State of Play: Supporters the lifeblood of our league

Our clubs would not survive a single week without contribution of supporters and volunteers

 

A little over four years ago, League of Ireland supporters were asked to pinpoint their main priority in football as part of an online fan survey being conducted across Europe. Paid for by grant funding from the European Commission and Uefa, the ‘Improving Football Governance through Supporter Involvement and Community Ownership’ project brought Ireland’s long-suffering domestic football fans to the fore.

The main priority as selected by 78 per cent of the 1,504 respondents probably surprised more than a few and even now, four years on runs, against the general perception of what interests a football supporter. It was, no doubt, a reflection of what was happening in the league at the time, but what did the vast majority of LOI supporters want? On-field success? Trophies? More prize money? Lower ticket prices? No, they wanted to ensure the long-term stability of their football club.

The German Bundesliga and Swedish Allsvenskan may capture the international headlines in relation to fan ownership; however, there is a growing and consistent interest in the League of Ireland, and for two significant reasons.

First, half of our Premier Division clubs are co-operatives or members clubs in their legal form and, secondly, none of our senior clubs could survive a single week without the committed contribution of their supporters and volunteers. Literally, not a week. So, at least when it comes to supporter involvement in football, the League of Ireland is more than holding its own.

Does that mean everything is rosy in the garden? Of course not. But it’s important to place Ireland in context with the rest of Europe. There isn’t a league anywhere on the continent that doesn’t have its own struggles and challenges.

If you visit Germany today, you’ll find masses of supporters unhappy at the outside pressure being applied to their famed 50 + 1 regulation (where 50 per cent of every club’s shareholding plus one belongs to its members). RB Leipzig - and owners Red Bull - have found a way of circumventing the rule, and few quarters are happy. Finding a solution and tackling thorny issues always start in the same place though - inclusive dialogue that’s respectful to all stakeholders. Including supporters.

I’ve been lucky enough to travel all over Europe as part of my role with SD Europe, an organisation that believes supporters are - and should be considered - one of the key stakeholders in our beautiful game. Quite often, there is always someone declaring: “Ah, but you need football people to run the club. Not fans.”

Supporters may sing, dance, chant, paint banners, wave flags and voice their frustrations. However, alongside trophies, they also want an impressive home ground, the most talented players in their side, the best academy set up, a handsome jersey, quality merchandise, big crowds and to dominate sports headlines for all the right reasons. They are, in fact, the most ambitious owners a football club can have, and deserve to be recognised as such.

In the Conroy Report (2015), fan-owned clubs were noted for having better and deeper links in their local communities and bigger volunteer numbers. At SD Europe, we would go much further. To quote a member of the Norsk Supportersallianse (the national supporters’ organisation in Norway) when asked about the future of his football club: “I want my club to live forever, and I’m willing to do what I can to ensure that.”

The League of Ireland’s difficulties are well known and well documented. However, what’s not said as often and is equally clear is that supporters will be an integral part of the solutions. Fans have revitalised clubs across this island in recent years, and many of the most positive developments have been driven by supporter-volunteers alike.

One of the most significant points in favour of clubs belonging to their respective communities was made by a respected businessman as Cork City unveiled University College Cork (UCC) as their new main club partner late last year, and it is this. Government and public institutions cannot easily support an entity in private ownership; instead, it is something that belongs to the people and which has a clear community role and function which merits sustained backing.

SD Europe’s current Erasmus + project, entitled ‘Clubs and Supporters for Better Governance in Football’, is an excellent example of what can be achieved through the simplest form of communication of them all - dialogue.

Pairing together six member-owned clubs (including Cork City), and five national supporters’ organisations (including the Irish Supporters Network), everyone involved will come together for three workshops around Good Governance, Sustainable Finance and Member & Volunteer Engagement as well as take part in a series of one-on-one exchange visits over a two-year period.

Later this month, the Irish Supporters Network, which is an umbrella organisation for Irish football co-operatives (founded by Cork City, Finn Harps, Galway United and The 1895 Trust at Shelbourne) will host a workshop open to everyone in the league with a focus on Sustainable Finance, how the Supporter Liaison Officer (SLO) role can benefit League of Ireland clubs, and the importance and benefit that proper fan engagement can have.

Cork City, meanwhile, will welcome Schalke 04 and Malmö FF to Leeside in early April for their latest Erasmus + exchange - the clubs discussing a range of topics from day-to-day operations and finance, to membership benefits and the match night experience at Turner’s Cross over a number of days. They will also be joined by representatives from Bath City and CAP Ciudad de Murcia (Spain).

Both events will be of considerable benefit to Irish football, and at their very essence are a collection of people, who care deeply about their football club, coming together to tackle the issues faced today in the hope of outlining a better way forward for us all. At the heart of these discussions will be the supporters that are the lifeblood of our League, and it’s time for all stakeholders to acknowledge that fact.

Niamh O’Mahony is Acting CEO of SD Europe, which assists democratic supporters’ groups in achieving formal structured involvement in their clubs and associations, while developing member ownership of football clubs. More details about the Irish Supporters Network’s ‘Towards a Sustainable League’ workshop can be found on http:// irishsupportersnetwork.ie

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