Monday, 24 January 2011

Far more than a 'talking shop'

Scottish football is undoubtedly under threat. Recession, lack of investment at the grassroots, falling attendances, lack of quality and variety in the game, the corrosive effects of massive economic inequality, vested interests, structural debt, mismanagement and poor governance are among the obvious symptoms and causes.

But Scottish football also has significant human resources. Even in these tough times, more fans turn out to watch live games in Scotland than anywhere else in Europe (per head of population). The commitment and sheer hard work demonstrated at every level - from the dressing room to the training ground to the terraces - remains remarkable. The goodwill is there. And most of the money still comes from the turnstiles.

But perhaps the most important development in recent years has been the growth of direct fan involvement and stakeholding in clubs - encouraged, backed and resourced by Supporters Direct in Scotland and elsewhere.

Yesterday I joined three other members of the Sonstrust and some 50 people from 33 clubs, along with SD staff and representatives, at a gathering in Falkirk aimed at enabling Trust and supporters to make an effective response to the McLeish report on the future of the Scottish game and the Scottish Premier League proposals for reconstruction - which in the view of many SFL fans more-or-less cut off smaller professional clubs and threaten to turn them into little more than junior outfits. (A fuller report is on the Sonstrust site here, and more will appear in the issue of Sons View being prepared for the coming Dumbarton game against Brechin City.)

At present all the 'reconstruction' running is being made by the SPL elite and their backers. The SFL seems to have been wrong-footed completely, the wishes of supporters have been disregarded almost completely, the second part of the McLeish review has not shown the independence of mind and willingness to challenge vested interests many were hoping for, and attempts to look at alternatives have been pushed aside with blether, spin and prawn cocktail diplomacy by Neil Doncaster and his cohorts.

But this is far from the end of the story. At Saturday's meeting, Supporters Direct Scotland were encouraged to push for genuine consultation, to press the results of their recent Survey (which said no to a ten-team SPL, and cast massive doubt an opposition towards regionalised lower leagues and to 'B' or 'Colt' SPL interlopers), to get the SFL to be properly proactive, to continue to develop financially workable and sustainable alternative proposals, and to challenge the SPL towards transparency and accountability in its dealings, data and negotiations.

It will be a tough haul. But it's definately worth the effort. Despite the current propaganda, what is on the table from the SPL at the moment is still far from a done deal. The bedrock of the game is with the supporters, and they are clearly dissatisfied. Supporters Direct can and should play a key role in making their voice heard and in galvanising a coherent response.

The meeting at Falkirk was a good start. There was little of the moaning that often accompanies these gatherings. The participants were thoughtful and determined. I did hear one person use that blessed put-down 'talking shop', but I think it was pretty clear to the great majority that (good quality) talking is precisely what we need to ensure that the conversation is enlarged, that those in power are held to account, and that some positive alternatives get onto the decision-making table(s).

There will, of course, be those who say "it can't be done". That's a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it's exactly what those with vested interests at the top of the tree want to hear. Changing fan culture from moaning-on-the-sidelines towards change-making isn't easy. For years supporters have been treated as fodder, and have learned to respond to this with that lethal cocktail of loyalty and passive aggression which the status quo craves - precisely in order to remain the status quo.

Thankfully, SD and the Trust movement gives them (us) a different, positive way of responding. There are no guarantees that the present struggle can be won, and the odds stacked against are considerable. But if you aim at nothing, you are pretty sure to hit it. It's also worth remembering that the numbers (if not the influence at the moment) are clearly with the fans. Add some media savvy, campaigning guile and sheer hard work and you have a recipe well worth trying.

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