Arsenal & West Ham: Do the fans always know first?

NB: This article was edited on 06/09/2017

Or perhaps it should say, ‘Do the fans always know best?’

I’ve been prompted to write this article by two interesting stories and posts that I’ve seen recently. The first, about the protests being organised by West Ham supporters; and the second, a story from the Arsenal Supporters Trust (AST), which had surveyed its 1,000 members about the future of Arsene Wenger, and presented their unsurprising findings with a tweet saying, ‘The fans always know first’ (below).

Screenshot 2017-09-05 at 13.53.58
Although I’ve slightly change the question being posed to: ‘Do the fans always know best?’, what fans think, and whether they’re right is one thing, but how as a club do you even find out, who do we ask, even, how do we ask? It’s not easy.

One of the biggest issues in finding out is who you speak to, as well as what methods you use. This is especially true in an age where a twitter handle or facebook group can literally be taken as a ‘supporters’ group’. and in some cases, is.

First of all, they aren’t homogeneous. I think of all the regions and countries I’ve worked in, and as you’d expect, there’s always a diversity of views. As a group, they’re are often very different as actual people, and have a variety of opinions on any given issue.

They diverge on quite a lot of views about the club. On playing matters alone, especially around the often contentious issue of managers and players, this can vary wildly. Indeed, results don’t always matter per-se: it can often be a matter of ‘taste’, if you like. Some might prefer a manager who doesn’t play the long ball; another might take a view that a striker who puts more work in is preferable to one who goal-hangs, even if they do score regularly. Some might even believe in the idea that their club should – or shouldn’t – play a particular style of football. Many might not care at all. On player signings, the diversity can be mind-boggling.

What is true however is that when organised groups of supporters talk about an issue, their particular take on it will be amplified. But the provenance of it might even vary: It may well be the view of their members, it could be the board/committee legitimately taking a position on an issue – sometimes it might have involved surveying a section of supporters as a broader group. However, what is undoubtedly difficult for many who work in the game is the idea that any group can – or even should – speak for most or all fans.

Groups can be genuinely difficult to deal with particularly, partly because of the actual numbers involved and the amplification they provide to an issue, but also because the process of actually trying to work out how much time you should dedicate to each one – especially those emanating from social media – can be genuinely difficult to manage.

It’s always worth asking some basic questions before you pay attention to a group, respond, or don’t. Here are some basic questions that are always I’d always recommend asking:

  1. Is the issue in question one that seems to be concerning the wider fanbase? In the right circumstances, where your SLO, supporter services department, or other supporter-facing employees are spending time with supporters on the ground, you should quite easily be able to find out. My work with Liverpool Supporters Group Spirit of Shankly on the collapse in relations between club and fans in early 2016, exposed a big problem at Liverpool in this regard.
  2. Do you know the group(s) concerned? Have you met with them? What’s in their DNA – i.e.: Why were they formed? And yes, how many people do they represent? Are they ‘just’ a social media channel or group? What other groups are there speaking for fans? The numbers question in particular can be used, wrongly, as a way of rejecting the views of a group out of hand: Some years ago, I was contacted by an official at a club who was clearly intent on using the membership numbers of a supporters trust as a reason not to engage with it. That isn’t the right attitude, and just breeds resentment. It looks petty, and defensive. The best people in senior positions in football that I know, have a pretty open-door policy in general, and this helps.
  3. Have you thought that you might need to look at how (your method) – not how often – you’re communicating with the fanbase, or with that specific group? At bigger clubs in the Championship and Premier League, there will always I suspect be a temptation to ‘broadcast’, whether through big meetings which are more like lectures or presentations, or using ‘traditional’ media tools, as though the internet was never invented. ‘Set-pieces’ don’t reset the debate in the way they used to, because that debate is going on 24/7, and it’s naive to think they will. Government and politics are belatedly catching up to this being a largely failed model, but I find that football clubs are still making that mistake.

I do have some sympathy though. It’s not always easy to recognise when supporters are flagging up a legitimate issue, who you should actually focus on speaking to, or whether there’s a group – as there is sometimes – that you should avoid spending too much time on. However, it’s worth giving it some proper thought, and getting it right.

As a consultant with over 14 years experience of working with supporters all over the UK and Europe, I understand their priorities and frustrations, how they think and what they want. I also know the challenges clubs face in football today, and I build bridges between the two, helping to forge understanding and agreement, while advising clubs on how best to communicate with their biggest stakeholder.

If you want to talk more about these issues, you can contact me via email: info@kevinrye.org or read more on my website: kevinrye.org

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