A £400 transfer to Fulham. Why?

Photo: Tom via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

CALL IT Premier League fatigue, economics or just a case of marginalisation. I have bought a season ticket for Fulham for the 2018-19 season and frankly, I am looking forward to spending a year at Craven Cottage. In exile, perhaps, maybe a marriage of convenience, but I prefer to call it the search for something new.

As a Chelsea fan since 1968, I’ve had season tickets at Stamford Bridge, but not for many years. I decided that I wanted to watch, regularly, top class football instead of playing the nomad, which has been my football diet of choice for the past 25 years. Of course, it’s difficult to get a ticket for a single match at Chelsea, let alone a season, and the process of trying to go and see the club I’ve followed since I was nine years old has become tedious. So what should I do if I want to see a reasonable level of football next season?

Fulham was an obvious choice, given they are just along the Fulham Road from Chelsea, and furthermore, it’s a club I have always liked. Matchday at Craven Cottage is always pleasant and Fulham have always struck me as a decent club. I’ve not discarded Chelsea, but I’ve kind of given up on trying to see them. Not an easy decision, but one I had thought about for some time – I want a break from non-league football and rediscover the passion of feeling attached to a club again. It wasn’t going to happen at Chelsea because I’m too detached from things – I’ve become a SKY/BT fan – and I have little in common with the current generation of spectators at “the Bridge”.

This is a club for today, not the past. I know all about Chelsea’s history, I can name all the great teams and players off by heart. I can recall the pivotal moments in the club’s history and Stamford Bridge will always be there, but for the time being, I refuse to scramble around, go on waiting lists and sit for hours online in the forlorn hope of getting a ticket.

There’s also the element of the unexpected that was, for many years, part of being a Chelsea supporter. My season ticket days were in a time when very few were interested, so I am familiar with boredom, frustration, false dawns and low levels of achievement. I couldn’t believe it, in 1997, when  Chelsea won the FA Cup – the last time I had enjoyed this experience was in 1970 when I was at Primary School. I loved it when Mourinho brought the first Premier title to the club, I almost hyper-ventilated when Drogba netted the winner in Munich and I can still go hoarse when Chelsea score a goal on TV. But it has become near impossible to be part of it and I want that level of allegiance, before I get too old to make the journey to South West London to see a football match. Also, I want a taste of unpredictability, of enjoying “little victories” and watching some reality rather than seeing a trophy win as a given, as something that is somehow owed to clubs like Chelsea.

How long will my exile last? It’s not exile, it is about aligning myself to more than one club. I now support Chelsea and Fulham. They’ve got my £400 for a season ticket and I will give them 100% backing in 2018-19. Whether that’s in the Premier or the Championship matters not to me. I want to enjoy the matchday experience again, cheer on a team and get more out of being a supporter again. Personally, I cannot wait to take my seat.


Why non-league fans need to know

MODERN football, at its highest level, has become a commodity. Investment in football clubs has become an asset class to be placed alongside bonds, equities, real estate and gold. At the top, fans have little or no intimacy with their club, they are paying customers that buy into the brand like technology geeks become disciples of the latest iPhone. They keep feeding the machine and the clubs have an audience that queues for the right to queue online in pursuit of tickets and favours. The demand outstrips the supply in multiples.

At the game’s pinnacle, football clubs are no different from large corporates, but in the non-league game it is different, the audience is smaller, the financial stakes relatively minute and the relationship between fan and club is supposedly more personal.

The investment made by non-league fans comes in the form of attachment and loyalty, unless of course there is a fund that supporters contribute to bolster finances and help the club compete at the highest possible level.

Regardless of the ownership structure, a club can quickly develop tumbleweed without its supporters. The club needs it fans as much as the loyal, die-hard needs his or her football fix. This is so very relevant at non-league level because a club, in order to be relevant to the community, must have critical mass in terms of people that “care” whether it exists or not. For a club’s administration to take that for granted is very dangerous and can, ultimately, lead to extinction.

The only way a club can thrive is for all stakeholders to be connected and to be full-square behind the mission. It may be appear to be something of a contemporary cliché, but it is no more a catchphrase than other important elements of modern sporting entities, such as diversity and community.

Without people, everything that involves the day-to-day running of the club, its community position and its fund-raising activities becomes null and void. If a club has 500 fans, it is obviously more relevant to the neighbourhood than a club with a couple of dozen followers. And if you don’t have fans, you can soon get to the point where you ask, “what is the club really for?”.

That’s why financial transparency is an important factor. Owners may, with some justification, consider the financial state of “their” club is not the concern of the people on the terraces, and if it was a conventional business with the pursuit of profit at the heart of its business model and shareholders receiving dividends, then you could buy into that idea. But supporters, in effect are “emotional shareholders” if nothing else. Their allegiance is an asset, one that should be valued, but it can so easily be lost if it appears to be a one-way commitment.

Around 30 years ago, I shared a driveway at my home and my neighbours said the drive was 75% theirs (this was not true, a shared drive is a shared drive and plans can be misleading) and that they were being extremely generous to allow me to use the drive. I added that, “without my supposed 25%, your 75% is worthless, you wouldn’t have enough room to take your car up the ramp.” Heads were scratched and the conclusion was, “how true”. You can compare this to the dynamic between owners and supporters. The owner may have most of the cards, but if there is no audience, there is nothing but an empty ground and a dying club.

Owners should see their support base as an asset, almost as much a part of the family silver as that £200 per week centre forward. This asset can be harnessed to become a force for good, be it community activities or as a positive body that helps the club achieve its goals. For example, if the club has problems over its stadium, like the Dulwich affair, the sheer numbers involved in protesting can add leverage to the argument. Likewise, any club owner that proclaims, “we are all in this together” has to mean it and develop trust and two-way dialogue that really does make the fans feel as though they have a voice.

Most non-league fans would actually relish the chance to own a stake in their club. A survey by Game of the People revealed that 79% of respondents would welcome a share issue, although 10% wouldn’t consider it under the current regime.

Too often fans are not allowed to know about the finances of their club. While certain sensitivities will exist, and do a club no good to become public domain, basic financial details would let the supporters know that their emotional “investment” is in good hands. Some clubs, those with full or partial supporter-ownership models, do publicise their figures, but there are still some that operate under a “smoke and mirrors” model.

Openness and greater transparency can only be a plus. Non-league clubs are small communities where gossip is commonplace and people come to their own conclusions if the environment is opaque and complex. Some clubs do it well, others need to follow, for the future of non-league football should be about community, realism and inclusion, from top to bottom. A new generation of fans is needed to ensure the demographic remains healthy, and it is worth noting that this group of people will have a very different outlook than the ageing supporter bases prevalent at many clubs. They will, undoubtedly, ask more questions and challenge the status quo.