Nottingham Forest – can they really become ‘the model club’ for fans?

Incoming owner of Forest, the Greek businessman Evangelos M. Marinakis, has proclaimed his vision of a the club becoming ‘the model club in England for fan and community participation’. It’s certainly a significant step-change from the previous owner, Fawaz Al Hasawi. The announcement says:

‘Because Nottingham and the region are home to excellent universities, fan representatives and delegates of the tertiary institutions will be invited to form an Advisory Council. The chair of the Council will participate regularly in board meetings as an Observer and offer hands-on input and advice gathered through the Advisory Council meetings.

‘Going one step further, and recognising the crucial relevance of young fans and potential supporters for the club’s development, Nottingham Forest FC will launch the Nottingham Forest Youth Council, whose chair will be representing the views and aspirations of Nottingham’s youth to the Nottingham Forest board.’

Forest’s announcement, though lacking in detail, doesn’t look like any tested model I am aware of or would advocate if the aim is ‘fan engagement’ as I would know it. Combining local academics with supporters into an ‘Advisory Council’ is interesting, but the aims and objectives of these two ‘stakeholder’ groups, whilst they might intersect sometimes, are not natural bedfellows, and it could be that they clash quite significantly.

However, establishing a ‘Youth Council’ is in itself not a bad idea. Younger supporters are a very specific group in many ways, and the contemporary embracing of for example, ‘ultra’ culture is distinct from the experience of many older fans. Spion Kop 1906 at Liverpool probably fall into this category. It could reap rewards if it’s done well.

Effective ‘structured relationships’, as they’ve become known, don’t just benefit supporters, who can acquire a far greater understanding of the way that their club operates (although this depends on the types of information disclosed and issues discussed) they also benefit the clubs very significantly.

Having interviewed a whole series of chairs, chief executives and heads of supporter-relations at a range of clubs on the importance of two-way communications and genuine dialogue earlier this year, one of the key findings was that the leadership and ownership at a club benefit from a robust, honest relationship and exchange of views with supporters in a formal setting.

Those who had established relationships and regular meetings either with supporters’ trusts or elected supporter representatives at board level, also felt that it provided a useful ‘sounding board’ or ‘sense checker’ – a way of being able to make decisions that were good for the club.

These relationships allow for a greater degree of understanding, more honesty, openness, and should make it possible where necessary for either party to change their views on an issue. The key word is ‘reciprocation’. And no, it isn’t about knowing what the No.9 gets as a goal bonus.

The risk as I’ve indicated is that the wrong model is chosen – sometimes I might add, for understandable reasons. ‘Fan engagement’ (or supporter relations) is a very new field, and as I have previously said, we’re having to learn that ‘fan engagement’ models and ideas often imported from US sport don’t provide many of the answers when it comes to the relationship with supporters of football clubs as ‘stakeholders’. They consume, but they’re not consumers. It’s difficult.

A useful point of reference is my report for the Spirit of Shankly (the Liverpool Supporters Trust), which has just been published, and which investigated their relationship with Liverpool FC. The report highlighted just how important it is to consider the realpolitik at a club – who represents supporters, the structure and formality employed (the how). It’s also important to ensure that the right resources support these relationships.

In 2011, LFC established the ‘Liverpool Football Club Supporters Committee’ (LFCSC), following years of strife under the ownership of Hicks and Gillett. It comprised large groups representing various strands of the fanbase (season ticket holders, international, LGBT, BAME, commercial, supporters’ trust, local fans). Whilst this might be seen as covering all bases – some people become convinced that more equals more ‘representative’, it didn’t properly acknowledge the fact that these constituencies have a different focus, and the supporters’ trust in particular is a far more ‘political’ body of fans: they will always concern themselves with the strategic, governance, transparency, finances and the business side. SOS had also emerged directly from the Hicks and Gillett era, and so were shaped by that. This focus on the strategic issues is true even where, like SOS, they are also a formidable campaign group on matchday issues: It’s part of the DNA of a supporters’ trust to look at the ‘big picture’. What I found was that the LFCSC, though very well intentioned, couldn’t operate effectively in almost any sense, in a large part because of the size issue, though affected by other issues such as a lack of dedicated resource to support it.

‘Supporters’ councils’ like the LFCSC have become a popular form of structured engagement. Groups such as that at Stoke City get flagged up by some as something of an ‘ideal model’, but that can’t be justified, as the circumstances are distinct there: Stoke have a relatively benign, quite traditional, almost ‘patriarchal’, owner in Peter Coates, and the structure works for them. But they have never had – and maybe in some respects don’t need at this stage – an effective supporters’ trust (though they did have one, it was wound up, presumably through lack of interest).

It’s often the case that clubs which have gone through serious upheaval – such as Liverpool, and maybe Forest – need a more direct relationship with their organised supporters, one which addresses the reality of how supporters are organised at a club. This is certainly the case at Liverpool, where I have recommended that the club has a far more direct, established and formally governed relationship with SOS (with a series of rights and responsibilities.)

When you’re organising something as important as the future relationship with the supporters, it makes sense to embrace the reality, and to appreciate how much work is required to build bridges between two positions that are often broken by distrust, and suffer from misunderstandings on both sides.

Coming from a situation where supporters had almost no formal relationship with their clubs, sometimes it might too easy to complain when clubs don’t get it perfect first time. But it is, above all, absolutely important they get it right.

You can download my report for Spirit of Shankly via this link


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