On Protesting: What is to be done?
Scunthorpe United’s Football League Trophy match against Middlesbrough’s youth team was seen by 1,200 people. As a fan who is vehemently opposed to this season’s changes, I stayed away and was very dismayed to see that the attendance was relatively high: just a fraction below the average for the last two seasons, excluding visiting supporters. Clearly, despite forums and social media being full of protesting and scorn for the changes to the competition, few supporters had actually decided to vote with their feet.
The motives behind the introduction of U-23 into the competition could be seen as a stalking horse for the further addition of academy sides as part of the Football League’s “Whole Game Solution”. If this is to be avoided, it is important that this season’s “trial” is a failure and the only failure that club chairmen understand is a financial one. The bottom line is all that counts.
After the game, I posted a slightly incendiary message on a Scunny message board, saying that those who attended were “fools” and “part of the problem”. It was provocative and designed to get a response but it was also embarrassing and I regret being so strident. The internet already has enough people who are overly-sure of their convictions. Nonetheless, the message did get a response, with fans who did attend the game explaining why they did so. In general, these could be divided into two people: those for whom the force of habit of going to every home game was too great to break and those who took umbrage at being suggestions of a boycott and decided to go anyway. They wanted to support their team (hard to believe given how quiet Glanford Park usually is). Interestingly, or depressingly, most of those who replied said they went despite the fact that they are unhappy with the changes to the trophy.
So what is to be done? If people are still prepared to hand over their tenners to a club which voted in favour of the changes, changes which are hugely unpopular, how can football fans ever expect to have their voice heard? If the people are unable or unwilling to stand up for their interests, can anyone blame the authorities for exploiting them to the full? What levers are available to you to exert any pressure on authorities or owners you are unhappy with?
It seems, however, that organising fan protests in English football which involve any amount of sacrifice or self-denial, for any reason, is very hard to achieve. Fans are too self-interested to see the bigger picture and act for the benefit of the many, too fragmented to act as a single body, too lacking in self-awareness to be able to put aside internecine squabbles. Perhaps this can be construed as being indicative of some wider malaise, of the individualisation of society and the death of community, with people more interested in their own gratification than in the needs of others. Perhaps people have always been this selfish, which is how we got here in the first place.
In the Premier League, I suspect the situation is slightly different. At many of the bigger clubs, if you give up your seat for one game or the whole season, you are unlikely to be missed. Even if the whole stadium was empty, it is a very small drop in the financial ocean for the club. So it does perhaps make more sense for supporters to stage any protest in front of the cameras, to ensure that their case gets exposure even if it doesn’t have a direct financial impact. In recent seasons, there have been successful movements to block changes to Liverpool season ticket prices and to cap admission for visiting supporters in the Premier League. By washing their dirty laundry in a very public forum, supporters have achieved a modicum of success.
Yet, in the lower leagues, these tactics would be far less effective, whilst at the same time withdrawing your support will have a much more tangible impact financially for the club. Blackpool fans have perhaps had more success than most in organising a boycott of games, though in their particularly case the owners seem immune to any form of protest. Charlton fans have similarly struggled to cause enough financial discomfort to their owners to force them out. And these are largely single-club issues: any hopes of a campaign to deal with some of the wider problems that Football League clubs face seem slim indeed.
In Germany, a country which can teach us a lot about fan representation and engagement but which is by no means without its problems. Last season, fans at several clubs organised boycotts, with varying degrees of success, in response to reduced allocations for away fans at derby matches. Their voice was heard. Ask yourself why Germans still have terracing and lots of football on free-to-air TV? They are able to stage effective protests: even a TV boycott against subscription viewing was successful. Here, such rights have long since been trampled on.
The reformation of the erstwhile Johnstone’s Paints Trophy and the forthcoming “Whole Game Solution” is probably the most controversial decision taken by the Football League since it approved the formation of MK Dons. Back in 2000, there was much hand-wringing but ultimately we have accepted Milton Keynes, no matter how grudgingly. And until, as fans, we agree to come together and put petty differences and self-interests to one side, the powers-that-be will continue to do as they please whilst the money keeps rolling in. To borrow one of 2016’s more loathsome phrases, maybe it’s time that, as supporters, we took back control.
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