Blind fan devotion does nobody any good

FOOTBALL loyalists often boast of their undying love for their club and sneer at those you don’t share the same obsessional view. “Where were you when we were shit?,” is a much-asked question of the new fan by balding, cynical long-standing fans. 

There are 92 bodies of fans in the Premier and Football League, each with their own identity. Fans within the core follow their club, come what may, the difference between the core and expanded supporter base is determined by team performance. Do well, and the crowds rise, do poorly and the support dwindles down to the core.

Supporters don’t always stick with it, hence the myth that “managers, players and chairmen come and go, supporters are a constant” isn’t necessarily true. The body support remains, but the size of that support changes. How could it be anything other than an organic being that expands and shrinks? Just consider that in 1983, Chelsea’s average gate was around 12,700 and some attendances were less than 7,000. Regulars at Stamford Bridge today, many of whom were not around in those desperate days, would find it hard to believe just how low Chelsea’s support fell and how disillusioned so many were.

Similarly, in 1991-92, the last pre-Premier season, Tottenham averaged 28,000, Manchester city 27,000, West Ham 21,300, Chelsea 19,000 and Arsenal 32,000. Yes, fans have always been there, but the numbers have changed. So who are the loyal fans?

You hear criticisms of fans who are not “loyal Blues, loyal Gooners or loyal Spurs”, but the the word loyal needs examining. What does “loyal” mean? Loyal is returning to the stadium even though the team might be rubbish, urging the players on even though they are of limited ability. 

But is loyal a healthy condition? In the modern world, we have choice, we do not have to go to the game, we do not have to tolerate inadequacy, we certainly do not need to silently put up with poor facilities or poor communication by clubs. We have choice, we have alternatives. In the distant past, if your home town had a football team, you went along, squeezed onto the terraces and watched honest toilers kick the ball around for 90 minutes. It was cheap, the spectator accommodation was often appalling, the catering primitive, but it was the best the establishment offered.

As we moved from being hordes of working class, obedient proles to a crude form of middle class theatre-goers, we became more discerning. Amazingly, with the arrival of the Premier League, we still allowed admission prices to be raised astronomically and players wages climb to multiples of the ordinary man or woman’s income. But still, the fans continue to feed the beast, buying merchandise as if it were rare baubles from a tomb raid and filling stadiums to record highs. They complain about how they are frequently taken for granted, but still they pour their hard-earned into the coffers of the big clubs. Somebody forgot to tell many fans that football is a discretionary spend and not an essential item. Football fans are often classic examples of FOMO (fear of missing out).

Football clubs are prone to making mistakes, but they do not see the inevitable outcome of so many of their decisions.

The loyalty of the fan rarely seems to be questioned, as if it is a prerequisite for being perm itted to attend, but so many people do themselves a disservice by bolting themselves to a football club, which in reality, comprises a troop of young men with all the hormones and temperament of street-corner youths. That grown men and women with education and sophisticated lifestyles align themselves, with no questions asked, to such an entity is a mystery and underlines the curious role football plays in society.

But such allegiance should not be a case of blindly following a team and not questioning the status quo. Football fans are customers, products of capitalism and the relationship is simple – pay your admission, watch the game. By all means, shout your encouragement, but being a loyal fan is doing just that. Or is it?

We are no longer passive spectators who accept what’s dished up like extra from Oliver Twist. If the fans are supposed to be stakeholders, then the act of tenuous ownership, either actual or emotional, demands the club and its management is accountable to the fans. If you want spectators, do not treat them with disdain or try to cheat them. Likewise, listen to them and keep lines of communication open.

So does being loyal mean you don’t have license to criticise, ask questions and blindly support the club even if you know things are not right? Are the only people who can say their team whether a team is poor are the managers themselves? 

And does the act of being critical mean you are disloyal or a turncoat? Take for example, the manager whose time is running out. His best pals will, invariably, tell him he’s great, insist that he’s been unlucky and given he’s a top fellow, things will work out. It’s like the loyal wife who tells her husband he’s wonderful all the time. Delusion sets in. The real best pal will tell his manager friend it’s time to go. It’s a tough task, and won’t be well received in most cases, but prolonging pain does nobody a service.

