Report from Football Supporters Europe Congress

If reading about what’s happening in football in general is your thing, then go and get yourself a cup of tea as there is a lot here.

Football without Fans is nothing.  Heather Alderson (Vice-chair of CAST) attended the Football Supporters
Europe (FSE) congress from 22nd - 25th June held in a boiling hot Manchester. The congress was hosted by the
Football Supporters Association (FSA) to which CAST and other democratic and open-to-all English fan groups are affiliated.

Here is her report (part 1):

The long weekend kicked off at The National Football Museum. After a quick check to make sure the picture of Don Welsh lifting the FA Cup was still in the museum  (it is) proceedings got underway.

FSE has recently signed a memorandum of understanding with UEFA. The aim there is to institutionalise proper fan engagement in UEFA competitions. As a result of this understanding, UEFA president, Aleksander Čeferin flew in specially to address the conference. This was the first time he has spoken in England. He thanked fans for ‘saving football’ because we had acted against the European Super League.

He also said sorry for what had happened to fans at the UEFA Champions League Finals in Paris and Istanbul
(although, of course, they were a year apart so lessons should have been learned). UEFA will expect to consult fans on any plans to introduce safe-standing and any moves to lift the stadium alcohol ban for UEFA competitions. In general “We don’t want any decisions to be made about fans, without fans”. He also asked for fans’ help to eliminate hate speech.

The congress was then addressed by Debbie Hewitt, chair of the English FA (and now elected vice president of FIFA). Debbie was happy to take questions. She was clearly very proud of the whole pyramid and the values of inclusivity of football. In the light of the upcoming independent regulator she has set up a working group which includes fans. It has come up with 51 recommendations to modernise the FA Council and we should hear more about that on 3rd July. For the first time, she said that she felt that the women’s game should be included in the remit of the independent regulator as well as the men’s game. She was questioned on her role in FIFA. FIFA is far too quick to monetise fan culture without consulting fans. So, the fact that the vice president was at a fan conference the day before her first FIFA board meeting, can be interpreted as a statement of intent from her perspective.

The congress programme began in earnest on Friday 23rd.

Fans for Diversity. We heard from several supporter groups on their initiatives to welcome all members of
their community into the game. Given that ticket dumping initiatives and Thomas Sandgaard’s other ‘football is simple’ ideas led to lower, not higher, gates in a season when the EFL has seen the highest attendance this century, I was especially interested to hear what had worked well at other clubs. The session started with the good advice from former player, FSA staff member and now FA diversity lead, Anwar Uddin to ‘just be a nice human being’ and to tell clubs that very often the answer lies in the stands when it comes to welcoming other fans. Thanks to him, even Millwall has had some success in bringing young people from the African community in Lewisham to The Den.
Ideas come from fans, but the clubs themselves have the reach to scale those ideas. We saw the ‘my Club My shirt’ initiative from Blackburn Rovers. I noticed Macron had put its name to it. Surely Castore could fund something similar for Charlton?
The Bangla Bantams started with just little things to engage the community and grew from there. They set up, via The Football Foundation, ‘Talent 10’ for kids from the South Asian community in Bradford to play football. For adults, they started with a stadium tour and the suggestion to ‘let’s all go together.’ Many fans who began with a stadium tour, now have a season ticket. We could do that.
Level Playing Field, the organisation that campaigns for disability access drew the conference’s attention the fact that there were no measurable mandates across the leagues and competitions. 40% of people in UK over retirement age have some form of disability. Charlton fans have recently crowdfunded upgraded audio-description equipment whereas not all clubs have it. We can all raise awareness that we have that fan-led facility in order to
encourage others.

Broadcast deal workshop
I was invited to attend the workshop on the impact on fans of broadcast deals. Like UK fans, fans in some parts of Europe are paying very high prices for televised matches, but schedule changes for TV affects us - the people who contribute to the spectacle. It was interesting to note that Denmark has removed all its matches from Saturdays to
Sundays due to competition from the televised Premier League and the Bundesliga. As a result, league attendance has increased. We heard from the German fans who had successfully campaigned to remove men’s matches from Monday nights via the ‘We Hate Mondays’ campaign and the Manchester City Foodbank who staged a campaign to
encourage fans to ‘put their money where their mouth is’ and watch the Community Shield on the big screen rather than go to London for a 17.30 kick off on a Sunday. Fans had not been consulted about the kick off times.

For reference, this is what we know about the EFL / Sky broadcast deal that starts in the 2024/25 season:

  • EFL considers Sky a trusted long-term partner.
  • It's worth £895M -  up considerably on the previous deal.
  • It will be a combination of linear TV and live streaming.
  • Linear TV games will have a studio and all the usual Sky stuff including 9-12 cameras. Streaming will have commentary, fewer cameras but graphics. All will be accessible via the Sky app.
  • There will be no longer be iFollow. It will all be on Sky. (Sky penetration is ~14M UK homes)
  • 26/36 games will still be at 3pm Saturday (blackout games). The rest will move.
  • Before the start of the season, Sky will select their fixtures up to the FA Cup 3rd round. Then, they will select another batch up to the beginning of March and after that it will be on a rolling 4-week basis. This is an improvement on what we get now. For most of the season it allows fans to make plans earlier and not have them changed.
  • The highlights ‘hold back’ will move forward to 18.00 (it’s currently midnight)
  • For now, the EFL is “showing unity’ over the distribution between the leagues because the real distribution issue is between the EFL and the PL (see later section re sports minister)
  • The EFL is leaving it to Sky to monetise the viewing, but at present you would need a Sky subscription or to pay per match via a NowTV day pass.

