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‘We have a voice’: Fans on the past, present and future of English football

·26-min read
<p>Manchester United supporters have demonstrated against the Glazer ownership</p> (AFP via Getty Images)

Manchester United supporters have demonstrated against the Glazer ownership

(AFP via Getty Images)

On April 18, following a rushed out statement, the football landscape shifted by seismic proportions. The Super League, a threat that had long hung over the game in various disguises, was here to dismantle the sport as we knew it.

The 48 hours after was unlike anything seen before: a swell of opposition against the breakaway tournament with stakeholders - fans, media, players, associations, leagues and the government - uniting to slay what was a common enemy.

Most pronounced in this process was that supporters, regardless of affiliation, stood together to fight for the pyramid, sporting merit and the status of clubs as social institutions.

The public sentiment against it was so strong in England that Florentino Perez, president of this 12-team monster that wanted to maroon the rest of the football world, pinned it as the reason the project collapsed.

The Super League, as undesirable as it was, has led to positive offshoots. Fan empowerment has been one such obvious and refreshing consequence.

Owners are being held to account, as was seen when action outside Stamford Bridge ahead of Chelsea’s draw with Brighton led the club to become the first to reveal their intention to withdraw from the Super League.

It was in full effect again at Old Trafford last Sunday. Protests against the Glazer ownership, which has cost the club in excess of £1 billion, saw the first match in Premier League history being postponed due to fan behaviour: Manchester United’s blockbuster hosting of Liverpool being the backdrop to make a major statement.

The violent scenes were unacceptable, but it was only a smidge of the full story. United supporters, in their thousands, were unequivocal that they wouldn’t be ignored any more and a large proportion of rival fans voiced solidarity with their cause.

The age of disenfranchisement is over. This is the era of pushing for better, of being seen, heard, understood and appreciated.

The Independent spoke to a supporter from each of the English teams - Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester City - that signed up to the Super League to glean views of the past, the present and the future.

A Leicester City fan, having witnessed the 5000-1 title miracle and his club - well-run and well-coached - consistently try to bulldoze past the powerhouses, shares his perspective too.

Anthony Shaw - Manchester United

I think the protests during and post-Super League have gained traction because it isn’t just individual supporter groups that felt threatened by the proposals. Many parts of the media feel the same, and the Premier League and TV companies will also be concerned about what will remain of their products. It would be the end of English football as we know it and I assume the Glazers would be delighted that Manchester United could potentially finish 10th and still gain access to a prestigious competition along with its TV money. They wouldn’t need to invest as drastically if the link from performance to profit is removed, yet this would be at the expense of other clubs who work so hard to achieve such a standing. Many United supporters at the protest will have had a different trigger point for the unrelenting anger that was present; there has been a number of protests since 2005 and it would be incredibly rare to find a pro-Glazer supporter since the takeover.

From a personal perspective, I have always been against the Glazers, I understand that they are a hinderance to the club and I have attended previous protests whilst remaining a season ticket holder at Old Trafford. I think what we have seen in the last three weeks is a glimpse into the ideal world for the owner of Manchester United, and for me that franchise-style format that was proposed is so far removed from the game my Dad took me to watch, there is no way that I could continue. I am not naïve enough to think football hasn’t been heading this way for many years, however the extreme jump to such out of touch proposals has brought out a lot of emotion in many people. My assumption is that the idea that has now been abandoned will rear its head again with a more steady introduction. The Uefa proposals for 2024 are not too dissimilar and those will also be bad for football. Every UK football supporter should understand the threat these proposals bring. I would want to take my own family to watch the English football that many generations have also watched.

The tribal nature of football has been holding fans back for years now and all clubs are as guilty as each other. For example, if Manchester City’s owners raised ticket prices tomorrow and City supporters boycotted, they would be ridiculed for their small crowds despite it being the owners of the club pricing loyal supporters out of the game. That needs to change in my opinion, and supporters need to wake up to the fact that they have far more in common with their fellow supporter than the owner of any Premier League club. The team may different, but their clubs still mean the same to them, often support has been passed down through generations and this will continue to happen unless money changes the game beyond recognition. I know it already has to some extent.

