What the ‘inventors’ of the beautiful game need to learn

I was speaking on Tuesday this week (8th October) as part of my work with Fan Insights to a group of senior Danish Superliga Executives and officials at an event organised by the Fan Experience Company. It’s a pleasure listening to what others have been doing, finding out what works, what doesn’t, and what they find difficult. I’ve been fortunate enough over the years to be able to do this quite a lot – particularly with clubs and groups outside the UK, and I always find it fascinating to hear how they view football in England.

On Tuesday, I was asked the by now standard question: “What is it that English football does so well that we can learn from?” I thought about this for a moment, and responded “Not as much as you think….” Why? As I explained to the group as a whole a bit later on:

  1. English football has a swagger to it, one that tends towards arrogance. We often exclude anyone else’s role in having invented/codified the modern game – even to the exclusion of Scots such as Aston Villa’s William McGregor for example, who founded the Football League.
  2. Secondly, the real depth and breadth of club football culture that I’m not aware exists anywhere else on the planet, means it’s difficult to transpose what ‘we’ do to other places because it’s so interwoven into our culture, our lives.

It’s this combination that causes English football, collectively speaking (and I’m generalising a little), to think it doesn’t have to try very hard because football will just somehow work, fans ‘will just turn up’ and money simply materialise from nowhere.

It’s not like the struggles of a game in Denmark where clubs in even the top division have to work to ‘sweat the asset’ and attract fans who might only see a club as third or fourth on their list of priorities.

In terms of learning anything new, in England it’s not uncommon to hear the phrase from senior club executives “That wouldn’t work at this club”, when that’s simply nonsense, and is based in a lack of understanding of football itself. And it’s disproved by too many examples to mention – Structured Dialogue spreading through clubs like Fulham, Nottingham Forest and Norwich City being a recent example.

There’s also been a curious idea that persists in terms of knowledge and expertise sharing, which is that by revealing too much to your fellow clubs, you’ll lose your competitive advantage. I get that when it concerns tactics, but competition is on the pitch, not off it.

It’s the precise reason that someone like the SPFL’s Neil Doncaster, who was speaking about his time at Norwich City at the same event, is viewed so exceptionally. Sharing this sort of expertise should be the norm, and others should follow where they’ve led. But it doesn’t happen nearly enough, and I’m not aware it’s particularly encouraged by the EFL for example.

As a result it means that how Norwich built their season ticket base during such a difficult time when Neil was CEO, isn’t that widely known. Likewise the goldmines that are Paul Barber, Alistair Mackintosh, Mark Catlin, Tom Gorringe, or recently Andy Holt at Accrington Stanley aren’t tapped into nearly enough. And I think that’s sad, and a terrible shame for the game.

So no, I’m not sure – these exceptions aside of course – that English football has a great deal to teach the rest of the World. In fact, as I said to the gathered group, I think we could learn a lot from them and their willingness to seek out new ideas, and work collectively on improving the game in Denmark.

As the founder of Supporters Direct, the Inspirational Brian Lomax said, “What we unites us is greater than what divides us during 90 minutes of football”. At the time he was talking about fans, but that should apply to clubs too.

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