Want to reform football? Then stop and read this….

Following a post I wrote yesterday about Shaun Harvey offering an ‘open goal’ for football reformers, a few people challenged me about it. One or two were curious about what I actually meant when I talked about ‘strategic’. Reform is, well, reform. Isn’t it? We all want that? Can you see the problem already?

Of course, the problem with strategy – and I speak as a strategist as well as someone who delivers and advises on campaigns on the ground, whether it’s one-off campaigns, like reforming football, those being fought by Orient, Blackpool, Blackburn, Charlton or Coventry supporters, or how you actually talk about yourself as an organisation – the old ‘brand values’ schtick, is that it can make the doing difficult, and you feel like you don’t often have the time to think. Besides, nothing beats effective action, organising an event, achieving a target, making something happen. But equally if you feel like the the cause or organisation you’re working for doesn’t make sense, there’s no single rallying point, or what there is looks inconsistent, or lacks focus and doesn’t seem to know its final destination, then you might have a missing piece, and that’s almost certainly strategy.

In the specific case of campaigns, lots spring up from ‘nowhere’, or at least involve a sudden coming together of a group of people over a particular issue. Say, amongst Leyton Orient supporters. Initially the momentum is self-generating to some extent: you’ve got a pretty clear aim, a common enemy or issue you all agree on, and you fight the campaign on that basis. I’ve done it myself as a fan of Wimbledon, and it can be exhilarating. Over time – sometimes quite quickly – if your efforts don’t result quickly in the change you’re after (the removal of Bechetti), things can wane, and you start to realise that there might be something else required. Mere removal might not be the best thing. Proposing an alternative to Bechetti might be it. In fact, it’s logical, because if you don’t, all you’re doing is to ask fans to support existing chaos (Bechetti) for the unknown (there are of course, occasions where the unknown is, in fact, known – even preferable, but I’ll leave that to Donald Rumsfeld.) In my experience, that’s where a degree of strategic work is important. You need someone, or a group of people, to sit back from the hubbub – but crucially they understand it intimately – and who are capable of drawing together what’s happening into something coherent – a strategy – that makes sense.

It’s also important to be strategic because you need stops along the way: markers if you like. For example, in the case of Bechetti, getting other fans to be involved in protests; or getting the EFL to admit on record that what’s happening isn’t a good thing for the game and has to be dealt with in some way. Although those thing those aren’t actual ‘achievements’ that you may recognise – like Bechetti leaving, or a bid for the club from the fans, or a fan-friendly consortium, they’re what might be termed ‘SMART’ objectives – signposts, things you can achieve, and that tell you you’re headed in the right direction.

In campaigns, if you don’t have those, people don’t really know whether they’re making progress towards the ultimate aim or aims (the removal of Bechetti, and, for example, the takeover of the club by a) the fans, b) a consortium where fans have a majority of the shares or c) a locked-in minority stake, or d) other.)

So when I talk about the campaign on football reform as needing ‘strategic direction’ – which at the moment I don’t believe it has – it’s the same. There are lots of people concerned, who care, several groups, organisations who in their own way, can do something constructive towards it. There is also lots of noise, some tactics – ‘things’ happening, and lots of, as I termed it, ‘screaming into the void’, or the ‘echo chamber’, but there’s nothing coherent. Nothing that tells me what anyone – whoever ‘anyone’ is – actually wants.

The problem is that lots of people tend to run a series of tactics as a campaign: getting political parties to say ‘we agree with reform of The FA’ or similar, or having a write-in campaign for example – even an organised twitterstorm, or a march on Wembley or the Premier League HQ (as with the ticket price campaign) or something similar. Those are all legitimate tactics, but they’re not a campaign. Similarly, when it comes to, say, organising a series of events to publicise the poor governance of football, where fans talk to their MPs, councils, write letters, do organised calls to phone-ins, for example, they’re just a series of what might be termed (confusingly so) ‘strategies’; they’re a block of tactics that are aimed, in this case, at involving fans as a group in all sorts of ways, but there’s still no aim, no objectives, nothing really coherent.

What is really required – in this case for a campaign to reform football – is to decide what your actual aim is (or maybe couple of aims), then work on what that actually looks like – what is ‘reform’? Some want The FA changed, some decry its failure over the creation of the PL and say that the PL needs to have its wings clipped, some claim that if you force the PL to pay more money over, that’ll actually remove a lot of the pressure, and attendant problems that result in, for example, the likes of Bechetti turning up; some blame individuals almost exclusively and want a more stringent Owners and Directors test to sift out the bad from the good; some want the politicians to intervene directly with acts of parliament and change things; and some want change to come from football itself. These difference matter a lot. Some of these even contradict each other – like direct intervention versus coaxing football to do it, albeit with external pressure.

And that’s what I mean when I talk about strategy. It’s something Supporters Direct used to do very well when it had the resources (it wasn’t just me doing it: Tom Hall in particularly was a very effective strategy-into-actions ‘thinker’). Although we were by no means perfect, and at times lost focus like anyone would – especially given our dearth of resources – we developed our aims as a series of workable and implementable policies and changes: club licensing, fans on the board, financial controls, etc. They’re still there, and worth a read I might add. And it’s worth adding that whilst I wouldn’t ever claim that we were the principal actor that brought the changes we have seen since about 2002, we played an absolutely vital role in clearing out the ‘clutter’ of ideas, proposing workable ideas, proving that they worked (through direct experience of implementing them – like fans on the board, or by using, say, Germany or Sweden as examples, so dismissing the idea that fan ownership and involvement didn’t actually work). Supporters’ trusts as organisations were and are a ‘lived experience’ (FC Business Magazine described our policy work at SD as, ‘Coal-face experience of the issue continue to put them in a privileged position to make respected comment on the most pressing issues facing the governance of our game.’ We also worked with the authorities as much as we could – whether UEFA, The FA, EFL or Premier League, believing as we did that change had to be to some extent acceptable to those implementing it to a large extent.)

Getting my hands dirty, solving problems between fans and clubs, organising groups and capacity building individuals and organisations is a love of mine, but what I learned and have grown to appreciate even more today, especially through my study with the CIPR, is that if you don’t have a strategic approach, where you don’t make assumptions about what something as monumental as ‘reform’ actually is – amongst a group of people like fans who we all know are massively diverse – then you don’t have a hope of getting anywhere. Not really. You might achieve the odd event, a vote in Parliament, or a statement from the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee. And sometimes the noise enough might scare the football authorities into changing a bit, but it won’t realise the potential of the campaign. 


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