PA
PA

United’s American owners simply don’t care unless is affects them financially. They don’t talk, they don’t listen and that is apparent to anybody. I assume an attempt to listen maybe on the horizon however that wouldn’t have been the case without such disruption. I also believe any response will be a token with no real impact. I’d like to understand why ex-players, pundits don’t understand that disruption is now a necessity. When they consider what’s at stake when potentially supporters are losing their football clubs. What type of protest do they think will have an effect on the Glazer family who haven’t spoken to supporters in 16 years? A letter? An email? They can never understand how important it is to people that their clubs continue to exist in the form that they do. If there was a financial benefit and manageable opportunity for the Glazers to move United to another location, they would. That is how little they care about ‘legacy’ fans.

I was very disappointed to hear out-of-touch views from somebody like Graeme Souness. There is some basis to his concern about a few of the scenes witnessed on Sunday, however there is also a lack of understanding in reverse with regards to what the club means to people and that frustration will boil over with some. It’s inevitable in such a large cohort of supporters. The other frustration is their analysis of the Glazer impact on United and misconceptions around investment. Research relating to such a topic is easily available and should be accessed prior to somebody going on air to discuss Manchester United. Jermaine Jenas had prior warning of what would be discussed on Match of the Day then decided to ask people to explain to him on air why there is anger. This is absolutely baffling.

I would welcome the Premier League’s new owners’ manual and anything like this, however I’m mindful that this would only assist top-flight clubs. There are teams in lower divisions such as Oldham that are in a terrible plight and in danger of going out of business the same way as Bury did. English football needs to protect all its clubs. I’m not certain if there is a mechanism to remove existing owners, however all possibilities need to be explored and best endeavours used.

Neil Atkinson - Liverpool

What Manchester United supporters did on Sunday they probably should have done ten years ago. The Glazers have stripped United of fortunes and refused to engage with the supporters since they took the club over fifteen years ago. There are no more pathways to exhaust because there were never any pathways in the first place.

Stopping the product from occurring is a perfectly rational conclusion in order to get the attention of people who have repeatedly refused to show you basic respect. Acts of protest sometimes need to be disruptive.

That it is perfectly rational doesn’t mean you have to like it or agree with it. But it is hitting the only possible place where it may perhaps just hurt.

The Super League has put all the questions around football’s ownership and governance at the top of the agenda and this seems like an ideal moment to actually look at the game as a whole. The issues that the Super League has put into focus aren’t just about six clubs but about what the Premier League has done to world football and what we want the game to be.

Let’s stick on these shores for now. The pyramid has stopped working for many clubs and there are lots of valid questions about who should or shouldn’t own football clubs and why. There are questions about how supporters, how communities should be represented at the head of football clubs and they need answering.

AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images

The next step for me should be to ask questions of the Premier League as a whole. It keeps far too much of football’s television revenue from the rest of the pyramid and that makes changing football’s eco-system difficult. Even a small correction could make a sizeable difference. If an additional two per cent of PL television revenue reached all of League One and Two clubs their revenue from broadcasting and solidarity would increase by about 200% for each club immediately. That certainty would allow clubs to plan better. That would leave them less reliant on, for instance, FA Cup runs which would in turn could allow FA Cup prize money to be equal for men’s and women’s teams which could allow the FA to better fulfil its mandate of football for all.

What we can’t do is reject billionaires in favour of the people and then decide that “the people” are just people who happen to look like and have the same background as me. “Legacy fans” are both men and women of all ages from all backgrounds and all races. We need to have that front and centre of our thoughts.

All of this will now need government regulation. Do you reckon they are up to it? Unlikely, but we need them to be. The Premier League holds too much power and wields it selfishly; parachute payments alone show it cannot be allowed to regulate itself. The FA have allowed themselves to be stripped of power. The EFL have never really had any. And supporters are left, as ever, just doing their best.

Anita Abayomi - Chelsea

It’s fantastic that Chelsea have announced this initiative of three advisory supporters. It gives the fans a sense of inclusion and a chance to have our voices heard. If the board would truly like fan representation in their meetings, it’s imperative that the fans chosen are a fair reflection of the entire fanbase. I’m talking about representation in race, religion, sexuality and such. The more representation, the more fans will feel like they are in a position where they can be properly heard and understood.