The contract between a fan and the club is personal, but it is a commercial transaction as much as an emotional agreement. It is a peculiar situation, one that is almost out of sync with contemporary life. You will still hear comments like, “you change your wife, but not your football club”, but why not change your club? Most clubs do not really represent their towns anymore, most players are not shining stars of the neighbourhood. Almost every team is multi-national, owned by foreign investors and representative of a global brand. The old days of clubs being symbols of their city or town have long gone. Not even non-league clubs are always local clubs for local players. Therefore, the idea you support your local team through good and bad, is an old-fashioned and dare we say, outdated, concept. Want further proof? – in most towns around Britain, you will find as many Liverpool and Manchester United fans as staunch followers of the local side. So much for backing “local”.

Clubs and their management make mistakes all the time. Sometimes, they cannot see the inevitable outcome of their bad decisions. The fans are there to hold them to task and nobody should be called “disloyal” for voicing that opinion. It is the 21st century, even in these worrying pandemic days, we have more alternatives than ever before. Loyalty has to be earned, a club has no given right to expect it when the wheels come off the wagon.

Why invest in a non-league club?

Photo: footysphere (CC BY-SA 2.0)

IS IT purely philanthropy or is there some genuine value in investing in a non-league football club?

It is hard to justify investment in any sports club, let alone a non-league outfit, but all over the country, local football is short of money and struggling to live within its means.

“Just do the math” as they would say in a Wall Street movie. Money in, money out. That’s how most non-league clubs run. Indeed, many Football League clubs are in the same position. For a game that is awash with cash, thanks to TV money, best-ever attendances and massive media exposure, the bottom line is generally very anaemic. Why? Simply, players are earning too much.

In the non-league game, wages are still too high, and in most cases, teams are making too many long journeys to play in front of a few hundred people. It won’t stop, because nobody wants to be the first mover. Nobody wants to make a stand against players’ wages. It is a brave club that steps out of line.

So year-in, year-out, clubs are always looking for “investors”. Most of these are not really investors at all but donors. Nobody is ever going to make a fast buck out of non-league football – legally.

Unfortunately, non-league football can also attract the wrong type of people as well as the worthy, well-meaning sponsor that wants to put something back into the local community. The world is full of would-be money launderers and tax-dodgers. The word “ego” also looms pretty large.

Property development is another reason why opportunists get involved in the non-league game. Often clubs are sitting on real estate that can be very valuable, so whenever a property man gets interested in a club, some people do become suspicious. Of course, a relocation can be a very lucrative project for a club, removing debt and legacy issues and offering the chance of rebirth on a new shiny site that offers broader facilities than those that existed at the original home of the club. But the problem is that the “investor” will look to leverage the property deal for his or her own benefit. Some might argue that if the club gets a new home, where’s the problem, but non-league clubs have been vulnerable to the sharp businessman who just sees a nice profit.

Given that non-league doesn’t have the critical mass needed to make big money, the real estate angle is often the only way any investor could get something back in return. “And why not?”, some would say, as investment often comes in the form of propping-up woeful balance sheets.

Another avenue that could appeal to investors is in being given the chance to run the concessions and entertainment facilities at a club in return for a substantial cash sum. Some clubs franchise their bar and social facilities, which is usually a sign that the club cannot make a profit or devote the time to turning their clubhouse into a profitable venture. Of course, this demands a certain set of skills and often unloading the responsibility can come as a big relief to the club.

Invariably, people want something back in return for cash injections. There’s only one set of stakeholders that don’t seem to require a quick financial return – supporters. Game of the People has long been an advocate of supporters’ trusts and fan-owned clubs at non-league level. In truth, they are probably the least demand segment of the triumvirate of sponsor, investor and fan. In the non-league game, the idea of “involvement” and “engagement” appeals to the loyal supporter who has stood on the terrace for decades. Fans claim that their club belongs to the people that watch it, but the fact is, clubs like Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal do not belong to the fans – they are the property of owners and shareholders.

Non-league clubs have the opportunity to change that and create a body of “investors” that have a stake in the club. It is not the only way for there are many models, and there are genuine folk who are literally benefactors and philanthropists who want to connect with their local community. The message is clear, engage your “investors” carefully, make sure they know of the limitations and, above all, manage their expectations. They need to be clear that non-league is more Coronation Street than Wall Street. Above all, be aware of theodolites!