Fighting for the good of the game

sdI met Kevin Rye when I was writing my book on AFC Wimbledon. Not only he did help me enormously but he gave me a lot of his time and passed me all the right contacts in order to have the most accurate information. He also introduced me to SD, an organization I’d only heard of until then. Through the years I came familiar with some of the people and the battles they fought in the name of the fans. I admired the spirit of many, the never say never attitude, the respect they treated every fan of every sport from everywhere. There were never Premier League Club fans or Ryman League Fans, football fans or rugby league fans. It was just fans, all of us fighting, one way or another, for what we think it’s right, defending ideals and passion against speculators and soulless merchants. I was somehow shocked to learn Kevin and SD have parted company and even more when I heard the same old problem, funding, was the reason behind it. I thought that after so many years saving clubs and helping other to fight for (part of) their lives it was about time to give the organization and all the people working for it a proper, public, material recognition without leaving them every year worrying too much about their future. Unfortunately this has not been the case. I’ve decided to interview Kevin a few months after his farewell, with his mind relaxed and probably happy to look behind. I know he has done a tremendous job, with enthusiasm, passion and determination. I know there are many people who are grateful to have met him. I’m one of them.

 You started with SD more than 10 years ago. It was something you were looking for or something you found yourself involved in due to your activity around the formation of AFCW?

 I did have an interview for a post at Supporters Direct in late 2001, during the time I was helping to run the campaign to stop Wimbledon being franchised, but didn’t get the job. I wouldn’t necessarily say that after that I was seeking a job with SD, but when I was offered one (a three-month contract, because of funding uncertainties) I grasped it with both hands, leaving the Samaritans as a researcher. Technically I worked on a temporary contract, until well over a year later, when I was confirmed in post. Around this time (early-to-mid-2004) certain elements within The Premier League were dragging their feet on SD’s funding, which it turned out wouldn’t be the first time. On this occasion it resulted in our funding being moved by the Labour government to Sport England instead. I believe that was thanks to good people like Phil French, Andy Burnham and ultimately, Tessa Jowell, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, at the time.

 You have a vast experience with a number of clubs in England, Britain and abroad. If someone asked you just a name where everything you fought for has been achieved, would it be Wimbledon?

 No. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t amazing. It was. And I do think it was a vital act of rebellion; an act of refusal from a group of determined fans to comply with the tide of consumerism in football. It’s amazing that it had got so bad that the franchising argument could even be legitimately put forwards and given a hearing – and it was franchising, regardless of the inadequate arguments put forward still today by a small section of misguided people in the south midlands.Wimbledon was unique in as much as it stood as an example of what happens when the wrong people run football. Sam Hammam was himself a uniquely awful individual to own a football club. He’s the kind of person whose sincerity was entirely based on his own self-interest. He’s never received the kind of proper scrutiny of his actions at both Wimbledon and then at Cardiff. Even today he gets too easy a ride in my view. In terms of my professional view, I actually still struggle to look past Merthyr Tydfil (now Merthyr Town). This is a group of people rebuilding a club for its community. An example of what collective action can achieve and going beyond it. It’s magnificent. I don’t think, in that way that I’ve found the Welsh often very modestly act, that they quite realise what they’ve achieved. Yes, I had a role in that, and I have immense pride that I did. But it was them and their willingness to see past the sheer hopelessness that the previous owner had engendered. The not just saving, not just rebuilding, but going way beyond that. It’s truly the club that refused to die. It’s club that has no right to exist. Not really. But they did it. There are also people like Chester, Wrexham and others who fought long, long campaigns often of attrition to win. And then there’s FC United, who we all need to show just what’s possible. Not in that horrible, mythical ‘American dream’ way, but that wonderful way that proves that we can be greater than the simple sum of our parts. There are so many stories, all of which write a chapter in a book that anyone’s yet to write. I suppose I should have a crack but I’m a bit busy at the moment.

How important was the Northampton experience and Brian Lomax?

 In terms of SD? Pivotal; it provided the model. I don’t think that we spent enough time talking about that if I’m honest, because we got preoccupied with (full) ownership and dealing with the mess left by the people ‘running’ football and clubs. I did try to change that towards the end of my time at SD. That’s not because of anything anyone could have done, not really. SD had and still has ridiculously limited resources. It does huge, huge amounts of good work, yet doesn’t actually get the money to do it properly. The people who could change that, other than the Premier League and FA themselves, are the politicians of all stripes who have had the chance to do something about it and have hesitated, maybe they’ve been pressured, or have decided that it’s not a priority.

SD was a result of the Football Task Force setup by the Labour government. Do you think football would have been on the agenda whatever the government or Labour were closer to fans’ needs at the time?

