Fan Engagement in the Premier League - a wasted opportunity?: Spurs, Brighton, Man Utd, Chelsea

It’s still said far too often that football clubs are all very different. Yet when you strip everything back, football clubs are fundamentally the same, and fans should always be at the core. With their Fan Engagement Standard now on the way, TFE’s Sidney Wise takes a look at whether Premier League clubs are capable of making the most of it, or will waste a golden opportunity.

There are tales of owners remarking on how they prefer football without fans in the stadium – some more believable than others. Apocryphal or real, these tales speak to the awkward relationship often at play between ownership, administration and fans. When it comes to clubs properly acknowledging the important role those fans can take, it has generally been one of evolution rather than revolution.

The vast majority of the work in this area has been carried out by supporters’ trusts since the early/mid 1990s. The raison d’etre of the first at Northampton Town in 1990, and all the subsequent ones, were to become a partner in the club, preferably underpinned with a shareholding and director. Yet they were very often fighting poor ownership, bankruptcy, or asset stripping – in many cases telling clubs to stop behaving badly, rather than developing the role constructively. As a result, they were frequently viewed as something of a threat by the very clubs they were attempting to assist, or at best an emergency service for stricken clubs. That has changed, but not enough.

At the forefront were the governing body for supporters’ trusts, Supporters Direct (SD), who worked closely with lawmakers in Parliament, as well as externally amongst football stakeholders, to advance a closer, more constructive working relationship. One of their last major pieces of work in this area was this 2015 report making the case that ‘reform of English football’ needed greater transparency to ensure that fans knew exactly who was in charge of their club. Even then, after 15 years, the case still had to be made. Remarkable!

“They (supporters’ trusts) were frequently viewed as something of a threat by the very clubs they were attempting to assist, or at best an emergency service for stricken clubs.”

There is no argument that the vast majority of rule changes made by the Premier League, EFL & FA concerning ownership and financial transparency (including those introduced after the collapse of Portsmouth) can in a large part be seen as a result of the years of concerted work. The introduction of an Independent Regulator of Football is the culmination of these campaigns, latterly executed by the newly created Football Supporters Association (FSA) that brought the old FSF and SD together.

Even still, the culture is arguably not changing quickly enough. Too many clubs at the elite level still keep their fans at arm’s length, prefering merely to utilise them when it suits them, rather than seeing them as a natural partner. This is counterproductive, as when engaged constructively, fans prove repeatedly that they can be an incredibly important ally capable of providing valuable resources and insight to the clubs they support. Human capital if you will.

The Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) is as good an example as any. A former shareholder (more on that later), they had a central role in constructing the argument for barrier seating and safe standing over many years. A key figure in pushing for safe standing at Old Trafford was Ian Stirling – who sadly passed away in March of this year – someone at the forefront of the work well over a decade before it happened. When sceptics were talking about how safe standing would never be introduced, he was testing rail seating in Leverkusen, believing he could get it installed at Old Trafford one day. 

He was right when in April of 2020, the culmination of his and MUST’s work stretching back years was realised, with a trial finally announced. Their role was national as well, as whilst lobbying for safe standing at local level, they simultaneously involved themselves in the national campaign alongside other supporters’ organisations including the then FSF & people like Jon Darch.

The club themselves formally acknowledged that the introduction of the safe standing trial highlighted the positive working relationship they have had with both MUST and elements of the fan engagement programme such as their ‘fans forum’ (better known in the Fan Engagement Index as a ‘Fans Parliament’). 

And it seems there’s a quid-pro-quo, with share ownership once again being a prospect after years of resistance, the club announcing advanced talks with MUST about a Fans’ Share Scheme to restore the long-lost scheme run by the trust before the Glazer takeover in 2005. This will reopen a path for fans to build, over time, a meaningful ownership stake in Manchester United.

Chelsea are another example. In January of last year the Trust set about combatting issues surrounding ticketing. They provided a comprehensive document to the Chelsea board, outlining both what they felt the issues were with the ticketing process and recommendations for how the process could be improved.

As a result of this the Chelsea board agreed to work closely with the Trust regarding the issue and CST sent out a ticketing survey which was used to gather members opinions on the subject. 

The survey concluded in February and the Trust were due to meet with the club the following month but unfortunately the invasion of Ukraine and subsequent sale of the football club meant that understandably the meeting had to be pushed back. We can see through these examples that whilst the various trusts were able to provide assistance to the decision makers at Manchester United and Chelsea, they appear to be only used when it suited the clubs. 

There are others where this hasn’t historically been the case, and the relationship has been consistently strong. Crystal Palace Supporters Trust has over the years since Steve Parish led a consortium that saved it for the third time in about a decade, worked hand-in-glove with the club; Brentford are known for the role fans play, having a seat on the board via Bees United, and well established relationships with BIAS; Fulham too – though currently recent, understandable rumblings over a lack of proper consultation over big ticket price rises have caused the relationship to sour a little. And clubs like Brighton and Hove Albion have been running a Fan Advisory Board for the best part of a season already. Many of the building blocks are there for positive, engaging relationships that utilise the fans to provide insight that the club can directly benefit from. But looming large will always be examples such as Spurs, whose relationship with the previously prominent Tottenham Hotspur Supporters Trust has degraded badly.

As the Fan Engagement Index has repeatedly demonstrated with clubs across the professional pyramid in England, properly structured Fan Engagement has to be mandated. The white paper for the new independent regulator has recently been published and it has been stated that one of the key responsibilities of the regulator will be to ensure that fans have an increased and important voice in the way their club is being run, and the issues that matter to the fans.

Although The Premier League is now in the process of introducing its much heralded Fan Engagement Standard, it is vitally important that it’s recognised that these are rules of the competition, and ultimately changeable by those clubs. Anything introduced by the regulator in this area will be at arm’s length from such control, as is proper.

There are a myriad of issues that fans can be consulted on. The regulator will help with this as fans will be given the power to stop owners changing parts of a clubs heritage such as name, badge and traditional kit colours (demanded for well over a decade). This would obviously prevent the kinds of fiascos we have seen in the past involving clubs such as Hull City (the proposed ‘Hull Tigers’), and Cardiff City’s kit colour change. Both of these were cases where clubs either failed to listen to their fans – particularly formal groups like supporters’ trusts. What is equally – if not more – important is that it creates a new normality of speaking with fans.  

Hopefully, the independent regulator being in operation will open up a path whereby clubs can have a more honest relationship with supporters trusts and consult more regularly on any issue which could concern the fans, which in football is the majority.

As we have discussed this is a relationship that clubs should embrace rather than be sceptical of, as it will have many advantages for them.

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