Fans gather for Supporters Summit

Football supporters from across the UK met in Manchester in July to discuss the challenges and developments affecting fans of the game. The Supporters Summit 2015, hosted jointly...

Football supporters from across the UK met in Manchester in July to discuss the challenges and developments affecting fans of the game. The Supporters Summit 2015, hosted jointly by the Football Supporters’ Federation (FSF) and Supporters Direct (SD), aimed to bring together a collection of fans who were “interested in shaping the game for the future”, said SD’s director of development, Hilary Clifford.

The day before the main summit, SD hosted a variety of workshops and discussions during a Members’ Day, covering community-owned clubs, issues affecting Premier League and Championship clubs, SD’s rugby league network and youth involvement.

The Members’ Day also incorporated the SD annual general meeting, which featured its work across Europe, a proposed review of the organisation’s governance structure, and the presentation of the Richard Lillicrap award. This award is presented each year to someone who provides outstanding support and advice to others in the supporters’ trust movement.

“Unusually the winner this year was a member of SD’s staff who, despite very serious health issues, continues to work and goes way beyond the call of duty to enthuse, motivate and assist fans to form and maintain trusts,” said SD vice-chair, Elaine Dean.

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Jacqui Forster with SD chair Brian Burgess

Jacqui Forster, who has been with SD for 12 years and was nominated by Walsall Supporters Trust, was given a standing ovation as she collected the award from SD chair Brian Burgess.

The main Supporters Summit opened with a panel discussion and audience Q&A on Fifa, reform, and how supporters trusts can influence issues on the global stage. Host Lynsey Hooper, a football reporter and presenter, was joined by Stephen Russell of Playfair Qatar; Jaimie Fuller, a sports ethics campaigner and the chairman of SKINS; and Tom Greatrex, an ex-MP and former chair of Fulham Supporters’ Trust.

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In light of recent issues at Fifa, there was agreement that football’s governing body needed more accountability and transparency. “But before we can reform Fifa, we need to reform local football associations,” said Mr Fuller, who added that corruption goes beyond Fifa into the wider footballing family. “Fifa can’t referee itself,” he said. “We’ve been championing independent reform.”

This had been echoed by Coca-Cola the day before the summit, when news broke that the Fifa sponsor had demanded an independent third-party commission to oversee reform of the organisation.

The reasons that sponsors are asking questions is because they are under pressure from their markets, said Tom Greatrex, and although it’s the sponsors that have the power to make those demands, the pressure to do so comes first from individual fans and supporters trusts.

“The voice of the fans is the ultimate protector,” he said. “They are the lifeblood of football. At the end of the day, they’re the ones left holding the integrity of the game.” He thinks that part of this power lies in ensuring fan representation in governance is properly done in Fifa and national associations.

However, Rhys Williams, coordinator for the Brentford Community Stadium project, questioned what other roles there were for fans and local trusts in making tangible change.

“When Coke and Visa and other sponsors react, it’s because they’re under threat from the behaviour of Fifa,” said Stephen Russell, adding that fans are the “ideal conduit” for getting across that this bad behaviour is happening. “Fans should engage with campaigns and highlight fan anger – this plugs into the wider narrative that fans can’t be taken for granted.”

The summit featured workshops on subjects such as diversity, making fans heard, and sharing TV wealth. There was also a report from the Expert Working Group on Football Supporter Ownership and Engagement, which was launched by the coalition government in 2014 to try to remove a number of barriers. Kevin Miles (FSF) and James Mathie (SD) looked at the progress made so far, ahead of the full report which will be published in November.

One notable success for the Group so far is a change to insolvency rules, announced in June, which reduces some barriers to a supporter ownership bid. Now if a club goes into insolvency, they must speak to the supporters trust within 15 days. The new rules have also given more power to the administrator.

The final report will focus on four areas, said Mr Mathie: improving the focus and funding of supporters groups to prepare for bids/increasing share ownership; removing barriers and creating opportunities for accredited supporters trusts during the sale of clubs and within the insolvency process; formalising structured engagement between clubs and fans; and improving governance and increasing fan representation.

But Mr Miles said the realities of the politics of the process had to be taken into account. ”There are some strong recommendations coming out that will be taken seriously,” he said, “but everything out of the group must be consensual – we have to get the best we can that merges with consensual agreements […] There’s a lot of support at the central league level – and a lot of caution at individual club level.”

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