Johnny Phillips: There’s change in the air if fans can grasp it

Have we reached the moment where supporters can sense a change in the wind they have battled against for many decades?

 Fans holding up banners as they protest against the Glazer family
Fans holding up banners as they protest against the Glazer family

Chelsea’s announcement that fans will be given a presence at board meetings gave hope to those who believe they deserve a greater say in the way football is administered in this country.

“Three supporter advisors, picked through an election and selection process, will attend board meetings to ensure general supporter sentiment is considered as part of the Club’s decision-making process,” the statement read.

Last Sunday afternoon, Manchester United supporters brought about the postponement of their club’s Premier League fixture with Liverpool at Old Trafford. It was by far the most impactful of the protests we have seen so far.

While some operated outside the law, and should be punished, the vast majority were peacefully objecting to the recent actions of their owners, which – along with those of the other European Super League founders – were indefensible.

You may not agree with everything Gary Neville has to say, but he had the interest of every football supporter in the land at heart when he highlighted the need for protest.

“The Glazer family tried to implement something that would have damaged every single community in this country that has football at the heart of it,” he said. “That’s why they’re dangerous. Perez is dangerous, Laporta, Agnelli are all dangerous to the concept of equal opportunity and fair play. Today there is anger, I would hope tomorrow it switches to mobilisation and reform, regulation and a fan-led review.”

There were further protests at the Emirates Stadium on Thursday night ahead of Arsenal’s Europa League tie with Villareal. If supporter mobilisation and reform does not happen in the wake of these ESL demonstrations and the current mood of the wider football fanbase, then it never will. But it will be hugely difficult to affect the changes required at the top.

Whether or not Chelsea’s announcement will have a genuine impact is another matter. Cynics might suggest it is tokenism, that the real meetings and decision-making will continue in another space at board level.

Other clubs have already followed Chelsea’s lead. On Tuesday, Liverpool chief executive Billy Hogan met with supporter group Spirit of Shankly. And Wolves revealed, on Thursday, that they are forming four ‘fan consultation groups’ to provide feedback on the club’s progress and future vision.

And there is lots of listening to be done, as Spurs proved that same day when they announced that 10,000 supporters would be allowed in for their final home game of the season against Villa, with all adults charged a prohibitive £60 per ticket. They certainly know how to reward their most loyal followers.

Is it any wonder that so many fans are turning to their local non-league clubs for a better experience? Where admission is a fraction of the price of a Premier League ticket, with the added bonus of no VAR.

There is no chance of the German model of fan ownership, where supporters have a 51 per cent stake in their clubs, ever being implemented at the highest level in this country. Owners would never relinquish so much control of their assets and, on a purely regulatory level, Manchester United is listed on the New York Stock Exchange and registered in the Cayman Islands.

Any reform will have to be legislative, passed through parliament. Politicians have a role to play in protecting the clubs that play such an important part in communities up and down the land.

Perhaps another realistic model for reform will involve a bottom-up approach. The Premier League giants are almost untouchable for the ordinary fan, but lower down the ladder there are several shining examples of fan-owned clubs successfully making progress.

This season, Wimbledon returned to the borough of Merton after almost three decades away. When the Dons left Plough Lane in May 1991 it began a long fall from grace that eventually led to the club uprooting to Milton Keynes, as a franchise, leaving supporters to pick up the pieces back in London.

The reformed supporter-owned club began life in 2002 with player trials on Wimbledon Common. It has been a long road back, playing in Kingston upon Thames and making their way through the Combined Counties League, Isthmian League, Conference and Football League to arrive where they are today, as a League One club with their own home.

Other clubs who went bust or fell out of the professional game, including Chester City, Newport County, Rushden & Diamonds, Chesterfield, Exeter City and Darlington have been revived under fan-owned models. Supporters in boardroom roles at these clubs are armed with the experience of dealing with the game’s administrators.

If more and more clubs further down the pyramid become fan-owned then it is more likely to put the squeeze on those higher up to recognise who the real custodians of the game are.

But as Avram Glazer illustrated, when he was approached in Florida by a television news crew this week, some owners have nothing to say to their supporters. The Manchester United Supporters Trust has written an open letter to his brother, Joel, asking for dialogue.

Their point is that no member of the family has ‘ever had so much as a conversation’ with them.

With owners like these, the road to fan empowerment at the top of the game will be a long and difficult one.

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