The recent vote to merge the two national supporters organisations, Supporters Direct (SD) and The Football Supporters Federation (FSF), will have been missed by most of you I suspect. I worked for SD for over 11 years – though you were never simply an ‘employee’, often more like an evangelist, stirring up the congregation, filling them with hope. So part of me is sad to see this happen.
SD brought into being ‘supporters’ trusts’ – like The Dons Trust, or that of today’s visitors, The Sky Blue Trust – that challenged the status quo, and in some cases enabled things to happen that were previously unimagined. In countless cases, SD freed fans from a sense of helplessness, and shook the game from complacency. Not the solution, but the vehicle for change.
When it was created in 2000, there were two national supporters’ bodies; the National Federation of Football Supporters Clubs (NFFSC), an ineffective grouping of largely do-as-you’re-told official supporters’ clubs, with no real compulsion to challenge the status quo of football. The other, The Football Supporters Association (FSA), had emerged from the defeat by fans of the ID Cards for football fans proposal from Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. (The two eventually merged to create The FSF.) But fans hadn’t the tools – or the backing – to provide alternatives to the way clubs were being run – in most cases, pretty poorly.
Faced with the fast escalating commercialisation of football and threats to clubs from mergers, moves, and extinction, Tony Blair’s incoming government appointed The Football Task Force, which proposed a series of radical options including a regulator for football. Unsurprisingly, all were roundly rejected by clubs/leagues and The FA. Eventually, the Task Force proposed SD – thanks to the foresight of individuals working on the Task Force like Andy Burnham (now Manchester Metropolitan Mayor) and Phil French (now at the IOC). The much missed Brian Lomax, who they met through the Task Force, set up the first supporters’ trust at Northampton Town, and his evidence inspired them hugely. In fact he became the first Managing Director of SD – and later Chair.
SD became an organising force for football fans, radically altering the role of fans in England (it also branched out to become the both now independent SD Scotland and SD Europe, with successes of their own, as well as working other sports). Whilst the billions of the Premier League seem to dwarf everything else, we forget the changes SD has made happen. Though the crises are often what people think of first, there’s been a slow-burn success too: it’s largely down to SD that we have formalised relationships between fans and The EFL, Premier League and FA, or those between fans and clubs like Fulham, Norwich City and Nottingham Forest. The strength of the likes of Spirit of Shankly at Liverpool, Spurs and Manchester United supporters’ trusts comes from the legitimacy that supporters’ trusts bring. They are able to challenge the decisions and authority of their clubs, without fear of being rejected as irrelevant – or worse. Even many of the financial and ownership regulations we now see happened because of SD’s very effective lobbying & campaigning work.
SD often acts behind the scenes, advising, helping – building up, even sometimes cajoling and pushing hard. Many of the initiatives locally, nationally and internationally came because of Brian’s simple vision: ‘What unites us as fans is greater than what divides us outside of 90 minutes’. Supporters’ trusts with SD’s support, drove the campaign to protect stadia as ‘Assets of Community Value’; through the trust’s Premier League group, worked with The FSF to start the ‘20s Plenty’ campaign. The dedication of the trust boards, members – and often forgotten, the former and current SD staff – make much of this happen.
What I’m sure would be most pleasing now for Brian, the recently dearly departed Jacqui Forster (another force of nature) – and for all those who helped to make SD the force it became – is that cooperation amongst fans is now the norm everywhere. There’s barely a campaign fought where a trust or group of fans is alone against the world. That’s one hell of a legacy to leave, whatever comes next.