Port Vale Supporters Club vice chair Malcolm Hirst says the recent fans forum on the Checkatrade Trophy did little to address supporters’ concerns.
Malcolm Hirst writes…
Question: When is a Fan Forum not a Fan Forum?
Answer: When it’s a public relations exercise.
The EFL offered a fans forum on Monday 10 December at Wembley Stadium to discuss the Checkatrade Trophy. A 7pm start time on a Monday evening in London is hardly conducive to allowing the maximum number of fans to attend from across the country, but it could be argued that any time would present difficulties for fans to attend. Fears that this was probably little more than a public relations exercise were confirmed on arrival with the welcome letter from EFL Chief Executive Shaun Harvey that sat on the table. It ended with the following comment:
I know some supporters will maintain their views, and thet are entitled to them, but I, on behalf on the EFL, believe that the current format of the Checkatrade Trophy is an invaluable innovation that provides a good deal for EFL clubs in all areas.
My only hope is that fans get behind their teams, and back them, as they would in any other competition.
Taken from Shaun Harvey’s welcome letter.
At this point in proceedings I did wonder the extent to which the views of the fans would be listened to.
The event, chaired by Sky Sports’ David Prutton, was held in a suite overlooking the hallowed Wembley turf and commenced with a video picturing the joys of reaching Wembley via this competition, seeking to promote the positive aspects of the tournament and selling the dream of reaching the final. Following the video, Shaun Harvey, together with pundits Colin Murray and Ian Holloway, provided substantive input.
Shaun Harvey offered that the benefits of the competition had not been stressed enough. He stated the clubs were comfortable with the format of the tournament and that it provided them with a good income stream. He went on to state that the trophy provided a meaningful competition for U21 teams and that younger players would learn from the older ones they played with and against, and that the introduction of the U21s would not lead to the formation of a League 3 that included these teams. There was an acknowledgement that not all fans were happy with the competition, but nothing was offered to say how this might be tackled. The basic tenet was ‘like it or lump it, but please start going and support your team’. Sadly, this attitude is not one of fan engagement and in this respect Shaun mirrors the view of many owners that the fans are least important stakeholder in football, and in this competition particularly. Shaun did also point out that he hopes the final doesn’t include an U21 team and is expecting a backlash should this be the case. This is not a ringing endorsement of tournament he is trying to champion.
Colin Murray and Ian Holloway maintained the ‘good PR’ exercise towards the Football League Trophy, extolling the virtues of including the U21 academy teams, although Colin did express understanding of the fans’ feeling. Ian was somewhat dismissive of fans, particularly those fans who chose not attend, fearing the whole thing was only a ‘tick box exercise’, declaring he loved the competition now. He did however declare that he would not have liked the current format when he was a player as it might have decreased his chances of playing at Wembley – the tournament in its previous format was only one that gave him the opportunity to do so.
When the floor was eventually opened up to the fans, the biggest criticism was the inclusion of the U21 teams as the competition was designed for League One and Two teams. A fan did say that the Football Supporters Federation (FSF) supported a boycott of the competition but this was corrected from the front by the EFL – the FSF took the position two years ago not to support the new format but did not ask fans to boycott the tournament.
The second part of the evening took a similar format with another video showing highlights of this year’s competition so far followed by supportive comments of the competition from Sunderland Owner Stewart Donald, Chelsea Development Squad Manager Joe Edwards and FA Director of Pro Game Relations Andy Ambler. Stewart Donald detailed some further benefits he saw of the competition and the money it brought to the clubs – ironic considering they will still be receiving parachute payments following their demise from the Premier League. Joe Edwards said he hopes that Chelsea’s U21 team win the tournament. If they reach Wembley perhaps they will be giving away team shirts with each ticket sold as opposed to the scarves that were reportedly given out in the last round to entice fans to attend? Joe’s boldest statement was: “I think, maybe three years ago, if you asked most of our lads if they could have named seven League 1 clubs, they’d have struggled”. Andy Ambler from the FA just looked uncomfortable to be there.
I think we can expect more of the same from the EFL. More good news stories of why the EFL Trophy is such a good competition, despite the significant drop in attendances. Shaun Harvey is there to promote the majority view of the 48 owners of League 1 and 2. The format and funding has been set for the next three years – Shaun confirmed this to me after the meeting. The evening was never about listening to fans. It feels more like a plan to divide and conquer, increasing the number of fans attending the competition slowly until it’s finally accepted.
I came away with a sense that the views of the fans are neither wanted nor will be listened to, but, by holding events such as this, the EFL can say they have. The EFL governs the game for the owners and the fans seem to be little more than an irritant who can provide more money so long as not too much contempt is shown openly to them. This is a sad state of affairs for loyal football fans who are increasingly alienated from the sport they love.