It used to be that you couldn’t get the authorities to sit down with the supporters or their representatives to discuss anything, or if they did, it might involve them coming to the annual conference of Supporters Direct or The FSF (now combined into the ‘supporters summit’). Sometimes it meant a speech from a less high-ranking official, with very little actual interaction with those present.
Fortunately, that changed after years of pressure, lobbying and campaigning from Supporters Direct (SD). Latterly both themselves and its sister organisation, The FSF, have begun meeting with The Premier League to discuss issues of concern. In the last few days however it’s become clear that we have a new problem in English football, and it’s this word ‘dialogue’, sometimes referred to as ‘structured dialogue’, that’s at the root of it.
The problem has emerged because The Premier League, despite very recently having a ‘structured dialogue’ meeting with a group comprised of Supporters Direct, The FSF, supporters’ trusts and other supporters’ organisations, neglected to mention a little detail: that 11:30 am kick-offs are being considered as part of their new TV deal.
Setting aside the reasons for this (maximising exposure in an ever-saturated market, and maximising revenue, whilst having to avoid the cherished Saturday 3:00pm kick-off slot), the problem here appears to be that the word ‘dialogue’ might not be being understood by The Premier League (Incidentally, it means that a two-way conversation is had between those involved, with the possibility of changes in position on either part. It’s what any good, healthy relationship should exhibit.)
In a study I undertook a few months ago for my Diploma in Public Relations examining why English football struggles with the concept of dialogue and two-way communications, one thing was very clear: the game in England struggles with what it actually means, and also with the impact it might have. It invariably means that they might have to act differently, or do something differently. Incidentally, it also means that supporters and their representatives might have to as well, but I genuinely think that’s a far smaller problem than the one I’m talking about here.
To a large extent it’s about the way that English football clubs are regarded. Historically – at least in the majority of the 20th Century and beyond – they have been private concerns, and the property of whoever owns them. This means that the owners don’t have to be subject to questioning or have to justify their actions. Naturally that has extended into the actions and culture at the heart of leagues themselves, given that they reflect the clubs themselves, who effectively own the competitions.
What’s happening now I believe is that this dynamic is clashing with an almost completely contradictory view of football, as propagated by the emergence of supporters’ trusts and Supporters Direct itself. The fact is that supporters themselves now expect a different attitude from those running the game, because they view football clubs as being morally theirs to a large extent, and at the very least, should be prepared to listen, if not act on their concerns.
This dynamic – the clash between two different cultures and sets of expectations – exists. I’ve seen it and dealt with it repeatedly – not least most recently with my report for Spirit of Shankly on the way Liverpool FC operated in this area, which ultimately led to a collapse in relationships between fans and club, and in the end, a mass walkout of fans. At some point this clash will have to be resolved in general, but more specifically, The Premier League, in this context, is going to have to start being seen to take the concept of ‘structured dialogue’ far more seriously, or it’s just storing up problems for itself.