Saturday, 12 April 2014

What maketh a football club?

19 April 2014 18 April 2014 - Bristol City v Notts County

Running a football club must ultimately be a difficult business. With tens of thousands of fans, each of whom has different priorities, different levels of support and a different idea of the ideal football club in their mind, it's hard to unite every member of the fanbase over one clear, simple issue. But to give them credit, City's management succeeded in doing so this week. By moving the Notts County game forward by a day from next Saturday to Good Friday, they managed to bring every fan together in condemnation of an absurd decision.

It barely needs explaining why it was so appalling. Over Easter, when people tend to plan time away from work, to relax with friends and family, to enjoy the spring, the club's decision will have meant that many supporters will have to decide between dropping keenly-anticipated activities and supporting the team in a big game that could well seal the deal of City's survival. Not to mention those fans who will have long ago arranged cheap trains (and even flights!) to get them to Ashton Gate by Saturday afternoon. (Full disclosure: I am not one of those people this time. The game will be the last I miss all season, and was always planned as such.)

This was announced by means of a terse, unapologetic statement on the website, followed up a day or so later by the club's reasoning for doing so. The fact that this took a day makes it pretty clear that the club, somehow, hadn't expected fans to be outraged by the decision, as though saying it's “for football reasons” would be enough. The explanatory statement wasn't great either, easily interpretable as pinning the blame on the previous management team, who happened not to be in the building any more, since they hadn't requested a move of the fixture initially.

This won't do for a couple of reasons. The previous management team may well have been targeting points from home games, and seen an extra day's recovery time after this weekend's trip to Walsall as more significant than a lost day's preparation for the Stevenage game. That's their prerogative; we'll never know how that decision would have played out. The new management team have the prerogative to disagree, of course; but to be apparently unaware that the FA rules permitted a switch of dates until prompted to ask by another club, Sheffield United, changing their Easter Saturday game, is pretty lax, and it's tempting to suggest that once months in advance turned into nine days in advance the club should have gone ahead with the hand dealt.

While we can argue as much as we like about the rights and wrongs of this particular incident, the question of taking a perceived sporting advantage at the cost of significantly inconveniencing fans bears further thought. Ultimately the issue at stake here is what's more important for a football club; to pick up as many points as possible, or to maintain a good relationship with its supporters and the community in which it sits.

There's not a right answer here. By purchasing tickets, rather than expecting entrance to be provided for free, we accept that maintaining a competitive football club at this level comes at cost, that without requiring money in exchange for access the club couldn't exist. Volunteer players and Sport England funding won't, we realise, allow City to challenge for the playoffs next season.

But does this mean that the club is entitled to go to the other extreme, to charge whatever the market will bear for football tickets, to accept money to change its name, its colours, to close down the Community Trust and to kick off games late at night in order to hit peak time in Hong Kong? Is that OK? And at what extreme does it stop becoming OK, for you?

We've seen clubs that begin to push in that direction, such as our friends Cardiff City from over the bridge, get a certain level of success. Cardiff shrugged off the loss of a section of their fanbase on the basis that promotion to the Premier League would see those seats filled by new fans, there to see Rooney, Suarez and co, as much as to see the Bluebirds. The Redbirds. Whoever. Vincent Tan will think he's been successful, that he got his decision right – whatever he may now be thinking about his later decision to remove Malky Mackay – and there's no covenant a football club owner has to swear that stipulates the traditions by which they must be bound.

But this logic only works if you see the club and the fans as two distinct actors, rather than two parts of a weird gestalt entity. The less a person knows about football culture, the less I suspect they will appreciate this symbiotic bond – the thing that causes us to talk about how “we” did at Walsall today, even if “we” didn't play, didn't go, or even weren't in the country at final whistle. In order for football to be anything more than a combination corporate muscle/feats of skill demonstration – in order for it to avoid becoming Formula One, essentially – that emotional connection is vital (and the smart ones know that and exploit it to sell Sky Sports subscriptions, third kits and mousemats). It's not just a sense of affection, it's a sense of belonging.

Robert Peel, the man who codified what we understand as the modern police force, famously said that “the police are the public and the public are the police”. The truer we feel that is, the more we trust the police and, in theory, the better they should do their job. Every racial incident and dead newspaper vendor tests this, but policing by consent – essentially, we allow them to lock us up because we think that the consequences of not doing so would be worse – requires this bond to be seen to exist. Football support is the same really. The fans are the club, and the club are the fans. If they lose our trust they begin to seem like a separate entity, and no longer deserve our support. It's why the club's off-pitch actions matter, and why having a club that isn't just a three-points generating machine (fat chance, but still...) is important. We need, as far as possible, for the club to do right by the fans.

The Notts County mistake alone won't, of course, threaten that tension in the long term. Of course it won't – it's an isolated, stupid decision which I still trust we won't see repeated. But football clubs need to be careful, and need to consider the less quantifiable consequences of any decision they make that effects the fanbase.

For what shall it profit a club if it shall gain the whole world and lose its own soul? Or, put another way, if City get three points and nobody's there to see it, did it happen?

Or, if it's only seen on pay-per-view TV and by day-trippers from afar, when do we have to say that it simply isn't City any more?


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