Talk isn’t cheap: My advice to Blackpool fans and The EFL

Blackpool. There are almost no words to describe the absolute mess at the League One club. If you want to get your heads around what’s happening, I’d suggest first reading this piece from Dave Conn: https://www.theguardian.com/football/2018/feb/27/curious-case-blackpool-versus-football-league-ownership-rules – who also followed the trial involving Valerie Belokon and Karl and Owen Oyston. Read anything else he’s written on it as well. As usual he’s been the observer for all of us, of this car crash, as he has so many others (try his second book, ‘The Beautiful Game: Searching for the Soul of Football’ as an introduction to the football world of the early 2000s that I and others like me worked in.)

Today The EFL has announced that CEO Shaun Harvey will meet with the various supporters’ groups to discuss the issues. I’m not privy as to whether or not public pressure from the various supporters’ groups has played a part here, but it’s good that the meeting is happening.

The EFL does have a role in explaining how the rules work and why – especially in a set of circumstances like these, where the ownership and running of the actual member club itself seems to have internally combusted. In my all too familiar experience of these circumstances, fans are confused, upset, angry, and genuinely concerned about the actual future survival of their football club. It’s visceral, and it’s personal.

Whilst words themselves won’t stop that, the act of meeting, of communicating, does provide some reassurance that their concerns are being listened to and treated seriously. And over time, these sorts of relationships have absolutely had an impact on the EFL’s  and stance. They couldn’t fail to.

I remember a study I had commissioned for Supporters Direct that showed that by sheer number alone, the rules on finance and ownership in The League had gone from one solitary rule in 2002 relating to the payment of some fee or other, to a myriad of rules concerning financial practice and probity – not to mention on the moving of clubs and other assorted issues related to the actions of owners and officials. And then there’s the much criticised Owners and Directors Test which whilst imperfect, didn’t exist before 2004 in any form, meaning that someone, sitting in a prison, could literally own a football club. Read that slowly. Yes: A prison.

Whether we like it or not, the rules are written as they are. There may be a way around it – a loophole. It might take a legal action to change Belokon’s position as a currently barred director under the rules, but these are the facts, and they can’t be changed by the act of demanding that they change. The long, grinding saga at Coventry alone surely demonstrates that.

You can criticise football for allowing clubs ‘mark their own homework’, but that is football in England. I’m not keen on it, and campaigned myself with others to try to change it. I believe it would still be fairer on clubs alone to remove this heavy responsibility, focus on playing, and have a more arms-length form of regulation the like of which Supporters Direct and The FSF argued for over the years.

I have very often advised supporters and their representatives, governing bodies and clubs in these sorts of circumstances, and for what it’s worth, this is my take:

To The EFL: it’s good you’ve extended an invitation to meet to all the various groups. You’re somewhat stuck between a rock and a hard place, but communication is king in these circumstances. In professional parlance, it’s good ‘stakeholder management’. It also makes you more human to people used to viewing you either as an irrelevance, or as a shadowy group of people intent on ruining their matchdays.

To the fans and especially their representatives: You need to campaign, to lead and to bring people together and use their anger constructively, but as much as you can, try to understand the position of The EFL in this: it is one of those seemingly impossible situations where a solution looks impossible to reach, but where everyone knows it can’t continue. It’s clear that the rules are effectively preventing that solution. But like as not, I’m certain The EFL don’t want this.

To both: Keep on talking, build up the relationships, try to understand each others’ position, point of view. It alone doesn’t solve the problem, but it focuses everyone’s attention on the real issues. It removes the clutter.

If you want to know more, including how I can help in communicating effectively with your fanbase, or setting up and running effective structured dialogue, why not drop me a line?

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