 I don’t think anyone could have seen the Tories setting up the taskforce at that time, and that’s not a party-political point – even though the well-worn David Mellor (former Tory sports minister as I recall) was part of the investigatory group. Although I wasn’t really aware of football activism at the time, I certainly now don’t get the impression that it would have been at the centre of their thinking on sports policy.

How much did SD change during your stay?

 It depends what you mean by ‘change’. It certainly was at times a roller coaster ride! I worked under every Chief Executive, permanent and temporary, bar Brian Lomax, and a number of them had qualities that I valued. Phil French was little short of career defining for me, and equally defining to SD I think. When he came (from The Premier League, having worked with Andy Burnham and others to set SD and the Football Foundation up) it was very clear that we needed discipline, clarity, purpose, professionalism. I loved working for him. He was like a manager who changes a club’s outlook and direction: he turned the ship around almost completely. We were a bit unsettled and feeling very bruised, but he really did lift us. Phil also helped to get us into our vital work in Europe. I suspect that his political intelligence meant that he knew we needed alternative centres of support, and that Europe and UEFA could be that; it could balance against the often quite waring and ultimately destructive forces of the Premier League, who seem to operate an approach to funding that is more reminiscent of a form of slow torture like waterboarding. Dave Boyle, coming from the grassroots as he did, brought a real confidence, a chutzpah, a belief in ourselves. Dave was very popular, very quotable, very driven politically. It’s a shame that he was undone in the way he was, in a way that was in my view avoidable. I’ve always tried to be respectful to those overseeing the organisation at board level as they have a tough job to do, but I’m afraid that anyone in a position of leadership or real influence on the board at the time badly let the staff down. They were like rabbits in the headlights. I was on paternity leave following a bit of a difficult time after my son’s birth and so most of it happened from a distance; it was immensely frustrating. The staff carried the organisation through that time in the end, as we/they often did. I think it’s tremendously sad that Robin Osterley left recently, even though I was made redundant under him. He promoted me, entrusted me with a lot of responsibility for our strategy, campaigning and political work, and I liked working with him. Europe obviously changed things as well, and Antonia Hagemann has been one of the most bloody minded and committed individuals that I have ever worked with. It has been this bloody-mindedness that has meant SD has a future in Europe. I hope it contributes to SD having a future full stop. Over time we became more politically astute, we engaged more and more with other political parties, achieved notable successes like the CMS Committee reports, a great deal of which came from our work and pressure. SD’s move into Club Development, a move piloted by Tom Hall and run now by James Mathie, was smart; it’s entrenched the ownership agenda into a formal part of the organisation that hopefully can affect the club grassroots, and building the case more broadly for supporters owning their clubs. What hasn’t changed is the funding, and the biggest problem is still the money that funds the English side of the work, which is the lions share. Things do need to be resolved. SD needs some proper funding from football itself, for all the good it does the game, however and wherever that comes from. It also needs to decide what it is. Is it European? Is it pursuing a principle of supporter involvement and so isn’t attached to geography? Should it split into English, Scottish, Welsh, European parts with only principles connecting them? I know that there is a small coterie of people currently pushing distracting talk of a merger with the English/Welsh football supporters organisation, the FSF. Merging a fundamentally diverse organisation like SD with an English football organisation seems to be apples and oranges to me; they don’t go together. It’s also a little patronising to the Scots, Welsh, Rugby League activists and other Europeans who are part of the trust movement/SD. I hope that the membership get engaged in the debate.

Do you feel the organization lost some of the freedom and independence of the first years? I mean, with the funding ultimately coming from the Premier League, do you think you had to be “milder”?

 I think there is a tendency to think that you have to be ‘subtle’ in circumstances like the ones SD is almost perpetually in. It can if left unchecked lead to a view that ‘not upsetting’ people has to be a fundamental plank of a strategy. I don’t agree. Disagreement is something of a fact of life as a campaigning movement. It’s my view that here’s an immaturity about some of those running our game when it comes to disagreeing; some have a habit of being a bit spiky when you don’t tow their line. Whereas I think you can be robust, you can push hard, you can stand up for your members, for clubs and fans, for the game, without actually being rude or obnoxious. Others manage it. As an example, we worked with James Cave, founder of the Against League Three campaign, and other activists, and opposed The FA’s ‘B-Teams’ proposals last summer. We told Greg Dyke what we thought, and we collectively harnessed opposition and fought very hard because we knew people backed us. But you can do both: I ended up dealing directly with Peter Beverley, who led the commission for Greg Dyke, and got a formal hearing for us – and the FSF – as a result. Our views, representing thousands – millions I suspect – were officially part of the process, because we used two approaches; one inside the tent and one outside, harnessing different people and strengths. That’s the essence of SD and the trust movement, and its effect on football activism; don’t be scared of effective protest, get angry, be organised, but don’t let that be the end in itself. Be strategic; have a strategy beyond ‘getting rid’ of someone or something; what do you want instead? What’s your vision?

