title once his squad settles down.
We should all hope that Mark and his family – his wife is the club secretary – have a good start to this brave project. Personally, I will give anyone who stands outside a mainline railway station at 8.30am on a busy City morning, in club livery, the benefit of the doubt. Good luck to United London!