Villa's 'code of conduct' highlights growing gap between clubs and fans
It is the sort of story that gets lost in the frenzy of the summer but it is a good one, and well worth revisiting. After all, it says just as much about the state of modern football as clubs lavishing huge salaries on mediocre players or fans despairing because their team have yet to squander a king's ransom on a striker they saw twice during the World Cup but who now ranks as their only viable saviour.
The story, as reported by the Birmingham Evening Mail, was this: Aston Villa, a team trying to stave off relegation by signing Philippe Senderos, sent out a 20-point code of conduct last month to the chairmen of their official "Lions" supporter groups.
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These are the hard core, the men and women who devote much of their spare time to drumming up interest, spreading the word and corralling other fans. These are supporters whose devotion is total. These are the bedrock of any club. And yet here they were, being told by their team how to behave and informed that they must sign up to it by the end of July or they would be expelled from the network.
The rules had been approved by a steering group set up by the club -- one that contained six supporters' group representatives -- but was met with fury by the majority who received it. Article 7, precluding "taking part in any abusive conversations toward anyone associated with the Club" on social media or fan forums, was a particular source of consternation. Villa claimed it was a clause inserted to prevent targeted harassment that might cause distress; the chairmen, meanwhile, saw it as an attempt to curb their freedom of speech.
Both sides in this argument provide an instructive glimpse into the relationship between club and fan. Since the natural instinct for most would be to side with the supporters, let us start there.
Football clubs have made a conscious effort in the past few years to control their message. The national newspapers have long been barely tolerated in most quarters, an unnecessary pest, but recently the trend has been to sever the ties with the local media too: the journalists who cover teams day in, day out, who have for decades communicated the inner workings of the team to their ardent fan base and do it in a broadly sympathetic light. This process has been undertaken swiftly, brutally and ruthlessly. There are exceptions, but not very many.
As a journalist, most fans scoff when this subject is brought up. We are largely seen as the enemy, a nefarious force trying to destabilise a beloved club for the sake of a scoop. This is not -- and I would say this, wouldn't I? -- a fair reflection of how things work, but it makes for a much easier life. If we are all scoundrels and troublemakers, then our criticisms or concerns about your team can be safely ignored.
Premier League clubs have not sought to attain absolute control on the flow of information because we cannot be trusted, though that has often been their excuse. They have done it for a far more tangible reason: to drive traffic to their own websites. This is directly linked to what has happened at Aston Villa. Club websites -- staffed, it should be said, by many fine people -- present a particular version of reality. It is a relentlessly upbeat one. If one of your favourite players has kicked another one in the head in training, it will not, it is fair to say, be mentioned on www.whateverteamyousupport.com.
Club websites are to newspapers what a hotel's official website is to TripAdvisor. They show you what they want you to see. That is not a criticism: it is perfectly understandable. A club is a brand; its website is its window to the world.
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There is, though, a consequence of stifling impartial media access in favour of partisan coverage, and it is evident in Villa's code of conduct. There is a form of right-think in football. Clubs have cultivated an atmosphere where their form of the truth is the only form of the truth. Fans have largely bought into this when it comes to the media -- the myth (and it is a myth) that journalists are not to be trusted is extraordinarily pervasive in football, especially in England -- but it is not limited to the press. It extends to fans too.
Clubs do not want their authority to be challenged. They do not want the wall to come tumbling down. They want the fans to know that there is a correct way to support your club: with unquestioning, unflinching loyalty.
There is, though, another side to this; a kind of equal and opposite reaction. Obviously nobody should abuse anyone else, either online or in real life (please try to remember this when you leave your comments). It is unnecessary, and a little bit pathetic; anything that seems targeted or especially vicious is, of course, deplorable.
Now, those chairmen of the Lions groups would make the perfectly valid point that one person's abuse is another person's fair and just criticism. But Villa could counter quite effectively by suggesting that quite regularly, especially on the Internet, there is not very much fair and just criticism. Quite often, there is just abuse.
Partly, this is a function of the nature of what used to be called the information superhighway. The steroid of anonymity emboldens people; the constant exposure to those who do not share your views tends to lead to friction. Social media cache is won and lost in seconds; it is a sort of global playground, with a similar mentality.
But it is also partly a result of a changing approach to be a fan. It is often claimed that atmospheres have suffered inside stadiums, not just because of the gentrification of the game, but because of the cost of it: If you have paid a lot to get inside, you expect your team to play well and to win. You expect bang for your buck, just like any consumer.
The same logic applies to fandom as a whole. You invest so much of your time in your team now -- being a football fan is more all-consuming than it has ever been -- and you expect your team to do what you consider the right thing. So if they do not sign the player you want, you feel it is within your rights to make them aware of this fact. You do this on the Internet, where everyone -- as Caitlin Moran has written -- is basically two drinks in, and so the line between criticism and abuse becomes a little blurred.
Villa will feel they need a code of conduct to apply to their most high-profile fans because it sets an example. The fans will feel that they do not appreciate being told how to behave by their team -- journalists will sympathise. There is no conclusion to this, except, perhaps, that it is a phenomenon that will keep growing. The team you support is ever more distant. That connection is being broken. It wants you to think in the right way, but does not trust you to know how.
Rory Smith is a columnist for ESPN FC and The Times. Follow him on Twitter @RorySmithTimes.