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Jan 22, 2013

Clubs no longer doing it for the fans

Football supporters used to be known for their grasp of geography. They always knew that Gothenburg was in Sweden, and Tbilisi was in Georgia, their Lodz from their Ljubljana. They now have to diversify their subject base.

Economics, finance, geopolitics and linguistics have been significant growth areas. Manchester City fans try to get their heads around the accounting principles behind Financial Fair Play, as do Chelsea supporters, some of whom have a keen eye on the shifting sands of Russia's political elites.

Manchester United fans became experts on leveraged takeovers and corporate bonds, before then learning the rules of first the Singapore and then the New York stock exchanges. Arsenal followers are fond of quoting their club's safe gearing ratio though the debt on the Emirates weighs heavy on their mind. During the Luis Suarez affair, the Liverpool diaspora became experts on Uruguayan dialect, with terms of endearment a particular area of interest. They are also well-versed in varying US models of sports ownership.

There may be those Blackburn Rovers fans now learned about the Indian poultry scene or even some Cardiff City die-hards with a grasp of the Malaysian property market's ebbs and flows. Times have changed since United were owned by a butcher, Liverpool funded by a catalogue company, and Arsenal owned by blue-blooded gentry.

The Premier League brought a change in horizons. Back in the pre-1992 age before football was invented, the majority of fans probably could not have cared two hoots about the ownership of their club. Directors were distant figures in suits with cigars, though often local businessmen with civic pride in mind. Most subscribed to the view of legendary inside-forward Len Shackleton, as set out by a chapter in his autobiography; the 'Average Director's Knowledge of Football' was a blank page. That reflected a view that it was players who mattered, with managers some way behind them. "Directors don't come into it. They are only there to sign the cheques," as Bill Shankly had it.

This was a time when fans truly could make the difference. When Sir Alex Ferguson's predecessor-but-one, the late Dave Sexton, was fired by Manchester United in 1981 despite winning his final seven matches, the reason given was fans staying away from 'Cold Trafford' in protest at some sacrilegiously cautious football. Across Manchester, infamously be-wigged City chairman Peter J Swales removed manager Mel Machin in 1990 because "he had no repartee with the fans". Supporters, almost by definition of the word, mattered. Gate money paid a club's way. Fans could vote with their feet.

Nowadays, the future direction of a club is always more likely to be found in the business pages rather than despatches in the fanzines. Chelsea's Champions League triumph was personified as the achievement of a personal rather than collective goal when Roman Abramovich finally held aloft the trophy he had coveted since watching Real Madrid play at Old Trafford in 2003.

Chelsea fans celebrated that one of their heroes in Roberto Di Matteo had delivered the golden moment, yet just months later were lamenting his sacking. Rafa Benitez and the likes of Bruce Buck have borne the brunt of abuse and blame, even though one man alone made that decision. Blues fans have stopped short of barracking Abramovich, even when his totalitarian rule means Fernando Torres must start ahead of Demba Ba.

The outrage that followed the sacking of Nigel Adkins last week was hardly reflected in St Mary's stands when Southampton drew with Everton on Monday. The old boss was remembered in song, but Mauricio Pochettino was received warmly enough. Here was an acknowledgement that in football, life always moves on, and especially under the autocratic rule of someone such as Nicola Cortese. Southampton and Chelsea's nights of the long knives have been mirrored at Nottingham Forest, where Sean O'Driscoll had done a perfectly decent job, only to be binned in favour of Alex McLeish, a manager with history of being appointed at a club against the fans' wishes. Venky's at Blackburn held on to Steve Kean against all known footballing principles, and, via Henning Berg, turned to a manager in Michael Appleton with two wins in twelve to his name.

There has been exasperation, protest, black balloons, but little changed the minds of owners who think they know better when the evidence suggests they clearly do not. TV money, or in the case of Championship clubs, the chasing of it, has insulated against owners and directors feeling they really need the fans. A fortnight ago, Manchester City fans' complaints against a £62 fee to watch their team at Arsenal descended into a disturbing tribal turf war where some Gunners fans were actually defending their clubs' prices. In that case, Arsenal's owners had fans exactly where they wanted them to be. Similarly, Manchester United's on-field success has calmed the choppy waters of the Glazer family ownership.

In protest's stead comes another trend, that of football fans playing the role of fantasy chief executive. Some Gunners fans choose to defend their club's business plan to the hilt, and will not hear of there being a lack of success, even if an eight-year trophy drought draws near. Financial targets have been met, and the club will soon be debt free, goes the logic of the fantasy financiers.

It is a point of view to ignore football as a glory game, be they the snatched moments that small clubs like Bradford City can enjoy and savour, or the major successes that a club like Arsenal once expected. Football, after all, is just a ride. This is supposed to fun. For some, football may be a way of life, but it was surely chosen to be so because of the joy it can bring.

Yet football has swung from fans and their fun, such that those in the stadium have become mere augmentation to marketing the Premier League to a worldwide TV audience. To rewrite a terrace anthem, to the repeatedly bastardised tune of 'Sloop John B': those owners, they’ll do what they want.