THE recent furore over FSG’s proposed ticket price increases has died down a little in the wake of their almost immediate climbdown and apology, but when we take a step back it is easy to remain cynical about their view of supporters.
Let’s face it we were given a pretty big clue in the “turning fans into customers” slogan which appeared with remarkably bad timing on the FSG website, before being hastily taken down, at the height of the row.
The gullible among us might think; they got it wrong, listened and then apologised. Now they understand and everything will be alright.
But let’s not forget that Ian Ayre, threatened by the promised fan walk-out, warned that supporters should “be careful what they wish for”.
Ayre is sufficiently crass for us to see that as a vain, ill-advised attempt to portray himself as a protector of supporters, but there’s enough evidence reading between the lines to suggest that FSG, like many owners in the modern game, view fans as a cash cow and nothing else.
If you want further evidence, look again at those prices.
On the other hand, FSG are doing their absolute best to portray themselves differently. Let’s paraphrase their recent statement. “We do care. We’re sorry. We’re not greedy. Look at the investment in the playing squad, look at the world-class manager we hired for you, and look at that big shiny new stand.”
What they didn’t boast about; what they didn’t apologise for, was the quality of their spin.
So, how do FSG, if they are as good as their word, convince us of their stated good intentions?
What else can they do aside from reducing prices to levels demanded by cash-strapped supporters? How do they remove cynicism and bad blood and run Liverpool FC in a way that rebuilds the bond between club and fan?
Is it realistic for supporters to turn up and feel part of a collective that runs from the boardroom, via the dressing room to The Kop?
They have made a start with their apology and price freeze. While the entente is cordiale, now is the time to build a real relationship — one that can address key issues like ticket prices but also leans on and benefits from supporters’ unique understanding of the club.
At present there is no-one at the football club who understands what makes us tick; no-one who acts as a conduit for the ideas and emotions of the regulars and those on the inside.
The owners admit they got it wrong recently over ticket prices and now they need to ask themselves why. The owners choose to manage by proxy and yet they fail to appoint people who really listen or, in a sea of self-preserving, suited and booted middle-management, anyone brave enough to deliver a few home truths on the inside.
In Germany, the “50 plus one” rule gives fans strong representation; in the Premier League, Swansea City supporters have a 20 per cent stake in the club, while lower down the pyramid AFC Wimbledon and FC United of Manchester are fledgling supporter-run clubs.
The rationale is that supporters care, supporters are capable. By contrast, Liverpool FC, owned lock, stock and barrel by FSG, pays mere lip service to fan engagement through a Supporters’ Committee with such diverse roles and interests as to render it impotent.
When more meaningful dialogue has been allowed recently (with the Ticket Working Party group) those discussions ended abruptly after a lengthy series of meetings and most of the intelligent recommendations, those gauged from speaking to supporters, were cast aside.
Well, that one in particular bit them on the arse as 15,000 customers disappeared and headed for the exits, but once the apologies are out of the way, who on the inside has the courage to admit, “they know more than we do; shouldn’t we be working with them not against them? When’s our next meeting with them?”.
Instead, we sense they think all the acrimony will now go away and we can all get on with our jobs. We’ll run the club, you support the team. It’s so far removed from reality — it’s embarrassing the club might be thinking that way.
Only a dreamer would expect FSG to offer Liverpool fans even a minimal share deal in the immediate future, but there are different ways supporters feel they can have a stake in the club.
If they really do care, FSG should embrace a vision that ties their blatant marketing of the “Twelfth Man” in with the way they actually operate and co-exist with supporters.
There needs to be a sea change; mistrust needs to be replaced with faith, and relationships with the likes of Spion Kop 1906 and Sprit of Shankly rebuilt and turned on their head.
Too much of what goes on at Anfield is connected to legacy. We talk of history and heritage, but too often we’re weighed down by the past.
The perception of Sprit of Shankly within the club is rooted in the Hicks and Gillett era, when it shouldn’t be forgotten SOS — and others — were exposing owners who clearly didn’t care, with the future of the club at stake.
FSG readily admitted that without the actions of fans, they wouldn’t have been in a position to secure the club from the clutches of the previous owners.
And yet, since that honeymoon period in the wake of the FSG takeover when they initially engaged with those same supporters, the relationship was allowed to break down and suspicion has re-emerged.
Whether there is anyone at the football club with the foresight and guts to recommend, and lead, the rebuilding those bridges is open to serious doubt.
Similarly, the liaison has suffered with the supporters from Spion Kop 1906 group who pay for, make and wave the flags that gives the Kop its unique visual backdrop.
They have been at loggerheads with the club all season, over a variety of issues. Again, there is an insane, unnecessary perception that the most fervent of fans can’t be trusted.
What is needed is a simple twist of insight; that these are the supporters who can lead on improving the atmosphere and make Anfield unique instead of viewing their flags and motives with suspicion.
The very public recent falling out between FSG and Liverpool supporters actually represents an opportunity.
There is still a chance for FSG to build on their apology and tell us they and Liverpool FC are going to be different.
They should appoint someone full time — at board level — with responsibility for delivering the fans’ voice to the top. They should be looking and encouraging someone not afraid to rattle a few cages.
This needs to be about more than just PR.
What goes with this is an admission from the owners that getting things right with supporters is as important as getting it right on the pitch, and a dawning realisation that the two things actually go hand in hand.