Stories of disputes between football clubs and their supporters are legion, from those catalogued by Amanda Jacks over at @FSF_Faircop; ticketing and other matchgoing issues on a club-by-club basis through supporters’ groups; or the work done by Supporters Direct on deeper, more structural issues.
Many problems often arise because one or both sides don’t, won’t or can’t reach at least some level of understanding – if not compromise. So is it worth trying something new by looking at the place of supporters in the actual rules that govern football?
As you’d expect, football has a set of rules to govern the game, and those rules also cover the actual people, the relationships and resultant disputes that invariably happen between various parties on and off the pitch. To enable this to be done properly, those subject to these rules are explicitly identified. These are known as the ‘Participants’. In England, The FA rulebook identifies a ‘Participant’ as: ‘An Affiliated Association, Competition, Club, Club Official, Intermediary, Player, Official, Manager, Match Official, Match Official observer, Match Official coach, Match Official mentor, Management Committee Member, member or employee of a Club and all such persons who are from time to time participating in any activity sanctioned either directly or indirectly by The Association’ (FA Handbook, Page 95, A. Constitution and Administration of the Association, 2. Definition and Interpretation) As we can see, there are a much wider group of interested parties when it comes to football than just those involved in the playing of it for 90 minutes – players, referees, managers, coaches.
If someone in this group breaks the rules – a player or a manager getting sent off, a club or FA county official speaking out of turn – they can be brought to book and made to account for those actions, and be fined or banned. This means that disputes or contraventions of the rules can in theory at least, be resolved in a straightforward fashion.
Beyond that group, there are others who are commonly described as ‘stakeholders’ (groups who have a ‘stake’ in an organisation – i.e. those who are affected by or can affect it.) This is a familiar term used very widely across industries and sectors, and in this case supporters, local communities, and some types of commercial partners would be included in this group. (I would class most commercial partners, suppliers or others as simply having a ‘transactional’ relationship with football – they provide money for their name/product & reputation to be associated with the game or a club, and don’t really have a role beyond it.) Of course, just to confuse everyone further, everyone in the ‘Participants’ group should also be understood more generally as ‘Stakeholders’!
My original interest in this area came from a dispute between one, at the time very well known Chairman of a sizeable Championship club, and its supporters’ trust – which he was very suspicious of. Indeed, a colleague went as far as to enquire whether it would be possible to invoke one or other of the rules of the game to deal with the problem. It wasn’t.
Over the years, as the role of supporters has grown, and the idea of not involving them in the discussion, of consulting them, seems increasingly out of step. People in the game have talked more and more of them as vital to the very fabric of the game we know. Both Supporters Direct and The FSF now have a representative each at FA Council level, which is only a good thing.
You might argue that supporters stop being significant below a certain level. In terms of finances, yes, it’s true they’re only really contributors (because of the need to pay salaries and expenses) from about Step 4 in the pyramid (Northern Premier/Isthmian/Southern 1st divisions) – at a stretch some clubs at the top of Step 5. Beyond that, of course supporters exist, but they are often counted in their handfuls, and are as much volunteers or officials as anything else. But this appears to rest on the idea that every Participant is relevant at every level, and aren’t the 92 top clubs very specific – and highly influential (represented by the ‘Professional Game Board’). Or to some extent the FA Counties (represented by the ‘National Game Board’). So why not supporters?
Another argument is that supporters don’t ‘participate’ – they watch. Except supporters make the professional and upper-echelons of the non-league game the sport that it is; without them it would simply be lots of people playing football in otherwise empty fields or stadia. And you wouldn’t need the Professional Game Board either.
It could be argued that the same exception for every distinct group in the game should be made (BAME, women, the disabled.) It’s a good question, but isn’t it the case that representation is important from these groups to ensure that those individuals who participate are given equal access and treatment, rather than being a strictly separate class of ‘Participant’ – at least in terms of the rulebook?
Clubs, The FA, The Premier League, EFL, and National League are constantly seeking ways to ‘engage’ with and involve supporters in a meaningful way, and it might just be that this can be enhanced with a ‘structural’ solution, not just a ‘policy’ one – as important as that is.
I’m not seeking to establish every characteristic of the role supporters might play as a Participant, or indeed, how they would be represented in that respect (i.e. as individuals, supporters’ trusts or national bodies). Perhaps on-pitch matters might be a bit of a problem (though consulting them on, for example, the idea of ‘sin bins’ and whether they’d enhance the game or not from a supporter perspective would be done more efficiently and as an automatic part of the process, which I can’t personally see as a disadvantage). However, aside from technicalities, in the structural sense I can’t see much else that would a problem if supporters became a Participant, as opposed to their slightly muddied current role as arguably a sort of ‘enhanced’ stakeholder – at least at FA council level.
It would make disputes and problems almost certainly more resolvable, and would I suggest, reduce their incidence as well over time as they would be ‘in the room’, as opposed to half-in-half-out. We might well see the eventual emergence of a more naturally collaborative style of governing the game, and it’s hard to see how that’s a bad thing.
Over to you…