The unity amongst fans across the country against the Super League was extremely powerful. It is important that the owners do not take our voices lightly and that’s why we must continue to stay unified over these matters. I’m far from a Manchester United lover, however I understand their frustration towards the Glazers and believe there’s a need for change. I’m sure most fans can agree that football is the most important thing here; anything that can jeopardise the beauty of the game for any fan needs to be addressed with unity because it is our game. The rival in me enjoys seeing other clubs lose on matchdays but the football lover in me is disappointed in the owners of teams like United for leaving fans with no other choice but to protest.

Getty Images
Getty Images

I think Chelsea is on the right track here with getting fans involved not just on matchdays and not just for promo, but get them involved behind closed doors. Let’s make decisions together. Other clubs would benefit greatly by following Chelsea’s footsteps and not just the “Big Six”, across the leagues too. We also have to look beyond the clubs, towards the FA, Uefa and Fifa. What can they do to their structure and governance to make fans and players feel like they are being protected and represented?

Have much more representation on their boards, get fans and current players involved in major decisions such as the new Champions League structure. Several footballers and managers have come out to say they do not like the amended format: fans could have told you this at the brainstorm stage to save the embarrassment. Governing bodies in football have lost touch with fanbases and this needs to be fixed fast.

Martin Cloake - Tottenham

There has been more unity than people imagine for a long time. The nature of football means rivalry will always be one of the most notable features. One of the reasons the Super League was so comprehensively rejected was because it wasn’t properly competitive, and competition creates rivalry. That’s the front of house if you like, the picture presented. Healthy competition and wanting to be better than the other lot.

But behind that there has been unity on many things for many years. That’s been around things like campaigns on ticket pricing and kick-off times for broadcast games, the push for safe standing, joint campaigning on cup final ticket allocations, or the simpler stuff like collections for the Bradford fire fund, or fans of one club helping another out of financial trouble, as Spurs fans did for Leyton Orient on more than one occasion.

Part of what has happened is that the unity has become more of the story - it has pushed itself to the fore because fans from rival clubs displayed a genuine altruism, they knew their own club’s success meant nothing if the game itself was destroyed. So you could call it enlightened self-interest.

Most important of all what has happened is a direct challenge to those who said supporters could never achieve anything, those people who hide an unwillingness to act behind a faux intellectual cynicism about the prospect of change. And what is great to see is the growth of belief among fans themselves that they can be agents of change.

Tottenham needs to actually listen and understand what being genuinely collegiate is. Hearing what people have to say but always thinking you know better isn’t what’s needed, but it’s been the case for far too long. All clubs need to realise they are, to use the cliche, a business like no other. The strength of the business lies in things like identity and community and history. Fans aren’t given credit for realising football is a business. We do realise this. Football has been a business ever since clubs needed to pay players, to stop it being a game played only by gentleman amateurs. But we realise what type of business it is, what makes it what it is. You could say we realise the value and not just the price.

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Getty Images

An independent regulator in this country would be the best way to move forward. There should be requirement for genuine, accountable supporter representation on the board, and an associated supervisory board with a role aimed at ensuring the purpose of the club as a sporting institution. Something like the Scott Trust at The Guardian maybe. There are plenty of models in business. Football needs to be a protected asset. Once investors realise they can’t just treat clubs as assets, that’s when we’ll get real change. If you invest in a club, just like if you buy a listed building, you should be required to behave in certain ways that recognise those ties of community, identity and history.

The mainstream media’s understanding of supporters is better than it was. I remember working on fanzines in the late 80s and early 90s when there was very little. But mainstream media tends to see fans as cartoon characters. We don’t all live next to the stadium. We don’t wear a shirt and scarf all the time. We’re not itching for a pint and a scrap. We are lawyers and accountants, bricklayers and decorators, bus drivers, nurses, corporate financiers, politicians, journalists, shop workers, students etc. We understand more than we’re given credit for. The media needs to see fans as more rounded figures.

Fans want to be fans, we don’t want to be constantly arguing and battling. But we’re forced into the position. Kick-off times is an interesting area to look at - there needs to be a balance of interests addressed but the fans are never considered. Some broadcasters refuse even to talk to us. The attitude is that we should be thankful the TV companies are putting money in. Attitudes need to change and fans need to be treated as partners beyond the lip service and easy headlines.

