Protesting fans now a force for change as chiefs made to listen

We live in an era of protest, one in which the right to protest is protected by the European Convention on Human Rights, and one in which nervous authorities are increasingly influenced by the voice of the people and the noise they make.

Protesting fans now a force for change as chiefs made to listen

We live in an era of protest, one in which the right to protest is protected by the European Convention on Human Rights, and one in which nervous authorities are increasingly influenced by the voice of the people and the noise they make.

So, thank goodness football fans are beginning to make themselves heard too.

A variety of views have been expressed as to whether Ireland fans were right to throw tennis balls onto the field against Georgia to voice their concerns about the way the FAI is being run, and in particular the behaviour of chief executive John Delaney.

The debate between pundits has been a feisty one and Uefa has already promised an investigation. But regardless of whether the timing or format of the protest was advisable, the fact supporters have found a way to be heard should be greeted as good news for the future of the game.

When you consider the way football has become so commercialised over the last few decades, with television companies seemingly running the scheduling of matches, fans being priced out of attending games, and billionaires turning clubs into brands then it’s about time that the rank and file fought back.

After all, why should political, environmental and human rights supporters have a right to protest but not football fans inside a stadium?

Even if you think, understandably, that those causes are far more worthy, the principle is the same and football has been behind the protest curve for a long time. There’s been a feeling that fans are so committed to their club or country, so wrapped up in their passion for results, that they have often allowed rogue owners and weak administrators to make bad decisions without the kind of scrutiny and opposition their poor leadership deserved.

How else do you explain how clubs such as Newcastle, Leeds, Birmingham, Blackburn, QPR, Blackpool, Portsmouth, even Manchester United, were so badly run for so many years without being put under the kind of pressure that managers face season-in, season-out?

Fans, it seems, are driven to unified and vocal protest when managers fail — and often succeed in forcing them out — but struggle to have the same impact at board level.

That’s what made those tennis balls so important. The protest wasn’t only about results and performances, although of course those factors always create a growing bed for rebellion, they were about how the game in the Republic is being run.

In fact, this season has a seen a crescendo in fan protests across Europe which have had a significant impact on the way football is administered.

Take Germany, for instance, where tickets are still cheap and where, legend has it, fans are still more connected to the game than in countries where money has overtaken tradition.

Fans there were violently opposed to Monday night football and found a variety of ways to show their displeasure. Eintracht Frankfurt fans, like their Ireland counterparts, threw tennis balls onto the pitch, Borussia Dortmund boycotted a game against Augsburg and threw black tennis balls during an away trip to Nuremburg, while others used banners, silence, and whistling to make their point.

As a result, the DFB has announced that Monday night football in the Bundesliga will end from season 2021-22.

Fan protest has also put an end to Monday football in Spain and, temporarily at least, to the prospect of La Liga games being staged in the United States in the near future (although it was threats of a player strike which really made an impact in that particular case).

In England, a campaign to lower the price of Premier League tickets seems to have been won after ongoing protests from supporters. At Anfield, Liverpool fans walked out in 2016 in protest at £77 tickets (and the price hike was revoked almost immediately). A subsequent march by fans of Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United to the headquarters of the Premier League played a part in reducing the price of away tickets, too.

Not that it’s all new. Tennis balls made it onto the field at Sevilla as long ago as 2012 when Spanish TV companies delayed kick-off so they could broadcast press conferences of Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola first. And Basel fans started the trend, in 2010, when they threw balls onto the pitch to complain that the kick-off time had been changed to avoid a clash with a local tennis tournament.

What is new, however, is that authorities, daunted by being thrown into the social media cauldron, appear to be increasingly inclined to listen when fans shout loud enough. That can only be positive news for supporters stuck with rogue owners, weak chairmen, and chief executives who focus more on profit than trophies or tradition.

How different things could have been for Wimbledon fans, for instance, if decision makers at the FA and Football League were more willing to listen to public protest when the club was sold down the river, all the way to Milton Keynes, back in 2002?

These kind of football sob stories can, and should, be avoided in future if fans can find a voice and focus on fighting against poor leadership, commercialisation, and the erosion of football’s soul, rather than on getting the latest manager the sack.

Just look at Arsenal supporters, who campaigned so hard for Arsene Wenger to leave that they completely let owner Stan Kroenke off the hook in the process.

Does all that apply to what’s happening now at the FAI? Does it make throwing objects onto the pitch acceptable? There will be a variety of views on that but at least we’re talking about it — and you never know, somebody might actually be listening.

More in this section

Sport
Newsletter

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up
IE_logo_newsletters

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox