Sit down. Stand up. Sit over there. You can't sit here. You can't afford to sit here. You're in the wrong place, here's a section 27, don't come back. Football is a simple game, but watching it often isn't. Jeff Livingstone catches up with some guardian angels.
In the 1980's, following a football team meant, in the UK governments eyes at least, you were the lowest of the low, an embarrassment to the nation. Tarred with the same brush, regardless of club, a football fan was a leper, a misfit and an outcast. If football had died completely in the 1980's, nobody in the Conservative government at the time would have been too concerned.
It took a series of tragic events for fans to be viewed with any compassion. By the time the 1990's rolled around, football was fashionable, and in the top divisions, big business. Everybody with a few bob to their name wanted in. Here's the gravy train, jump on. Where were you when we were shite?
No sooner had clubs started to give a thought for their very lifeblood, then they caught the unmistakable waft of greed. All of a sudden, that compassion went up in a puff of smoke....and by the way, you can't smoke here.
The 1980's have gone, but the need for representation of football fans has never been greater. Thank god for the Football Supporters Federation.
In the week that they offered this sublime piece of artistry to the world, I caught up with Garreth Cummins, International Officer for the FSF.
Okay then, I’ll avoid the obvious questions....no, it’s no good, I just can’t! The tube map is just superb. What prompted you lot to start the map and how long did it take?
It sprung from a throwaway jokey comment and kind of spiralled from there, really. I think it was Sulley Monumentari that kicked it all off, and we just started firing daft puns across the office at each other all afternoon, and then stuck the ‘game’ up on our Facebook page . Having had a good chuckle at some of the efforts, I took it as something of a personal mission to see if we could complete the whole tube map. Over the next couple of days and nights, with a little bit of help, we finished the lot.
We had to justify ‘wasting’ all that time somehow, and so we decided to put it as the centre spread in our magazine, The Football Supporter, and to knock up a pdf/jpg that we could trot around the internet. The response was crazy and it was picked up by all sorts of places from FourFourTwo and the Guardian to Dutch and German fansites. It ‘went viral’ as those horrible new-media types would say. We’ve even decided to sell it as a poster.
Is this the start of a new direction for the FSF? How long before we see you at the Tate?
I think it’s safe to say that we’ll not be competing with Tracy Emin, Damien Hurst and all those lot with any more artistic endeavours for now. Still, if we come up with another daft idea and an excuse for more football puns, who knows?
We’ll assume that the FSF may be new to some people, so how and why did you come about?
The FSF as it stands now was formed by the merger of two organisations in 2003 – the National Federation of Football Supporters’ Clubs (NFFSC) and the Football Supporters Association (FSA). The NFFSC was formed as long ago as the 1920s, while the FSA came about in the aftermath of Heysel. Initially both organisations had very separate purposes and membership – the NFFSC represented supporters’ clubs and their interests while the FSA had individual membership, and was much more of a campaigning organisation.
Ultimately, the aims and interests of the two began to coincide (both organisations contributed evidence to the enquiries after the Bradford fire and Hillsborough, for instance) and when the Government’s Football Task Force recommended in 1999 that there should be one unified organisation funded by the game’s stakeholders to represent the supporters, a merger was inevitable.
It might surprise people to know that the FSF is almost entirely voluntarily run – we have a small office staff that run the website, handle the media queries and do the admin and so on, but a great deal of the work is done by football fans in their own time.
Part of the Federation’s constitutional aims is to gain representation for football supporters on the executive and governing bodies of association football. How realistic a goal is that, and how are things going on that front?
While it may not be as attention grabbing as some of our campaigns and issues, getting involved with the governing side of football is incredibly important. Our chair, Malcolm Clarke, is the first ever supporters representative on the FA Council. Although that means that he can often be a lone voice in amongst a sea of blazers, it’s a step in the right direction in getting supporters’ concerns represented at football’s top tables.
One of your campaigns at the moment focuses on the dreaded Section 27 of the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006. Why is this a big issue for football supporters?
Section 27 legislation allows police to move someone from a specified area for a period of up to 48 hours. No offence needs to have been committed: the legislation gives police the power to move on people who they say pose a risk of alcohol-related disorder. It was designed with individuals who have been misbehaving under the influence of alcohol in mind - clearing areas outside of nightclubs at closing time, for instance.
It is meant to be a specified locality but in the instances we’ve heard of police have moved large groups of people across the whole country under threat of arrest if they don’t comply. No hard evidence appears to be required, and no crime needs to have been committed.
The highest profile example, which the FSF picked up on and ultimately won in court, was the illegal use of Section 27 on a group of around 80 Stoke fans in Manchester in December 2008. The police closed down the pub they were in and forcibly bussed them back to Stoke, even if that wasn’t where they originally came from. They ended up winning almost £200,000 in compensation.
What are the common issues raised by fans at the moment?
Our inbox is full of all sorts of complaints, queries and questions. Chief among them seem to be mistreatment at the hands of police and stewards, complaints about fixture rescheduling, and all sorts of ‘consumer advice’, like ticket pricing problems where discounts/concessions aren’t being passed on to away fans, that sort of thing. We do get all sorts, though; sometimes fans just like to use us for a good rant because they’ll get a sympathetic ear.