Jordan Jarrett Bryan - Arsenal

For far too long, I think fans have been viewed and used the wrong way. What I mean by that is, I don’t think that fans mind people earning money out football, out of their clubs, I think fans are smart enough to understand the game has become a business specifically in the last 20 years. What fans want is that alongside that, they are truly valued. That what they love and relate to about their club is respected and not damaged. Is it possible that mass wealth and billionaires and an industry that is bulging with too much money can kind of co-exist with ethics and traditions and fans and the romanticism that anything is possible?

The time is now to push, push, push for change. It has to be a collective, consistent approach to reinforce it with governments and other stakeholders still supporting the process. I think it can only really be sustained if it’s a unified approach - be prepared to support the fans of a team that I despise. We’re going to have to wrestle back the power together.

Clubs have to set up regular dialogue with reps from the fanbase and really listen, really understand. Not just as a token act. Be honest: ‘We’re trying to find ways that can make the club as much money as possible, but what can we do for the community or to make the fan experience better?’

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Getty Images

I think Arsenal have been quite crass and tasteless over the Super League and many other things. Stan Kroenke needs to come to the UK, needs to sit down with the relevant fan association groups, let them air their frustrations and fully listen. Dialogue is important. What happened was were were in a situation where we were shown ‘I’m going to rip out the heartbeat of your community and earn that money’. That’s where I fear the breakdown may be irretrievable. But the club need to engage properly and regularly and come to a compromise, because if they don’t try and buy back into the values of what people love about Arsenal, the toxicity will be seriously visible.

The one thing billionaires hate more than losing money is really bad PR. The stench around the football club from being associated with something as toxic as the Super League and all the action that will follow can scare away potential sponsors, investors and opportunities. Fans need to keep up the energy and not forget the bigger picture when a few signings are made in the summer and distractions like that.

Richard Burns - Manchester City

I think supporters have always been in the position to be heard and understood, but never necessarily realised it. The onus now that is known is for fans to keep the pressure on owners when it’s appropriate. Owners, chairman, directors will now understand that supporters of their club and the across the wider footballing family will react if they try pushing things too far. At Manchester City, we’ve had season ticket price rises every year for the last five years or so by £10 each time. On the face of it, that doesn’t sound a lot for the kind of football we watch, but it’s £50 in total and my income doesn’t go up by the same rate. It’s up to supporters to make themselves heard about these kind of things, which ultimately comes down to hitting clubs in their pocket. Once they realise the value of the decision they were going to make is outweighed by the value of how much supporters are hurt and taking action about it, then you have a voice. We have to keep that up.

From purely an understanding of football fans and what it means to love a club and not want it to be rinsed by owners or to be run badly, I absolutely have sympathy with Manchester United fans. I wouldn’t want my club run that way. I wouldn’t want that debt leveraged onto the club. I wouldn’t want it to be run just for profit, or for the owners to make money. I would at least not want it to be done so obviously, I have sympathy for them. I have a lot of admiration for the peaceful elements of their protest, which was the majority of it. I think watching supporters organised like that properly and making it an intentional effort to sort of muddy their closed brand, I think is a huge thing because football is so tribalistic that we don’t really like to do that. So fair play to them.

What is also worth noting is that - and it’s hard to say this as a City fan without sounding like it’s a cheap dig but hopefully it’s going to sound objective - Manchester United as a club were in at the ground floor of the vast commercialisation of football. And they were one of the clubs, certainly in this country, that spearheaded it. I remember growing up, watching them release things like Manchester United official milk. They were one of the first clubs to release first, second, and third kits every season, special Champions League kits and supporters were understanding because of what they were getting in return - they were happy to go along with that. And I think what United should be a lesson to us all about is what do we accept in return for the success that we get on the pitch? Because there was always a natural end point to that level of commercialisation. And unfortunately for United, they are to a point reaping what they sow, but any club would have done the same. And certainly there’s elements of that at my club. So it’s not really a criticism, but more a lesson to us all.

My feelings on City’s ownership are sort of mixed, but they’re also really clearly defined to me. If I take two separate strands with it, for what they’ve done for the football team and other elements of the club in general, it’s absolutely phenomenal. I grew up supporting a quite dreadful football team that were in a real mess. They were in the third tier when I started going and obviously improved beyond that, but they were in a financial mess when they were bought out by the current owners. They were mid-table at best in the Premier League and only looking like they were heading one way with that and it wasn’t good. The owners came in and they promised big signings and they’ve delivered to an absolutely huge degree.

