It’s easy to point out the mistakes when it comes to clubs and their relationship with supporters, and I’ve seen my fair share. But what’s equally important is to show the good, the successful – otherwise, how else does good practice spread, and how do we learn and improve?
Norwich City FC is a privately owned football club, with thousands of individual shareholders. Over the years they have often been recognised as having good relationships with supporters – even during more difficult times like their relegation to League One in 2009. So how have they done this? A large part of it has been about their formal relationship with supporters, which at Norwich is with the Canaries (Supporters’) Trust (CST).
CST Secretary, Mike Reynolds, explains how the trust emerged as the main supporters group at the club:
“The relationship really built up after the inaugural Supporters Direct Conference at Birkbeck College (in 2001). The owners (Delia Smith and husband, Michael Wynne-Jones) asked me to attend and report back. They recognised from the outset that they needed a group they could deal with that had legitimacy – one with a democratic structure behind it. Previously there was the Independent Supporters Association, which was formed in response to supporter discontent and was more radical in its approach than the Trust. But it was also somewhat dependent upon discord between club and fans for its momentum. There was some animosity between the two groups but the Trust has lasted the course whereas the Independent Supporters Association was wound up by its committee three years ago.”
I have increasingly seen the fundamental importance in what might be called the ‘cultural’ aspect – the actual working relationship, and the attitude of each party, and building and maintaining of trust.
Although structured dialogue (or ‘structured relationships’ as they are often known) is as the name suggests formality is important, often to help navigate through difficult times, I increasingly see the fundamental importance in what I call the ‘cultural’ aspect – the actual working relationship, the attitude of each party, and the building and maintaining of trust. I saw this underscored in some recent research I carried out with a series of Chief Executives and experts in English club football (here’s a short feature on my interview with Paul Barber from Brighton and Hove Albion). There are several – including at Fulham under Alistair Mackintosh as well as Paul Barber – where this is a fundamental feature – alongside more formal processes.
At Norwich the relationship has lasted, largely, through several Chief Executives, as Mike explains: “Over time, what happened at Norwich was that we built the relationship with the CEO (Neil Doncaster, and then David McNally), who really did take on board the trust as the front-end of fan communication.”
However, there was a recent intervening period when Jez Moxey, former Wolves CEO, came in, and he didn’t want to talk: “Jez Moxey’s view was that he didn’t need the relationships. As far as he was concerned, in his previous role, he didn’t even have board meetings, and just spoke with Steve Morgan (then Wolves owner) and that was it. However, fairly quickly the club decided they wanted a different approach, and we’re now back and working with a new Managing Director, Steve Stone (not the ex-England and Forest midfielder!). The relationship with Jez Moxey couldn’t have got any lower and it’s very rapidly gone back to where it was, which is great” Maybe this bump in the road underscores the need to establish more formalised agreements.
So are they looking at such agreements for the future? This also matters in terms of changes of ownership – e.g.: the day that Delia Smith and Michael Wynne-Jones have had enough.
On ownership, Mike explains: “We know what she’s (Delia Smith) doing when she hands over the reins. It’ll be to her nephew, Thomas Smith, the only relative of Delia who has been a fan of the club for years (and who is currently a director himself). He will become majority shareholder, and so we’re slowly building up the relationship with him.”
The three lessons from Norwich City? Legitimacy, Longevity and Relationship Building
The Trust hasn’t yet formally approached getting something in writing to govern the relationship between it and the club, but CST are happy that the new Managing Director is much more aware of the EFL’s feelings on this (the structured relationship requirements brought in last season), and in due course it’s hoped he’ll be happy to.
Steve Stone’s background in the pub trade is also an important aspect (he came from the Spirit Pub Company, as well as working for Gala Bingo): The pub trade has the Campaign for Real Ale [CAMRA]), and so he understands supporters to be people to have serious discussions with, and the positive benefit engaged stakeholders like supporters bring. In fact, the Trust will soon be refloating their application for Carrow Road to be listed as an Asset of Community Value (ACV), which even though it was supported by Delia Smith and Michael Wynne Jones, was rejected by last but one CEO, David McNally.
As Mike puts it “He definitely sees the benefit in written arrangements, and we are definitely another step up the ladder of formalising the relationship between the trust and the management of the club.”
Lessons from Norwich City
Legitimacy – both sides recognising the value of a representative supporters’ organisation
Longevity – investing time and effort in a long-term relationship between the club and its supporters and representatives.
Relationships – recognising that whilst formality is vital to underpin relationships, none of it works without the building and maintenance of good relationships, and, of course, trust