The Federation is divided into different regions, are some issues region specific?
Some of our campaigns have a regional focus, or at least a strong regional interest, certainly. At the moment there’s some good work being done locally in Yorkshire with the campaign ‘Keep Scunthorpe Standing’. While the FSF is getting involved nationally under the Safe Standing campaign, when it comes to getting volunteers to spread the word, speak to local media and stand around with petition sheets before games the regional aspect definitely helps – people are often more receptive to a local accent, or fans of their own club getting something going rather than a big national organisation. The regional divisional volunteers of the FSF help us manage that.
The Premier League proposal for 'game 39' was greeted with dismay by many fans. Do you believe this proposal to be completely dead?
We’re happy that our campaign ‘No to Gam£ 39’ seemed to effectively stop the initial proposal in its tracks, but I’m not sure that the idea is ever going to be truly dead – the vested interests of the money men in football will keep pushing the boundaries of what they can do in the search for a quick buck. With the NFL and NBA showcasing competitive fixtures abroad, and with more clubs playing pre-season games overseas, it won’t be long until the idea raises its head again in some form or other. Whether that’s as an additional league match, moving existing league fixtures abroad, or even a round of the League Cup I don’t know. It’s something we’re definitely keeping an eye on.
How receptive to fans groups are clubs in general?
It depends on the club – at one end of the scale you’ve got clubs that are run by their supporters, or even founded by them like AFC Wimbledon or FC Halifax Town; at the other there are some pretty unapproachable clubs in the upper levels of the league structure. It doesn’t necessarily follow that the further up the league you are the less you care about or consult with your fans, but there’s certainly some correlation.
Have clubs really embraced links?
On the whole, clubs are gradually engaging more with their fans, which is a positive step, and they’re generally getting better at ‘customer relations’. More clubs have got supporters’ trusts, and Supporters Direct do some excellent work to get those off the ground and involved with decision making and ultimately supporter ownership.
A lot of it depends on what it is you want from your club as to how much they’ll listen to you – complaints still seem to get short-shrift a lot of the time, while suggestions for improvements to the atmosphere or matchday experience seem to be dealt with more positively. Suprising, eh?
Which clubs haven’t?
We’ll not name names here, but you might be surprised at some of the cases we deal with of fans being ignored or just shockingly treated by their clubs. A quick scan through the news section on our website will throw up a few examples of the sorts of things that we help to overcome, but these are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we hear and help deal with.
Fan power seems to have a lot of momentum in Germany now; do you monitor events from organisations in other countries?
We do keep a keen eye on all sorts of fan issues, not just those affecting us here. The FSF is a member of Football Supporters Europe, an umbrella organisation which brings together fans groups (both national and local) and individuals from across the continent. While the various fan cultures have their different approaches and styles, there’s a lot that can be learnt from successful campaigns and adapted for a domestic audience.
Tell us more about the safe standing campaign.
The season may be only a couple of months old, but we’ve already been busy with a couple of campaigns. The focus of the Safe Standing campaign has shifted somewhat to more local issues at individual clubs, like Keep Scunthorpe Standing (where the smallest ground in the Championship’s capacity could be forced to shrink by a further thousand or more next summer, when the club fall foul of the ‘Three Year Rule’). www.fsf.org.uk/keepscunthorpestanding
A few miles up the road, Bradford City supporter Manny Dominguez is continuing to beaver away on the Stand Up for the Bantams initiative. The campaign for the introduction of a Safe Standing area at Valley Parade has the support of many Bradford fans. The club have asked us to come up with a detailed logistical plan, which is something that both the FSF and the City fans are working on in partnership.
Politically, the FSF worked closely with the Liberal Democrats to bring a debate on Safe Standing to their party conference in 2008, where they subsequently became the first major political party to back our campaign. With the Lib Dems now part of the new coalition Government, we have a golden opportunity to take this forward – something we are actively working on.
What’s next for the FSF?
We never really know what’s around the corner – often things can blow up out of nowhere, or an innocuous looking email can result in months of work, or a whole new campaign.
On the official side of things we’ll be looking to establish relationships with the new coalition Government, and see how their spending review affects funding at any number of organisations, while also awaiting the appointment of the new independent chair of the FA along with a load of other FA reforms.
On a day-to-day basis we’ll continue to offer advice to fans in trouble, and keep our long-standing services such as our European Ground Guides and Fans’ Embassies working, along with launching a new-look website hopefully some time this side of Christmas. There’s always plenty to be getting on with!
If fans want to get involved, what should they do?
Simple – join us! Membership of the FSF is free, and there’s never been a more crucial time to ensure that the fans’ voice is heard. Simply go to www.fsf.org.uk/join and fill in a very simple form and you’ll join our 180,000 or so members.
If you’re a member of a supporters club or trust, you should find out if they’re involved with the FSF, too. We have nearly 150 affiliate members, from the Premier League to Non League.
If you’ve got any questions at all about the FSF then drop us a line to firstname.lastname@example.org.