Fifty years of progress?

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In the course of researching and writing about football in the 1960s I came across this ‘gem’ from the pages of Soccer Review (the forerunner of the League’s own magazine Football League Review). It dates from the autumn of 1965 and highlights a confrontation, I don’t think we can call it a debate, between the National Federation of Football Supporters’ Clubs (NFFSC) and the FA and Football League.

The NFFSC suggested to the FA, and backed by an extensive poll, that supporters should be consulted or at least have a voice when major changes to the game are considered such as the recent introduction of substitutes. The response from Soccer Review sounds today quite extraordinary and intemperate. “The NFFSC is on the wrong track… further evidence they are tending to forget the slogan which the successful supporters’ organisation adheres to strictly TO HELP NOT HINDER.” It concedes that without supporters’ clubs fund-raising many football clubs would be broke but then states categorically “it is no part of their mandate to tell either legislating body what should be done or how”.

The astonishing aspect to me is the lack of any quid pro quo between football clubs and supporters’ clubs at the time. The focus of my study is Reading FC. In the period 1965-69 the supporters’ club contributed an average of £25,000 per annum to the parent club funds which comprised around 30% of the club’s non-transfer income. This was not exceptional. I’m aware that at clubs such as Ipswich and Southend the supporters’ clubs’ contributions were no less valuable than this.Yet the tone of voice heard was often on the lines of ‘the directors have graciously permitted us to raise the money to put a roof over our heads,provided we also provide the labour to erect it’.  Two hundred years earlier, the American colonists had gone to war with Britain over the issue of ‘no taxation without representation’ but that precedent didn’t seem apparent to the supporters of the 1960s, although, it is true, they were donating rather than being taxed.

In the particular instance of Reading the absence of any political dimension is even more surprising. The club chairman had been a Labour councillor and the key figure representing the supporters’ club was a current and active Labour councillor. But both men were past retirement age and perhaps out of tune with the growing political involvement of the times. That immediate period saw the founding of Shelter, the homeless charity, Help the Aged and the Sports Council. Whilst at Reading there was talk, or hope, of supporters’ club representation on the board the supporters’ club did not actually get to hold a single share until 2001. However, the money raised by the supporters’ club through various lottery schemes became so important that by the mid-1970s the chairman of the supporters’ club was elected to the club board.

I asked a venerable old boy of our supporters’ club about this unbalanced relationship of the 1960s and he forcefully repeated the mantra of ‘to help, not hinder’ and stated that money was always so short that it was not the supporters’ club remit or duty to ask how it was spent other than to assume it was for the continued existence of the club as determined by its directors and officials.

And it was these same directors and officials,numbering fewer than ten and men almost all over the age of fifty, and their ilk at other clubs, who were deemed to know far better than the millions of regular match-goers what was for the good of the game and the supporter. The two notions of ‘the customer is king’ and ‘the wisdom of the crowd’ have taken a long time to play a meaningful part in the game-club-fan relationship but the attitude expressed back in 1965 shows how far we have slowly progressed through any number of campaigns.

We are now in a situation where the role or voice of supporters is formally recognised to a degree by the game’s authorities through recent developments such as the introduction of Supporter Liaison Officers (2012) and the Expert Working Group’s 2016 recommendation to a structured club-fan dialogue in the top four divisions. The enthusiasm for embracing these changes does however vary from club to club and there are a few places where the club leaders prefer to count rather consult their supporters,as it were still 1965.

Roger Titford, Deputy Chair Supporters Trust At Reading, Chairman Reading Football Supporters’ Club 1998-2001. 

You can read the original article from Soccer Review at the attachment below

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