Football is a passionate sport. It’s played by passionate people, and followed by passionate people, and without such people, the sport would not thrive the way that it does – as Jock Stein famously said, “Football without the fans is nothing”. The various governing bodies use the fact that the game is passionate, and that football fans are passionate people in order to sell television rights, and other marketing concepts around the world. Those television rights holders also play on the passion of the fans, in order to not only sell their product, but also to advertise their product. The Premier League have played on it, Sky Sports play on it, and most of the newspapers have played on it to plug their own coverage from time to time. One time of the year when that passion is plugged into the most, is when the end of season play-offs arrive, with its various crowd shots of deliriously happy fans celebrating, or disappointed fans in tears.
Amongst the teams that won promotion at the end of this season, of course, were AFC Wimbledon. And without retreading old ground too much, the story is routed in the theft of the club, thanks to the actions and lies of the then owners of the club, which was rubber-stamped by a three man commission. This led to the formation of England’s second Trust-owned club AFC Wimbledon (the first one being Enfield Town FC), who have made the journey from the Combined Counties League to the Football League in 2002. The Dons’ victory at the City of Manchester Stadium was the latest triumph of one of football’s feel-good stories, and fans of many clubs up and down the country took the internet to celebrate the Dons’ ascension into the Football League, seeing this as a poke in the eye to the likes of Pete Winkleman in the process.
One of these fans was Dave Boyle; AFC Wimbledon fan, and Chief Executive of Supporters Direct – the governing body of Supporters Trusts. Like many people that day, Boyle took to social media site Twitter in order to make his feelings known – in the UK, the phrase “afcwimbledon” was the most used on the site in the UK, leading the “trending topics” for a few hours after the match. Some of Boyle’s tweets contained colourful language, and some of the comments were directed at Franchise owner Winkleman, and members of the FA’s three-man commission. It is understood that the nature of these tweets reached the Premier League’s Director of Communications Bill Bush, and chair of the three man panel that considers funding applications from the Premier League-funded Football Stadia Improvement Fund. With six of Supporters Direct’s funding applications of the table (three of which having already been approved), Bush wrote to the Supporter’s Direct chair Dame Pauline Green regarding Boyle’s tweets, and unsatisfied at her response, withdrew the funding from the applications – estimated by the Guardian’s David Conn as being worth £1.2m. The question of the rights or wrongs of the Tweets concerned is probably neither here nor there, though, because this decision has the feel of having been taken because those that could take it, took it.
In the recent Department of Culture, Media and Sport investigation into football, former Football Association chairman Lord Triesman testified about Premier League chairman Dave Richards that “points are made in a very colourful manner. I wouldn’t use that language” – yet colourful language would never, obviously and rightly, cost the Premier League any of its funding. In March, Wayne Rooney recently shouted “fuck off” into a camera, after scoring against West Ham United. This was broadcast live around the world, and seen by millions. Rooney was suspended from two games – a punishment that was seen by many as harsh. However, when it comes to a fans organization, using colourful language does not just cost the job of the official concerned, it also used as a justification from withdrawing £1.2million from the whole movement.
Indeed, the haste with which the funding was withdrawn – it has been reported that, following Green’s response to the letter from Bush, the FSIF withdrew funding with no further communication with them – may well lead us to the conclusion that this incident was little more than all the excuse that the Premier League needed to withdraw its funding from an organisation that has been a thorn in its side in recent years. Some may also wish to reflect on the irony – if it is mere coincidence – that the story first appeared in a Mail Group newspaper, whose group, just over a year ago, managed to get another individual that had come to stand for the reform of English football, Lord Triesman, removed from his position with the FA. Similarly, the timing of the release of the story – the results of the parliamentary enquiry into football governance are expected in the near future – could regarded as highly convenient for those opposed to its reform.
Clearly, the feelings amongst the Supporters Trust community is high, with many feeling that the double standards have been applied in this case, especially when compared to the higher profile cases of Richards and Rooney. In this respect it feels that Dave Boyle is merely a scapegoat – the high ranking official within Supporters Direct that has made the mistake that has allowed the Premier League to withdraw funding from a movement that it does not share the aims of. The timing of this is especially unfortunate, when you consider that AFC Wimbledon have joined Brentford and Exeter City as 100% Trust-run Football League clubs, and that Swansea City have just become the first Premier League club to have a sizable (20%) Trust ownership, as well as having the Premier League’s first Supporters Trust appointed director, in Vice Chairman Leigh Dineen.
In the meantime, a Facebook group regarding Supporters Direct and their future have already been has been supported by over a thousand people within the Trust community, and avenues of further action are being explored. If you feel you can help, or just wish to add your support, the group can be found here.
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