Football clubs have always, in the main, been run as fiefdoms. From the late Victorian era and the likes of John Houlding at Liverpool through to his obvious descendents, such as Doug Ellis and Ken Bates, there has always been an element of ‘my way or the highway’ about club owners, but in the twenty-first century, when we demand greater transparency, in particular with regard to clubs being run for the benefit of their supporters, examples of true autocracy have a tendency to look all the more jarring. Indeed, perhaps the only thing more jarring than this is the sight of those who accept the edicts of those who are richers and betters – which seems destined to become this century’s equivalent of ‘elders and betters’ – without question. Over the last couple of seasons, this sort of absolute rule has made something of a return in professional football after a few years on the wane, most notably at Cardiff City, where an entire soap opera could be based upon a combination of what we know for sure and conjecture which doesn’t sound as ridiculous as it should do.
There remains a protest at Cardiff City, of course, against the debasement of the club’s identity and about the increasingly freakish rumours concerning the actions those running the club, but the sheer white noise that comes with merely being in the Premier League has drowned much of it out. At Hull City AFC, meanwhile, last Friday saw the release of an interview with the club’s utging chief executive which could only really make one’s jaw drop to the floor. In an extraordinary interview with SportConnect that was published at the end of last week, Nick Thompson made some very bold claims about where support lays with the rebranding of the club’s name in what reads for all the world like an attempt to smear those who had been mobilising this rebrand. He paints a broad brush in order to do so, stating that supporters of the club can be considered as being one of three categories. In order to explain this bizarre claim, let’s allow him to do so in his own words:
“When you segment the supporters, there are three large groupings. The first is called the “entranced.” For them the club is everything. For them, the high point of their relationship with the club was standing outside Boothferry Park with buckets collecting money to keep the club from going out of business. At that stage the Chairman knew all the fans by name and there was a co-dependency in the relationship. Any improvement, such as promotion to the Premier League will not be as good for these fans as when there was that co-dependency. The group constitutes about 5% of the fanbase and many of them don’t come to matches any more. But they are the fans who believe they are the heart and soul of the club and are very vocal.
The second group is the hooked, who are your season ticket holders and buy shirts and scarves. They have a great love for the club. Essentially they are the heartbeat of the club and they just want what is good for Hull. When we talk to them, they are quite relaxed about the Hull City Tigers but they are not as vocal as the entranced. They are the silent minority. At the other end you have the attached, people who come for a couple of games a season. They are potential season ticket supporters, but for now, they come along for the excitement. The honest reality is that they don’t care what we call ourselves.”
First of all, let’s take a moment to consider how damn insulting it is to describe the first of his (let’s face it, broadly imaginary) groupings – the hardcore of the club’s support, many of whom were the rump of support who kept it alive during its many lean years, as Thompson himself admits – as “the entranced”, as if they are hyponotised by the football club or somehow otherwise insane, and precisely how appalling it should be that the chief executive of a football club should apparently seek to dismiss them as something approaching an irrelevance by saying that this group, “constitutes about 5% of the fanbase and many of them don’t come to matches any more” (he might as well have preceded that with the word “only”, but didn’t). We note that he didn’t mention, as he did with his next category, whether they “love” the club or not.
Next, let’s pause to think about the fascinating mathematics behind the very concept of Hull City’s season ticket holders being a “silent minority” (there are more than 20,000 Hull City season ticket holders this season, making up almost eighty per cent of the capacity of the KC Stadium; in what way that could conceivably be regarded as a “minority” is another stretching of credulity). But it’s okay, because Thompson has spoken to them and they are “quite relaxed” about it. He doesn’t provide numbers. He doesn’t consider that people who speak to him about it might just not be representative of, well, anyone other than themselves. No, they’re the “silent minority”, and the fact that they’re not calling for him to be hung, drawn and quartered apparently means that they agree with the rebranding. A similar sweeping generalisation is used in relation to “the attached” – people “who come along for the excitement” and who, apparently and conveniently for Thompson, “don’t care what we call ourselves.” If he wasn’t leaving the club, he should have been called to account for drawing such crass, insulting generalisations and stereotypes.
During the summer, meanwhile, it had started to become increasingly apparent to an increasing number of supporters that their club was being rebranded by stealth as the Hull City Tigers. Anger has been growing amongst Hull supporters about a name change that commonly came to be regarded as being shunted through as if by stealth, and at the end of September a pressure group was formed by the name of City Til We Die (CTWD) with the intention of openly opposing the idea of the rebrand. On the very same day as Thompson’s weasel words were being published, CTWD were meeting with Dr Assem Allam, the supreme overlord of the club and the man whose idea this rebranding seems to be.
During the meeting, Allam committed to complete research to assess whether changing the name will provide the additional income the club requires going forward, to undertake wider consultation exercise with fans if they believe additional revenue from global marketing can be gleaned from changing the name, and to work together regularly with the fans on any issues which impact upon supporters. It wasn’t quite a victory for CTWD. That would have required an undertaking on Allam’s part to not mess around with the club’s name, but it’s a start, and it is to be hoped that the research that the club now completes is carried out openly and honestly. Allam’s honesty will be judged upon what happens next, and not as result of this meeting.
For now, though, merely the fact that the supporters have formed a single, coherent group is a start, and that they managed to get themselves a meeting with the owner and something approaching an agreement with him rather than, say, the brick wall and barbed comments on Twitter that Cardiff City supporters who were opposed to the rebranding of their club received when they expressed their displeasure at what was being done to their club, is tentatively encouraging. This, however, may well turn out to be a battle that is a long way from over, and all the ameliorating words of the club’s owner cannot shake the nagging suspicion that we have not heard anything like the last of this story just yet. Rich businessmen have a tendency to get exactly what they want. It will be interesting to see what the results of the club’s research are. Until then, an uneasy truce may just hold sway over The KC stadium. A “silent minority”, indeed.
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