Commentary Box: Fans Forums – redundant media?

THERE was a time when internet fans forums were vibrant, full of debate and, occasionally, a little over the top. In the case of non-league clubs, the small audience and the intimacy of that level of the game made it difficult for clubs to accept criticism from regular fans. Comments made by fans about players, managers or club owners, were never easily absorbed, but when debate was measured and reasonable, the concept of a fans forum provided increased connectivity between the club and its loyal supporters.

But has their time gone? Is the fans forum a thing of the past? Many of those that still exist rarely seem to move beyond the idea of a message board rather than a true discussion forum. And all too often, general social media sites degenerate into slanging matches between the fans of rival clubs.

We live in an era where nobody is allowed to disagree with the official narrative, and if they do, they are labelled as “trouble”. We’ve seen this most recently in the UK in politics, locally and nationally, and there is an air of “you’re either with us or against us”, that certainly extends to many aspects of modern life. Football supporters are expected to be “blind” in their devotion, they are not allowed to stray from the path of total commitment to the cause. Yet those that run clubs would be well advised to recall a song from long ago: “we’ll support you evermore”, which was invariably sung at every game by the team that was losing. Clubs have to remember that supporting a team is more often than not, characterised by disappointment, so there has to be some license to complain!

Non-league clubs feel very uncomfortable when somebody challenges the status quo. Let’s face it, some clubs need to have their status quo challenged, otherwise fans get cast in the role of lemmings hurtling over the cliff, gratefully trusting an owner or administration that could be hell bent on bankruptcy or personal gain. But when somebody does question those that rarely actually answer questions, they might go as far as denying them access to official channels. This is a dangerous and foolhardy practice given contemporary themes of “diversity”, “inclusion” and “stakeholders”. People who act as the proverbial “thorn in the side” should be thanked, not ostracised.

It is somewhat laughable when fans berate those that do express their dissatisfaction about a team, a regime, a manager or players. The comment, “get behind the team/club/player”, is all very well, but this is another example of the sanitisation of modern football, where criticism is not comfortably tolerated. Recently, a burly, high-viz wearing steward admonished a fan because he shouted loudly that a player was rubbish. There was no threat, no bad language, but the comment from the bouncer was “we don’t need that here”. Is it any wonder that most football grounds are totally lacking in atmosphere?

And so, the Fans Forum. What is a “forum” if it is not for interaction between fans about the game? Keep it polite, by all means. Keep it clean, for sure. But criticism or a difference of opinion should not be seen as vitriol or unacceptable behaviour. Neither should questions about a club’s finances, governance or policies be verboten. A club can choose not to answer these questions, but in no circumstances should enquiries be labelled as the actions of a “trouble maker”.

In some cases, it does seem as though clubs and their fans do not want to enter into conversation that could be deemed “unacceptable” by prominent individuals that stalk forum cyber space. Are blazer-wearing officials going to have them dragged outside by their high-viz bouncers to exact their revenge for daring to challenge? Will fans disappear in the dead of night, consigned to watch step 5 football? Alternatively, they could be exiled from the forum, where typical engagement is invariably focused away from commenting about a game for fear of upsetting sensitive individuals. Whatever happened to genuine supporter passion and the voice of the fan – has it been replaced by a form of coffee-shop gentrification? How long until we get pop-up Turkish barbers appearing on matchdays? Now there’s a thought.

Photo: PA