Supporters are the Heart of the Game

What a couple of weeks. I had the great privilege of doing two really worthwhile things this month. On November 7th, I represented FORAS, Cork City FC, the EC Project I’m involved in and Irish football (in general) at a Supporters Direct Europe event at the European Parliament in Brussels.

Three days later (November 10th), I had the opportunity to open the Heart of the Game conference hosted in Cork for people involved in supporters-run clubs and trusts in Ireland. Both were incredible events and I was delighted to be in any way involved.

I come from an active family. By that I mean that I have had some great role models in my life. One of my grandfathers was a driving force behind our local GAA club (Whites Cross) for decades, the other lived most of his life on Derrynane Road – just a stone’s throw my Turner’s Cross, (one of) my spiritual homes. The former was a community man, an advocate for anything that kept people involved; the other someone who believed that you have to be prepared to stand up for what is right and fair.

The women in both of their lives were equally important to me. My grandmother was a woman that worked hard for everything in her life. Nothing came easy, but that was never an excuse. My Nan was an inspiration – a woman before her time, who believed that life was about chasing your dream. In chasing your dream, you live. She asked me one Christmas what I would do in life if I could do anything. I honestly told her that I would like to run a football club…

Becoming involved in FORAS and in Cork City in more recent years has brought me into the company of some incredible people – not only within Supporters Direct but in clubs and trusts across Ireland, the UK and Europe. The biggest thing I’ve learned? That Irish football is not alone. No national league is without its issues, no football association gets it right the entire time.

In putting together the speakers list for the Heart of the Game conference, I wanted anyone that attended to hear the sort of inspirational stories that have convinced me that supporters are integral to the very future of our game. Cork City FC have never had more ambitious owners that the 650 shareholders behind the club today. We want success off and on the field. Our priorities and objectives are many, and large in size – and sometimes in anxiety to get the small stuff perfect, we forget about the far bigger picture.

Results from an online supporters survey – with over 1,500 participants – were unveiled at the conference. Many headlines subsequently focused on the following Word Cloud, where fans were asked to select two words that described the running of football in Ireland. I don’t thing Irish football is corrupt, I don’t think many Irish football supporters think it is but there is a huge level of frustration out there and that, for me, is one of the main things that these survey results speak to.

My fellow Board member at Cork City, John Kennedy, and Phil Frampton of FC United of Manchester spoke passionately and in depth about the potential that football-related community projects have. These initiatives give something back to the communities that produce both our players and supporters but there are significant and unquantifiable benefits to a club for the effort they put in over many, many years.

A session on governance followed with speakers from Cork City and UCC in Sean O’Conaill, AFC Wimbledon in Kris Stewart and a representative from Swedish football in Lena Gustafson Wiberg. All spoke powerfully – and on the back of personal experience – about the types of challenges that football faces and the importance of always doing things right.

Chaired by Emmet Malone of the Irish Times, a panel that included ex-League of Ireland manager Damien Richardson, CCFC boss Tommy Dunne, journalist Alan Smith and David Toms from the School of History in UCC gave a great insight into the growing quality of players within the League and why, at last, the national squad is seeing one former-LOI star after another claiming a senior cap. Riccardo Bertolin, from MyRoma Supporters Trust, also spoke about the experiences of trusts in Italy and the particular challenges being faced there right now.

Phil Frampton, Kris Stewart and Kevin Rye (SD) led an honest and insightful discussion on Fan Activism and the difference it can make the following morning. Another great panel followed with Tim Murphy (Cork City), Stephen Ryan (Fota Wildlife Park), Siobhan Meehan (PR consultant) and John O’Brien (Sunday Independent), all of whom spoke in great detail about what clubs and trusts need to consider in trying to improve the Match Night experience and marketing of their own activities.

It’s all about the story you tell and how you tell it you see, and LOI clubs can no longer expect sports fans, journalists and the general public to go to these games without working hard to improve the product on offer first. Facilities, in particular, came up time and time again.

The conference culminating with an overview of Uefa’s SLO project. This session featured Stuart Dykes (SD) and Lena, the SLO at Djurgardens – and by the end no one in the room could have failed to see the potential of the role.

There is great potential in empowering football supporters to make a difference – first within their own organisation or trust and then extending that into their own football club and eventually their national league.

There is also nothing to be feared by empowering supporters. Yes, we are fans but we are also professionals with skills, expertise and knowledge to bring to the table. We want a club to support in decades from now and we can contribute to moving the game onto a more stable footing – particularly in here in Ireland.

I’ll finish up with some words from President of Ireland Michael D Higgins, who as a Galway United fan, was kind enough to send a message of support to everyone involved.

“As a strong supporters of the League of Ireland over the years, I am very encouraged to see football supporters coming together like this for the first time to develop ways of addressing the long-term challenges facing football in Ireland.

“I trust that your discussion at the Conference will be fruitful and will help to achieve the common goals of strengthening the long-term sustainability of our domestic game.”

Download: Message from President.

The League of Ireland is gaining friends in high places – it’s time we start utilising them!

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