How Supporters’ Groups Have Won the Ear of the English Media

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For a long time, the only place you’d hear about supporters’ trusts in the national English media would be in the pages of When Saturday Comes. Yet now, it seems we hear more from spokespersons of supporters’ trusts — democratic non-profit fans’ organisations aiming to influence how their clubs are run — than we do from clubs themselves, at all levels of the game.

Take this recent piece yesterday on the BBC’s football website discussing the Premier League’s “fit and proper persons” test for club directors, after Stoke manager Tony Pulis’ apparently controversial comments that the system had broken down.

The piece quoted the response of a Premier League spokesman, who notably mentioned a change to the test could impact the possibility of a supporters’ trust investing in a Premier League team — a possibility that wouldn’t even have crossed a Premier League spokesman’s darkest nightmares just a couple of years ago. The BBC piece says:

The Premier League believes it is difficult to assess a potential owner’s financial viability and a more far-reaching test could preclude different models of ownership such as Supporters’ Trusts running clubs.

“A means or intentions test is difficult – an individual could show you a bank account stuffed full of cash, but never actually put any of it into the club,” added the Premier League spokesman.

“On the flipside would you want to preclude potential owners – including Supporters’ Trusts – that want to come in and run the club on a self-financing model?”

The BBC piece does not then feature comment from any representatives of Premier League clubs, but instead turns to  spokesmen for supporters’ trusts/groups at Manchester United and Portsmouth, Duncan Drasdo and Brendon Bone respectively.

A search of Google News shows the pattern: mentions of the Manchester United Supporters Trust have risen from 46 in all of 2008, to 48 in 2009 to 54 in just the first two months of 2010.

Duncan Drasdo alone is cited 36 times this year, in all of the major newspapers.

I’ve also noticed a Pitch Invasion contributor from years past, Dave Boyle, popping up quoted in more and more newspaper reports, such as in this Guardian piece on government regulation of English football’s finances.

Dave is currently the chief executive of Supporters Direct, a nationwide professional organisation that has played a key role in advising and assisting supporters trusts to help them increase their influence at clubs.

We asked Dave how he thought the English media’s coverage of supporters’ trusts had shifted in recent times:

Green and gold until the club is sold.q

"Green and gold until the club is sold." Man Utd fans protest the Glazer regime at Old Trafford. January 24th, 2009.

“The biggest change has been the recognition by media outlets that fans not only have information to help stories, they are part of the story itself,” Dave explained.  “By being closer to the club, fans groups have an ear to the ground that can be immensely useful in providing background, but that’s now matched by the fact that fans’ groups are part of the story. The Glazer debt is only half the story; the other is the green and gold campaign orchestrated by fans.”

Dave pointed out that a Guardian piece today about the state of Manchester United’s finances “was essentially the regurgitation of a blog post by a Supporters’ Trust member who has written to David Gill; there’s no response from the club, there’s no context from a development at the club – it’s purely based on what fans are up to.”

So why has this sea change in media coverage of supporters’ trusts taken place?  Dave put it down firstly to improved organisation and professional practices undertaken by fan organisations themselves: “Fans’ groups are articulate, knowledgeable and organised. They know how the media works, and how stories get written and don’t rely on firing off press releases in the hope they get attention. They help reporters, and it’s hard to keep them out of the coverage on the basis that they’re all a bunch of bobble-hat wearers.”

Meanwhile, Dave went on, many clubs own public relations departments can’t keep up with the pressing needs of the media for instant reaction to breaking stories, leading reporters to lean on reliable and well-informed fan contacts instead: “Such has been the state of disorganisation or lack of clarity over what was happening, the club’s own press people have either been unable or unwilling to help, and when you’ve got space to fill and a deadline, you’ll go to where you can reliable comment that you can cite in the paper with confidence that you’ll not be looking foolish for doing so. In all these respects, its the payback for many years of diligent – and often fruitless – work with journalists, building relationships with them.”

Along with this, the actual topics the mainstream media has been willing to cover have shifted dramatically, particularly in the context of the high-profile crises at clubs from Liverpool to Portsmouth, that have made it impossible to ignore the underlying concerns about the financial models in English football that have long been expressed by the likes of Supporters Direct.

“There’s been a growing recognition that all the things supporters’ trusts have been concerned about were correct,” Dave explained. “For some time, I think there was a view that the issues of finance and governance were minority pursuits, politically-motivated, or by the permanently miserable, and underneath that, there just wasn’t the sense that any of these things really were problems to be exercised about that. Events at Portsmouth, Man Utd, Liverpool and West Ham have underscored that there are problems and they are something hundreds of thousands of people are worried about.”

Summing it all up, Dave says, there’s no longer any need for trusts and other groups to have to spend half their time laying the groundwork to explain why they even exist, such is the obvious nature of the value their presence brings.  “In essence, two years ago, the feeling was almost ‘what’s the problem to which supporters groups are the solution?’ but that kind of answers itself a lot more these days.”

Next month, we’re planning to feature a week-long series on the growth and present state of the supporters’ trust movement to explore further these changes.

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