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Getty Images

We win trophies almost every season. I’ve gone from growing up thinking that I’d never see City win a trophy to visiting Wembley several times a season in non-Covid times. Watching the most outrageously gifted footballers. And I’m very grateful that I get to see that and now City in a Champions League final.

But I don’t like that City’s owners are… I don’t necessarily like the people that they are. We know about the allegations, of the human rights abuses and all that kind of stuff. I don’t love that we are used to describe the term ‘sportswashing’. I don’t love that we have directors like Ferran Soriano, whose job is to grow the brand. I understand it. I understand that has to happen, but I don’t like that it is somebody who just wants to increase the club’s profile and sometimes that means making more money out of supporters.

I love what they’ve done for the football team. I can’t fault what they’ve done for the local area in terms of jobs creation and what we’ve done with our Academy. But as people, I don’t love that they’re associated with City to be perfectly honest. I suspect there’ll be a lot of City fans that won’t be too impressed if they read that quote, because a lot just swallow it, but there are also a lot of us who don’t.

In terms of wider football governance and structures, changes have to include supporters We aren’t considered enough in decisions that are made in football. So for example, TV companies will readily change a kick-off time to one that makes it incredibly difficult for traveling fans to attend. They’re not considered when Cup finals are priced out: for your average fan, the cost of attending can be a decent chunk of your month’s wages.

I think there needs to be real initiatives around ticket prices, where the people who make the decisions aren’t people whose aim is to increase the profile of the game. Football is incredibly gentrified now and there’s a lot of good that comes with that: stadiums have improved and matches are generally more pleasant to attend than than there were some time ago. But it does also mean that the clubs are just constantly selling a brand at a premium around the world. With that comes prestige and the attempts to make more money. That’s what the Super League was aimed at: an attempt to grab power and wealth and consolidate that position by people who deem themselves to be the arbiters of how the game should be run.

Football governance needs to consider all clubs right down the pyramid and all their supporters.

Jamie Thorpe - Leicester City

I think it was hugely significant that supporters of the Big Six rejected the Super League and it’s a massive credit to fans that did object so vehemently. The powers behind the Super League could have never imagined such swift and forceful opposition from those clubs in particular, and this will no doubt have played a significant role in the resulting collapse.

It is very rare to see something unify football fans so completely as the Super League did. It was essential in providing a proper resistance, as it starved the ESL of the support it needed to get off the ground. It was an extraordinary thing to witness, football fans are usually ready to argue about anything and everything so this did hammer home the gravity of the situation and the strength of feeling amongst fans up and down the country.

In taking in the scenes at Old Trafford on Sunday, I have to admit to having some ignorance into the true situation regarding United’s ownership, but the details that have emerged since are simply staggering. The ESL plans seemed to be the final straw for these United fans and they sent a strong message that they are not purely customers that can be placated with big-money signings – football means more and their ownership seems to completely disregard this, perhaps wilfully.

Despite rivalries and their past success, I don’t think I would be alone sympathising with their fans. These recent developments further highlight something that Leicester fans have been aware of for some time: we are hugely fortunate to have incredible owners that prioritise the supporters and don’t just treat the club as a cash cow.

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Getty Images

Of course, they spend money and will want a return on this, it goes without saying, but their clear, demonstrable commitment to the city and wider community show that they not only understand what the club means to its fans, but that they respect us also. The little touches such as free beers, doughnuts and scarves for match-going fans go a long way and show their generosity, as do the larger, more publicised acts of philanthropy such as the £2m donation to Leicester Children’s Hospital (now named in Khun Vichai’s memory). They have invested in the stadium to hugely improve the matchday experience, created an excellent community outreach programme and have built a world-class training facility that it’s hard not to be proud of – showing it is certainly possible to get that balance spot on.

One of the things they get right that makes a significant difference is their visibility to fans. Often at games, and always happy to stop and chat with fans too, respect is a two-way street and is a key part of why they are so admired.

Moving forward in England, fan representation is something that can be of huge benefit. Much has been made of Germany’s ownership model and rightly so, while this is unlikely to be implemented any time soon in England it would be great to see fans given a voice, if not a vote in certain matters. There has been talk of independent regulators, restrictions on agents and a fan-led review into how the game is financed. Whatever the solution, my guess is that clubs will be paying much greater attention to fan sentiment and that can only bring positive change.

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