What do you rank as your greatest success, a day you look back to telling yourself you were proud to be part of ?

 For the reasons I’ve already given, Merthyr Town. The club that in my opinion had no business surviving. But it did, and I can say that I played a bit-part.

Europe: still behind or catching up with the British movement?

 The roots are often different. In England the trust movement was about reform of the game as much as of reform of clubs – or at least quickly became that when we pulled back the curtain and peered inside! Of course that’s true to some extent across the continent, but it is acutely so in England. What the impatient parts of the rest of Europe need to do is to realise just how long it took for the trust movement to take hold in England. Years and years. It took the fanzine movement, independent supporters associations, then trusts. It was a long journey over a long period of time. It’s normal though: The English look to the Germans in a similar way. The Italians & Spanish in my experience were particularly impatient – probably down to the awful state of football there – but it does take patience, and a lot of hard work! There are some results being seen in both countries, as I always thought there would be.

FSE, FSF, do you think fan movement should be more spontaneous or any form of organized group federation is good for the future of fandom?

 I don’t know about anyone else, but SD can represent a very modern form of activism, in my opinion. Spontaneity is useful, but again, you have to have an alternative, something else. Not just “we don’t want ‘x’”. It can and should harbour pretensions to change the game, run clubs, do the important formal stuff because that is the answer; the change. But it needs to still be something of a radical. Its greatest strength is in being one foot in and one foot outside. It needs to represent a radicalism that can appeal to football reform minded Tory MPs like Jesse Norman and Damian Collins as much as it can be led by people like Andy Walsh, Jay McKenna (Spirit of Shankly) or the local hero . It does not need to choose one or the other. It can be both.

Do you think fans today are more aware of what’s going on at boardroom level or the majority still think of winning as the priority whatever the means?

 I commissioned an opinion poll last year with ICM Research which said that fans really do care about more than the 90 mins on the pitch in all sorts of ways [it’s on the SD website]. Brian Lomax said something similar years ago, and it’s true. I think the problem is that the information isn’t always there, or often comes through the prism of some bias (the clubs, owners and officials, PL, FL, etc), or it’s not available at all because companies are still, scandalously, allowed to hide information in all sorts of ways. SD & supporters’ trusts are so important, and can be the people who tell people the truth; that keep telling it like it is.

Do you think fans involvement is the future?

 One day years ago I decided that I’d stop answering that question, and I would instead begin demanding to hear why the people messed it up were any better! I’m still waiting, and they haven’t. Whilst I wait for an answer they’re adopting most of SD’s ideas anyway! Since 2004, they’ve adopted the language, a lot of community engagement ideas, financial management (not always properly, but with some good outcomes), ideas on engaging with fans. In truth being at the coalface is not all that useful for assessing whether you’re winning the battle though. However now I have distance, I’m sometimes quite stunned and very proud about what we’ve collectively achieved, even with all the difficulties we’ve faced.

What’s the risk for fans to be used by governing bodies?

 My view is that robustness, independence and transparency are your best bet against being ‘used’. That it’s not a position that can simply be negotiated away, and that you’re going to ensure that you’re open and honest to the people who’ve put you in that position about what you’re doing and why. It’s accepted that SD’s role is partly to provoke transparency (ensuring people know more about how and why things work the way they do) in the authorities in much the same way that supporters’ trusts need to be doing that at clubs. Football desperately needs that. It’s a basic rule that people who have power don’t like giving it away. That’s true in every walk of life. There are definitely some parallels with the ‘establishment’ more generally and its dislike of giving power away – certainly in the UK. I’ve heard it from some of those who have met top football representatives that they’re often taken aback at how good ‘our’ people are in those circumstances, at their robustness and professionalism. It’s still quite shocking that they underrate them quite so much after so many years. I know so many people in the trust movement who just refuse to play the ‘game’ and I genuinely think that the authorities struggle with people who won’t play it, who genuinely want the best for their members, for fans and who are organised. There are some really smart people in charge of the authorities, not least Bill Bush – the PL’s Director of Public Policy (and a former strategist for Tony Blair), but the trust movement is very fortunate because there are some fiercely intelligent, incredibly committed people who will command genuine respect. You’ve got to get respect, even if they don’t like you.

Nowadays, there could be another Wimbledon in British football?

 I hope not. I hope that Wimbledon stands as an example of how not treat people, and how people won’t always take what you’re feeding them. If SD ever adopts a motto, it should be something like ‘making sure the good people win’….sometimes! Isn’t that what we all want to see? Good people winning?

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