Friday, October 19, 2012

It's good to talk - and listen

Last spring, the Football Supporters' Federation published the results of research into the quality of fan charters of clubs in the top two divisions. We amassed 16 points and were ranked 12th within the Premier League. A year and a half on, and we were awarded 11 points (just below average) and dropped to 13th, having apparently not addressed the failings identified last time round (primarily, not being up-to-date). The findings temper the satisfaction of knowing that the club offers fans comparative matchday value for money, at least according to the BBC's Price of Football survey.

That revelation that a day out at St James' Park is the cheapest in the Premier League - and indeed cheaper than some days out at League 2 clubs - can hardly have helped the cause of NUST (though the inadequacies of the fan charter might). The organisation has been quite quiet until fairly recently, since when there seems to have been a burst of activity and communication. The cause? The Wonga deal, inevitably. There will be some fans who look scornfully on NUST for eagerly seizing on bad news like waiting vultures and for trying to make hay while the sun doesn't shine - but the truth is that when everything's apparently rosy it doesn't take people long to forget (if not actively forgive) misdeeds of the past. Plus the point they're attempting to make is a very valuable one.

NUST's initial founding objective was to oust Jabba and seize control of the club for the fans, but the Yes We Can campaign has now been downgraded, effectively. This lowering of sights is probably out of the widespread (if grudging) recognition of the fact that, whatever their faults, Jabba and co have done a good job of steadying the ship financially. Nevertheless, as Colin Whittle noted in a recent post on their blog, "the ‘German model’ has proved that fan ownership can be a massive success; here in England we’d appreciate a seat at the table to start off with". However, even the idea of fan representation at board level seems like a bit of a lofty ambition when the club won't even acknowledge NUST's existence.

When I discussed the issue with this 'ere site's co-author Paul, he suggested that the club's attitude might be because NUST's membership is relatively small and so they can't possibly claim to be truly representative. I'm not sure that there are other equally organised rival fan factions with competing voices to whom the club, were its resolve to weaken, would also be obliged to listen, but I do accept Paul's general point. However, it's a Catch-22 situation for NUST - if the club showed a willingness to engage with them, then you'd imagine membership numbers would grow simply because fans would know their views might be represented and heard. So long as NUST's pleas continue to fall on deaf ears, and the organisation continues to have negligible demonstrable success in achieving its main aim, supporters are less likely to sign up.

Nevertheless, while it might be laborious and demoralising, NUST should in my view persist stoically and relentlessly with their demands, even though the club seems to show no signs of acceding. Surely it's not too much to ask for "a little more conversation", as the title of Whittle's post does, and perhaps over time the hierarchy can be worn down. If opening up lines of communication and engagement with the supporters - the club's lifeblood, after all - can help to prevent the PR disasters of the stadium rebranding and Wonga deal, then it's an objective worth pursuing. Anyone doubting the value of membership should remember too that, aside from fighting for a fan voice, NUST are also involved in numerous community projects - so there are other spheres in which their achievements are more immediately evident.

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