Gary Neville has an opinion or two about the way the game is run (and Boris Johnson). It was Matt Slater from the Athletic’s job to tease them out of him. He repeated his oft-quoted view that “football clubs are community assets – they should be protected like listed buildings. They are not supermarkets”. He spoke about what he called the Andy Holt (owner of Accrington Stanley and appreciator of Charlton fans’ pies) model where clubs just spend what they earn and his model, where you spend what you earn, but an owner can put in more provided it is locked away in a bank account only for the use of the club. The interview covered topics from Gary’s recent tweet about the potential conflict of interest at Chelsea which, in his view, is an example of the Premier League not seeing the danger when it’s right under their nose; financial sustainability at Salford City[ and that he’d rather spend 2 nights in a tent with Roy Keane than Jamie Carragher or Mica Richards.

Fan Led Review of Football
Charlton fans will be familiar with the white paper and why we needed the Fan Led Review. However, there was a panel Q&A  for those less familiar fans and those from Europe. One titbit for us to enjoy was that Chris Anderson (the lawyer in Tracey Crouch’s drafting team)  told me that they referred to the ‘Matt Southall test’. In other words, would what they were drafting have stopped him doing what he did to us? See later section for the latest from the Sports Minister.

Fan Advisory Boards
The Premier League has launched a fan engagement standard. Clubs must now have a nominated board official and make all aspects of the club accessible to fans. However, the FSA is concerned that the rules have become watered down and there is a danger that clubs will get to mark their own homework. The FSA will continue to push for this not to happen.

Given the government’s white paper, it is highly likely that fan advisory boards will come into place. It also expected that fan engagement will come under the remit of the independent regulator.
We heard from Manchester United Supporters Trust and The Spirit of Shankly (i.e. Liverpool Supporters Union) about their experiences of setting up fan advisory boards. Rangers’ fans were also able to share their experience of using the Premier League model. Uppermost in fans’ minds was how to ensure that the boards were skilled, democratic, and fair. The Rangers fans were careful to point out how quickly some aspects of the process could become toxic amongst fans if great care is not taken.
There was good learning to be had from Germany about how to engage younger and atmosphere groups into the processes of the 50 plus 1 supervisory board that all German clubs have in place to oversee the work of the management board.

Multi Club ownership
The plenary session on multi-club ownership was probably the one that was the most concerning of the weekend. It is believed that 289 clubs are in some sort of multi-club ownership via 106 groups. Most of those clubs are in Europe including in England. More details can be found in an article by the journalist Steve Menary who was on the panel.
We heard the story of Red Star FC (the French team that was founded by Jules Rimet) that was bought by 777 Partners who in turn have now formed a partnership with Pacific Media Group. We also heard from supporters of Brøndby FC in Denmark who are owned by a Delaware (where secrecy laws apply) company, Global Football Holdings who are involved at Crystal Palace amongst others.
There was also talk about the investment funds coming into clubs that also have interests in other adjacent businesses such as broadcast and media.
Article 5 of UEFA’s competition rules should prevent clubs under the same ownership competing with one another. However, there is a concern that they might not being fully enforced and loopholes could be found
It is worth pointing out that an English club could often be the net beneficiary in a group due to the relatively greater amount of money in the leagues putting it at the top of a ladder for players. Nor are the investors necessarily ‘bad owners’ (e.g. Hull City FC, owner Acun Medya who, according to Hull fans, has invested well in Hull but is also investing in an Irish team)
Note that ACA Football Partners were revealed by Jim Rodwell as being investors in the takeover and they have investments in other European clubs.

Andy Burnham
As elected mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham welcomed the conference to what he described as the “European Capital of Football”. Andy is well known to be a genuine football fan as well as having served on David Mellor’s football task force and as Minister for Culture Media and Sport in Gordon Brown’s cabinet. Considering his personal effort to support fans in getting justice for the victims of the Hillsborough disaster, he took the opportunity to give an impassioned plea for the FSA AGM to vote through a motion to work to eliminate tragedy chanting and gestures from football (which we did at the AGM the following day).
He also made a pretty good gag about Jack Grealish and 24-Hour Party People (I thought it was 48 hours. Ed)

In the interests of political balance Stuart Andrew, the sports minister:
In the run up to the publication of the government white paper, I met Stuart Andrew as part of an FSA delegation. Even though he’s not a football fan in the way many of us would define it, I found him alert to the issues that fans raised and very quickly grasped his brief. In his speech to the conference, he said that we should know the government’s response to the consultation on their own white paper before the summer recess. The bill is still on track to make it to the king’s speech. I pointed out that the £4bn gap between the Premier League and The Championship had now increased to £5bn and, considering that, wasn’t it about time the Government knocked some heads together? The PL and EFL have had two years to come to an agreement on financial distribution but haven’t. He answered that government interference was something that couldn’t be strayed into (fair) but the backstop powers will be there for the regulator to act. As fans we need to keep the pressure up on the Premier League to come to a fair and sustainable agreement.


Part Two of Heather's report (covering the women's game and the FSA AGM) will be published shortly.


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