Football Without Fans Is Nothing, And United Protest Is Amplified
There were no turnstiles, so exactly how many people turned up was somewhat difficult to gauge, but by common assent there were somewhere between four and five hundred people protesting against the exhorbitant prices of tickets outside the Premier League’s headquarters yesterday afternoon, a little more than twice the number that had been anticipated and an impressive number for the middle of the close season. For too long, the supporters of English football clubs have been too supine. We swallowed the line that increased prices were a reflection of the market, that they alone allowed clubs to bring the biggest stars to our shores, and that if we didn’t like it, there would always be queues of people that didn’t care and could afford it. And whilst there is something in the argument that this is a protest that perhaps should have been held fifteen or even twenty years ago, that it has happened at all is a start.
The motivating group behind the protest was the Spirit of Shankly Liverpool supporters group, and what made their approach different this time around was that there was no tribalism on display in either the preparation for or the execution of this demonstration. The supporters of numerous different clubs arrived in London with a single, common voice, to express their anger at the exploitative nature of football ticket prices, at the fact that football is not a free market, that clubs know this and take full advantage of it. There is no need for lists of the worst offenders – although this a league that London clubs still sit ingloriously at the top of – because it is a truth that has become so self-evident in recent times. They deserve our congratulations for sticking their heads above the metaphorical parapet and actually making the argument persuasive enough for the supporters of other clubs to see the merits of joining it. And this may only be the very start of what could well be an uncomfortable time for clubs and bodies within the game who have had too much of an easy ride for far too long.
Further displays of unity between supporters groups from different clubs can only serve to amplify the message being sent. For a long time, it has been possible to view the tribalism of football support through the prism of a game of divide and conquer which has suited with a vested interest in the status quo very nicely indeed. When Manchester City supporters demonstrated at Arsenal about the £62 that they’d had to pay for their tickets for that match, the tribalists were out in full force, laying out their straw man arguments concerning the identity of that club’s owners with glee. Protests about ticket prices, however, should be anything but an argument that divides supporters for the obvious reason that it affects the supporters of every club. No-one in their right mind would argue that rivalries between clubs shouldn’t exist. They are a fundamental part of the culture of the game across the globe. However, to understand that these rivalries aren’t a be all and end all, that there are issues concerning the management and governance of professional football in this country which transcend these rivalries is to understand that there is a greater strength through unity than could ever be managed by the supporters of one club protesting alone. Together, on some matters, we are clearly stronger.
Furthermore, whilst ticket prices are an excellent jumping off point that supporters of all clubs can agree on, there are plenty of other issues relating to the game that would benefit from greater unity amongst supporters. Issues relating to the governance and ownership of football clubs remain unresolved, even after the DCMS investigation into football governance, the results of which have openly been ignored by not only clubs themselves, but also the FA and the Premier League. It’s easy to fall into a party political trap when the word ‘parliament’ is mentioned, but the truth of the matter is that, broadly speaking, greater supporter ownership and engagement and reform of the way that professional football in this country runs itself enjoy cross party support. Since the Football Taskforce of the late 1990s and the conception of Supporters Direct, which came about as a direct result of that, this has never been an issue which has divided on party political lines. Politicians, however, can be an easily distracted breed, and they will turn away and chase another story if they think that it will win them votes in the long term. By continuing to apply pressure upon them as one, we can continue to keep the question of the reform of football governance on the political agenda up to the point, if those with the ability to do change themselves continue to turn a blind eye to it, of legislation. It has been threatened before. It should not be allowed to be forgotten.
Perhaps as significant as anything else yesterday was also the timing of the protest, coming as it did on the day of the release of next season’s fixture lists. Whilst there is nothing that Sky Sports News doesn’t seem to be able to report which doesn’t result in people treating as an event, that yesterday’s protest was held on the very first day that could even be considered to mark the start of the new season was a powerful reminder whether intended or not, that the increasing anger of football supporters about ticket prices and much else besides is not simply going to go away. We have been played for fools for a very long time, herded like cattle, fobbed off with weak excuses and implicitly told to know our place for a very long time. With demonstrations that unite the supporters of different clubs, however, comes the possibility that we’re not going to take it any more. It’s true to say that supporters didn’t do enough when the youngest and the lowest earners amongst us were priced out of the game, but the mistakes of the past cannot be undone and it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be making our voices heard now.
There is a chance, of course, that the protest yesterday will be a flash in the pan which will be forgotten once the new season gets under way. It is down to us to ensure that it isn’t. Some may scoff at the number of people that turned out in London yesterday, but it was a greater number than was expected and that it was held at all should serve as a warning to those who have been carving the professional game in this country up for more than two decades of a fundamental truth that should never be allowed to be forgotten or swept under the carpet – that football without fans really is nothing.
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