2014-15 was a landmark season for fan activism in British football. The mass boycott carried out by Newcastle fans (which included an unprecedented number of season ticket holders) for their home game against Tottenham and the dramatic final day 48th minute pitch invasion staged by Blackpool fans protesting against the rule of the Oyston family (who have not only financially mismanaged the club, but seem to show disdain for the fans at every. possible. opportunity.) provided two of the clearest examples of people challenging the ruling forces of football. Such actions, however, form just the tip of the iceberg, and to look at these incidents as isolated from a wider climate of discontent and alienation is to miss the point entirely. As I’m sure most of the fans that participated in these actions (and other protests up and down the country) would agree, the feelings behind these protests were primarily founded in despair at the current state of their club rather than excitement.
Fans everywhere are fed up with businessmen coming into their clubs and treating it purely as they would a regular business. Importantly, however, we also have to understand that the attitudes that resistance and protests against these changes grow out of are also unique to the beautiful game, and we need to avoid looking at fan movements as a conventionally political phenomenon. Whilst overtly left-wing fan groups do exist, (Celtic’s Green Brigade, Clapton FC’s Ultras and the bohemian supporters of St. Pauli in Germany being three popular examples) the majority of supporter movements find their identity primarily established and invested in the fortunes of their club; the disruptions at Blackpool and Newcastle, of course, came as a result of not only financial injustice, but also anger at the standard of football being played. On the other side of the same coin, you’ll notice the lack of a similar uproar at the recent increase of the average price of a season ticket at Bournemouth by £87.
So where do fans go from here? A study by the Telegraph suggests that two-thirds of top-flight clubs have either frozen or reduced the price of the average season ticket for the coming season. Whilst this is of course a good thing for many fans, season tickets still remain an unaffordable luxury for most young people (especially when compared to the prices in countries such as Germany), and the recently announced £5.14bn TV deal for domestic clubs (£1bn of which has put aside to be redistributed amongst lower-league teams) seems to suggest that the financial focus of football is turning away from fans and towards consumers who are either unable or unwilling to frequently watch their team play in the flesh.
It’s difficult to see how these shifts can be effectively countered on a grassroots level, but it’s important that fans stay involved and engaged with football in their local communities, as well as offering their support to movements that seek to redress the balance between fans of the game and those that make money off of it. For everyone whose Saturday and Sunday afternoons revolve around 22 people trying to kick a ball into a net, football is, and will continue to be, much more than a business. No one would argue that accessibility and an increased audience is a bad thing, but any shift in the delicate balance between live and televised football on the part of clubs runs the risk of further alienating fans and, as a result, ruining that all-important atmosphere.
Football clubs, despite their intensive branding and marketing, aren’t simply moneymaking machines, and it’s not unreasonable for supporters to hold them to certain competitive, social or even moral standards. The fan ownership model, although currently impractical in the higher divisions, has proved effective for many lower league teams (the financial turnaround at Portsmouth being one notable example), and, in the case of clubs such as FC United of Manchester and SV Salzburg in Austria, can serve as a consistently visible and effective means of protesting against the injustices carried out against fans at the highest level of football.
No one can definitively say where the tide of club-supporter relations will turn in the coming seasons, but it’s important to stay alert and supportive of these challenges to the further commercialization of the game in order to preserve the connections between clubs and supporters that make football so special.