They’re not really used to this. During the 2013/14 season, fans of the two biggest clubs in English football have ridden a rollercoaster ride of emotions, which many of their supporters won’t have experienced before. Even the well trodden fan will have forgotten what it’s like to suffer these feelings of expectation, disappointment, disbelief, or unbridled joy, as both teams ask the fans to step up to the plate in different ways.
Its almost a role reversal, but not quite, as Liverpool’s season has been fairly unique. In these years of Champions League riches it’s rare that a team outside of this elite group will challenge at the top of the table, and not since the early days of the Premier League has an outsider made a charge for the title.
Liverpool have been in a unique position for some time now, as despite their relative lack of success and absence from top European competition, their history, prestige, and international reputation will still attract players which other clubs can’t; a position in which Manchester United find themselves going into the 2014/15 season.
Fans at Anfield have been asked to put aside any nervousness ingrained in them during their years in the league wilderness, and support their team through the less convincing passages of each game. Previous sniffs of league success having a sense of inevitable failure. Even their second place finish in the 2008/09 season looked destined to flounder, thanks to an inability to maintain their lead at the top, drawing seven games in a series of ten during mid-season, and Manchester United’s unstoppable surge in the second half of that season despite losing 4-1 to Liverpool at Old Trafford.
Further down the M62 to Manchester, there has been a sense of determined resolve during what has been an unprecedented season for a lot of Manchester United fans. Old Trafford is noticeably louder, as the Stretford end has a new reason to sing and get behind their team. Things haven’t been going their way on the pitch for one reason or another, but the fans have responded voluntarily and without prompting.
The arrogance is still there, but the noise has different meaning as the fans urge their struggling players on. They remind the team and their manager, that they’re playing for the current league champions, and a club which has won the league title twenty times.
Football clubs are unique businesses in that they can make demands of their supporters or, for want of a better phrase, customers, which other brands are unable to do. A supporter can’t try out a different product should they feel they aren’t getting a fair deal from their current club. Fans of Manchester United and Liverpool have had reason to be aggrieved with the goings on at their respective clubs during the last decade, and have used their collective power as fans to rally against some similar issues.
Luckily for Liverpool, the ruins left behind by the Hicks and Gillett era, which set the club back a number of years, are on their way to being repaired. This is thanks to a set of owners who were initially naive when it came to soccer, but ones who’ve become more and more savvy when it comes to planning for the future. Eager to learn about our unpredictable game, which is full of financial pitfalls, they’ve set about giving the club’s supporters an entertaining and sustainable brand of football.
The actions of Manchester United’s Glazer regime have seen some fans disown the club completely and set up their own team at the bottom of the pile. Some of those who remained harked back to the clubs green and yellow colours from the team’s Newton Heath origins, and a section of their support voiced their anger against the Glazer’s ownership.
Any discontent with club ownership rears its head more prominently during less successful times on the pitch, and this season has seen a continuation of this. Some fans have been priced out by the prospect of forced inclusion in cup schemes, as the Glazer’s continue with their initial plan to maximise ticket revenue, i.e, exploit loyal fans. Their initial risk assessment when buying the club stated as much:
“We depend on our matchday supporters, who are concentrated in the United Kingdom. Rising unemployment and lower corporate profits may have a negative impact on our business.”
The prospectus also warned of the possible effect of a change in management, the results of which we are seeing this season:
“We are highly dependent on members of our management, including our manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. Any successor to our manager may not be as successful as he has been.”
During a recent conference at Hofstra University in New York, football and socio-economics writer Dr. David Goldblatt commented that the profits from football need to be channelled into different areas.
Goldblatt believes in an accountable, democratic model of football governance. The fans = the game. But how does that work? #HUsoccer
— Matthew L. McDowell (@MattLMcDowell) April 10, 2014
Goldblatt: you don’t buy a football club to make money. (It stinks, economically.) You buy it to buy collective cultural capital. #HUsoccer
— Matthew L. McDowell (@MattLMcDowell) April 10, 2014
These thoughts tie in with the Glazer’s reliance on the fans they exploit as they, by their own admission, would struggle if some fans stopped turning up at Old Trafford. They also suggest that a way to avoid football clubs being bought by debt laden owners is to encourage more involvement from the local communities, convincing prospective buyers that a football club is also about giving back to the fans, rather than constantly taking away.
Liverpool’s model is by no means perfect, especially with the owners being based in a different continent, which may have led to the early mistakes and a couple of botched transfer windows. However, even without their current season of fantasy football, the majority of Liverpool’s fans could see the way FSG were taking the club on and off the pitch, and generally liked the direction.
Fans = The Game, and The Brand
Fans need more involvement in football. This is still the case at Liverpool, Manchester United, and almost every other club in the country. Fan unions are beginning to lead a charge for more fairness and less exploitation, including campaigning for standard away ticket prices across the country, for example.
Many clubs have great fan communities and these are where the future lies. The two North West juggernauts can lead the way from their base in one of the most economically affected areas of UK, and groups like The Liverpool Supporters’ Union – Spirit of Shankly, Manchester United Supporters’ Trust and the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association could use the clout of their respective clubs to lead the way.
Painting Liverpool and Manchester United fans in the same light is dangerous ground (especially for an Anfield regular), but the rivalry between fans and clubs is part of what makes football what it is. Without this fan rivalry and thirst for success there is no atmosphere, no hype, and no material for Sky’s fancy Super Sunday montage. Without fans there are no shirt sales, no eyes on sponsors, and no brand. The fans make the brand because the fans are the brand.