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Returning to the match: “Continuous dialogue is essential”

As clubs make their preparations for the return of fans, albeit with some uncertainty as to what will be allowed in October, the FSA has been facilitating dialogue between supporter groups and clubs to help manage that process.

Here we speak to Harpreet Roberston, who previously led the FA’s England Supporters’ Club, about the work she has been doing on behalf of the FSA on the return to live football…

Test events are now taking place and many football fans are keen to return to grounds, although capacities will be severely reduced when that happens, which leaves clubs needing to set up new systems to allocate tickets fairly.

At many clubs ticket demand will outstrip availability leaving a whole host of questions: How do you administer those tickets? Do you consider away fan loyalty points? Season ticket purchase history? Match day tickets? Away fan admissions? What about the vulnerable people who need to shield and can’t take up a ticket if offered?

Harpreet Robertson was the Head of England Supporters’ Club at the FA for more than a decade, has a huge amount of experience when it comes to membership schemes and ticketing T&Cs, and we were very pleased when she agreed to help our work in this area.

“What we’re seeing is those clubs that are engaging in two-way dialogue with their fan groups are making the best decisions,” Harpreet said.

“Generally the clubs that have had more constructive relationships in place before COVID-19 hit have been handling the transition back to live football far, far better.

“The pandemic has been extremely difficult for everyone but the engaged clubs have sought advice and feedback – particularly when dealing with vulnerable fans and making sure they aren’t penalised when fans are finally able to return to stadia.”

A similar pattern emerged back in the spring and summer when lockdown was announced and the football season was put on hold indefinitely.

Proactive clubs got out early in communicating with season ticket holders about where they stood and started the administrative work to dish out refunds.

At Premier League level Newcastle United took the wooden spoon in that category, not saying a word about refunds until almost the end of June – and only then after mounting public pressure.

Harpreet said: “Premier League clubs are generally making the right decisions, unfortunately there is a category of clubs that are still failing to engage with their supporters and as a result are making poor decisions.

“Those are the clubs where most of our time is currently being spent. Speaking to supporter groups and club staff like SLOs to try and find a sensible way forward. We all want to see fans return to stadia as soon as possible, and in a safe manner, but the process of managing ticket access must be a fair one for all.”

Recently, Crystal Palace have also been under fire for their 2020-21 season ticket plans, which the Five Year Plan fanzine say has “has left many fans disillusioned and disappointed with the direction the club has taken”.

Palace supporters say the scheme penalises those in at-risk groups and those who have to fully shield themselves from COVID-19 – Five Year Plan argue the club’s plans pressure those fans into buying a season ticket regardless of whether they can actually attend or not.

The Crystal Palace Supporters’ Trust have written to the club expressing their concerns while the Holmesdale Fanatics say they are boycotting the system until it is changed.

They are calling on the club to implement a similar system to Wolves, who have frozen all season tickets till 2021-22 and will be completing this season with a ballot system based on individual match tickets.

“But there are many clubs that are ahead of the curve and, during these difficult times, the benefit of an ongoing two-way dialogue between fans and Clubs is reaping huge rewards. They know what they have to do and get on and do it, making sure they have that check in process with their supporters while doing so,” says Harpreet.

Fans and clubs: how can they help?

In recent history, clubs like Newcastle United and West Ham United have had extremely fraught relationships with their supporters.

In east London the official Supporters’ Board project collapsed and is being rebuilt entirely – West Ham United Independent Supporters’ Association have recently met the club and reported some progress. Newcastle United haven’t held a fans’ forum for more than two years.

“Regardless of the relationship in the past they need to have open and constructive dialogue now,” Harpreet said. “If there’s solid communication we’re much more likely to see positive outcomes for both the club and supporters – ultimately we all want the same thing which is for our own Club to be successful and experience has shown that those Clubs which embrace a positive relationship with their supporters will have a better chance of achieving this.”

Reaching out to Supporter Liaison Officers (SLOs) or other contacts can be an important first step for supporters to get the ball rolling. Fans could potentially be allowed back into grounds in a matter of weeks, so it’s vital both sides act as soon as possible and start that dialogue.

Harpreet says: “We’ve spent a lot of time with the clubs and supporter groups where there hasn’t been strong dialogue historically, trying to facilitate that communication.

“The main objective is to get supporters back into grounds in a safe way. There is not going to be a perfect solution or a one-size fits answer for all clubs.”

Many long-term season ticket holders who haven’t missed a game for years may end up disappointed and Harpreet says that any criticism from fans should be framed constructively.

“There isn’t a model that works for all fans and all clubs,” she said. “What we have seen however is the clubs that proactively seek input from supporters – like Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United – those clubs are making sensible and considered decisions.

“There are three categories of clubs – the first are ahead of the curve and engaged with their supporters. Then there’s the next group who have some dialogue but haven’t yet developed a clear proposal or ideas to share.

“And then there’s the third group where there’s basically no dialogue, or next to no exchange of ideas and information.

“We have to reiterate that a solution to the current problem of getting fans back doesn’t have to be perfect.This would be impossible to achieve in these unprecedented times. However, continuous dialogue, though, between clubs and supporters will make the transition much, much easier.”

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