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Football Without Fans Is Nothing

When Jock Stein originally spoke about the importance of fans, he probably didn’t consider that it would become part of the universal language of football more than 40 years later. It is so powerful an idea that it is routinely misquoted (the full quote is below) and often mis-attributed to any one of the Scottish managerial icons (most recently, Matt Busby).

“Without fans who pay at the turnstile, football is nothing. Sometimes we are inclined to forget that. The only chance of bringing them into stadiums is if they are entertained by what happens on the football field.”

Jock Stein

That Stein’s words have almost become a cliché demonstrates the powerful truth behind them. Football fans are the lifeblood of the game. With nobody watching, matches would still take place, but the entire industry and infrastructure that surrounds 115 x 74 yards of grass would cease to exist. But despite this, what matters to fans is taken for granted or seems to be an afterthought when decisions are made about the future of the game – and is sometimes ignored entirely.

The recent ‘B Teams’ proposal is a perfect example of this. Fans have repeatedly voiced their opposition to this idea, but as regular as clockwork a proposal pops up every couple of years only to be knocked back down like a perpetual game of whack-a-mole. These plans were revealed in the media last month (seemingly without the prior knowledge of some lower league clubs – so it’s not just the fans who are ignored!) in an apparent PR campaign prior to meetings of the SFA and SPFL boards several weeks later, before being put to the clubs. Supporters Direct Scotland quickly dusted off a previous fans survey on the topic (we have several to choose from!) and gauged the opinion of football supporters yet again. The results were unequivocal – but in response to the proposal’s stated aim of improving elite youth development we also sought alternative ideas for achieving this goal. The survey results were collated, summarised, and provided to the two boards for inclusion in their discussions.

This week, media reports of the proposals being put by the SFA’s Professional Game Board to the clubs suggest that despite clear opposition from the majority of supporters the proposal still has the support of senior decision makers within Scottish football. And even at the highest level of the game it was suggested that the proposal wouldn’t even clear the first hurdle if put to clubs, with five Premiership clubs opposed to the plan – an 11-1 majority is required under the SPFL’s rules, before any proposal is put to lower league clubs.

In our ongoing Scottish Football Utopia research project, Scottish football’s top-heavy decision-making structure is regularly highlighted by fans as a priority for change – although in this case it is inadvertently helping to block a change which would be equally unpopular with clubs as it is with fans. The SPFL was created in order to achieve a balance of power between its 42 member clubs, but this has never been (and was never intended to be) an equal balance. Power is stacked at the top, with just enough shared lower down the leagues to keep the clubs together – and just as with the SPFL’s predecessors nothing changes without being driven by the two largest clubs in the country.

Supporters are absent from this decision-making process. We are stakeholders, with no formal role within this structure. But we are not unique in this regard – players, managers, off-field staff, volunteers, community programme leaders and the communities they support are all affected by the decisions taken by clubs, but also have no formal role. Club nominees to the SPFL board and sub-committees are expected to speak for all of these varied interests… an impossible task. Each of these groups, though, has its own representative body who (like the various supporters organisations) can advocate for its members interests in discussions with football’s governing bodies.

Supporters Direct Scotland was established as a democratic organisation, and is led by a board of directors elected by its members. Our members all also operate on the democratic principle of “one member, one vote”, with every voice being heard equally. We offer a ready-made framework for football’s governing bodies to include fans views in their decision-making – we won’t always agree with decisions, but are committed to strengthening Scottish football through collaborative and constructive engagement with every other stakeholder group.

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