There is definitely something in the air. If the landscape of the football supporter has been defined by any single theme over the last two or three years, then the notion of protest and a more general feeling of satisfaction at the way on which our game is being run has to come close to the top of anybody’s list. As British society has come to feel more fractured and fractious over the last couple of years, this has been reflected in an arena in which the consumers – those who commit so much to keep the whole circus running – have for too long merely their lot, with all of its attendant injustices and inequalities. The autumn and winter of 2011, however, have started to feel like football’s winter of discontent.
The notion of a rebirth of disquiet amongst supporters is a broad spectrum, which takes in all levels of football, from the shabby goings-on in the hushed corridors of the global governing body of the game to fury at non-league clubs over the way that they are being managed. They range from the expressly political to the completely political neutral. They have one thing in common, though – the dawning of three critical realisations: that football supporters are more than mere consumers of the game, and that mere consumers would seldom be treated as badly as football supporters are, and that, rather than conferring something bigger upon supporters, a large number of clubs seek to exploit their captive audience for no better reason than because they can.
The roots of the protest groups that have sprung up of late are easy enough to define. In the first place, it came at a low level. At FC United of Manchester, for example, a club was formed and began to thrive from a notion that football clubs didn’t have to behave in the way that they so frequently do. They were told that it wouldn’t last until Christmas. Seven and a half years on, they remain true to their original spirit and continue to score points on their own terms. As it started to feel as if the Premier League might start to collapse under the weight of a toxic combination of weight of debt and hubris, supporters at far bigger clubs began to look more existentially at their own clubs. At Liverpool, the Sons Of Shankly campaigned against the poisonous ownership of Gillett and Hicks and, while the green and gold protests at Old Trafford might have ultimately failed to remove the Glazer family from the club, they did at least make national headlines. Neither of these protests were perfect, but they did at least set in motion a conversation – that protesting may be successful or unsuccessful, but that making your voice heard has to be worth a throw of the dice.
The longest-running of this year’s protests, however, came at more modestly sized clubs than Manchester United or Liverpool. At Wrexham, anger at financial mismanagement and the separation of the club from ownership of its historic ground became a sustained movement for the clubs supporters trust to take ownership of it. This was eventually successful, though the club now has new financial challenges to meet. At Plymouth Argyle, meanwhile, anger was directed at a protracted spell in administration during which assurances given by a shadowy preferred bidder were repeatedly and inexplicably overlooked while players and staff went months without a full pay packet. The club was eventually bought by the supporters preferred option, but it was a close shave and Plymouth’s Football League status remains far from assured.
Other protests at Football League clubs received less media attention. Supporter protests were dealt with ham-fistedly at Coventry City, a club which is now staring down the barrel of a drop into the third tier of the game for the first time in over forty years, whilst at Port Vale promised investment never arrived and boardroom wrangling overshadowed anything that happened on the pitch, whilst Cardiff City supporters walked out of Elland Road, angry at extortionate ticket prices and the way that they were treated by stewards in the ground. There have also been rumblings of discontent at Portsmouth, where respite from club-endangering financial woes has proved to be dispiritingly temporary.
Even in the Premier League, not traditionally a fertile ground for protests in recent years, there have been voices of disquiet. Blackburn Rovers supporters angry at their club’s current position may well be directed at manager Steve Kean, but there is a wider sense of unease at the way that the club has been run since its take-over by the Venkys group which doesn’t look like going away at any point in the future. At Everton, meanwhile, The Blue Union has been set up with concerns about the club’s financial health and on-pitch performance. The bigger a club is, the more difficult it can feel for ordinary supporters to feel as if they can influence its behaviour. At Blackburn Rovers and Everton, we might just find out what the limits of what they can achieve will be.
All of this comes on top of a more general feeling of disenchantment at the way that the game is being run in this country. An initial burst of anger over the performance of the England national team at the 2010 World Cup subsided into a feeling of widespread apathy towards it, although performances on the pitch remained resaonable through a mediocre European Championships qualifying group. Few, however, hold any hopes of their prolonged involvement at next summer’s finals. Unhappiness over the Elite Player Performance Plan, which redrew the rules on the acquisition and retention of academy players, on the other hand, came too late for it to have any significant effect upon the decisions already made.
Over the last twelve months, signs of coordinated protests against the corporatisation of football have started to show, including Reclaim The Game, Take Back The Game and Change FIFA, and these may well continue to grow. The most successful joint protest of the year arguably came at Home Park in Plymouth with the Fans Reunited Day, which was arranged by Plymouth supporters with the invaluable assistance of supporters from Brighton & Hove Albion. There is every chance that these more general protests will increase in number and volume in 2012 but, as the events on the red side of Merseyside over the last couple of days have shown, football supporters can’t always be relied upon to protest for the most noble of reasons.
Looking into our crystal ball, we can at least have a go at trying to predict where disquiet is likely to grow. Blue Square Premier club Kettering Town are in dire straits following their financially ruinous move to the home of former rivals Rushden & Diamonds, while dissatisfaction levels at several other clubs in their division, such as Lincoln City and Stockport County, also remain high. Higher up the pyramid, it would not be difficult to see supporter anger at Port Vale reaching critical mass over the coming months, whilst the return – yet again – of Peter Ridsdale to a chairman’s seat, this time at Preston North End, may mean that blood pressures will rise at Deepdale if performances do not improve on the pitch, and Yeovil Town supporters have also been giving off signals of being agitated of late. We will be watching with considerable interest.
If tribalism can be trumped by a realisation that we, as supporters, have more in common than even the most poisonous of local rivalries have between them, then there is a possibility that further pressure can be put on those in positions of control within the game itself to change it for the better. If, however, we allow the opportunities to reform pass us by now, we may wake up in two, three or five years time to find that the great carve-up has ended and that the game is run by people even less accountable than those that are in place now. Twenty years ago, English football sleepwalked into a Premier League which has created such inequality that football can only sparingly be described as a sport any more. As more and more people find themselves disillusioned with what football has become, it seems likely that disgruntlement will continue to grow. Perhaps the most pressing question that supporters face as we enter the new year is that of how this current mood of disillusionment and anger can be channelled into something more positive and productive.
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