It has been some time coming, but finally, it seems, those in the grandstands and terraces are getting the recognition they deserve, and helping drive the upturn in fortunes for the A-League.
Long considered football’s problem-child, fans are now being engaged at all levels to help drive the future direction of the round ball game downunder.
How times have changed.
Not only are fans fast becoming a sounding-board for our administrators, but the active supporters groups are finally getting wider recognition for the unique and vibrant atmosphere they generate on match-days.
Even ‘all-sport’ scribes, the likes of Phil Rothfield and Richard Hinds, who tend to lean another way, are jumping on board, proclaiming the match-day experience at an A-League game to be the best fan experience around.
They’re finally waking up to what those of us who love the game have known all along.
Soon enough we might see Andrew Demetriou locking arms with a Victory fan or two, jumping up and down in the Blue and White Brigade.
In truth, it’s more likely to be Demetriou’s daughters or son that become Victory or Heart members in a few years, such are the demographics flowing to football.
What’s become patently clear after a period of regression is that it’s the fans helping shift the perception, through much self-policing and incredible commitment.
Not only are they passionate, but they are intelligent, looking at things through worldly eyes.
Having worked underground for so long because the establishment told them their code wasn’t good enough, most can look beyond their own colours and see the bigger picture.
Primarily they want to help the sport grow, and they want to have a say in how it grows.
This was articulated well by many, including Adelaide United fan Kasey in my column on Tuesday, when I posed the question of whether the Western Sydney Wanderers could become the biggest football club in Australia in a decade or so.
“There are quite a few savvy football fans out there, we’ve seen many things in football come and go in our time.
“One thing remains though and that is the overwhelming desire to see the game succeed and grow,” Kasey wrote.
“As a club, WSW are to be congratulated for showing that listening to the fans will yield good results.
“We might not all have MBA’s or marketing degrees, but most of all we know what we want in a club and in general have an idea about where we want the A-League to be. Yes we can be impatient, but who hasn’t been when they’ve wanted something particularly strongly?
“If FFA listened to the fans more than they currently do, there’d be a hell of a lot fewer dissenting voices.”
It seems the governing body are finally getting it. Recently, at an insiders pre-season brief in Melbourne, a few fans were among the gathered media and club representatives.
Meanwhile, the FFA’s new club, the Wanderers, have hitherto been a case study in how to effectively engage fans from the grassroots up.
After a series of fan forums across western Sydney soon after the club was announced, it appears they have taken on most of the feedback.
The fans wanted red and black colours and that’s what they got. They wanted to play out of Parramatta Stadium, tick.
They said a big “no thanks” to ANZ Stadium at Homebush, so even when the Wanderers had an opportunity to move the first derby there after Alessandro Del Piero’s arrival, they didn’t.
It might not have been the greatest commercial move, short-term, but in the long run it builds goodwill, and that’s a priceless ingredient.
Other clubs, like the Central Coast Mariners, Brisbane Roar and Melbourne Heart, have set a good example on the engagement front over the years.
Rather than Clive Palmer’s failed build-it-and-they-will-come facade on the Gold Coast, now it’s about listening and executing.
Perhaps the line in the sand came last year, when Lee Sutherland, of Football Fans Down Under, held a series of forums in Sydney and Melbourne to give fans a voice.
Suddenly, fans who felt they’d been suppressed and had no platform to confront the likes of Ben Buckley and Hatamoto, the security firm commissioned by the FFA to manage A-League crowds, had their chance.
With significant media attention, on Twitter, SBS and beyond, the fans’ grievances were out there.
Perhaps the most significant message from the floor was the fans wanted to be heard. And engaged.
The attention and scrutiny helped Melbourne Victory’s active supporters sort out a few long-standing issues with the club and Victorian Police.
Suddenly the powers that be had no choice but to sit up and take notice.
Now these same administrators, at both headquarters and the clubs, are using their own fan forums on a regular basis to garner the thoughts of their fans.
There hasn’t always been tension between the two. The Cove, Sydney FC’s active group, have generally fostered a healthy relationship with their office, dating back to the days of the original chair, Walter Bugno, who was very popular among the fans.
But generally, it has been a tense past, much as it has been between the clubs and head office.
Even this week the FFA has forced Adelaide United to shut down a “rogue” website.
There is still plenty of work to do, but at least fan groups are now at the table, getting a say.
Administrators, at club and headquarters, now realise it’s smart business to keep fans on-side.
In truth, it’s the only business. Without them you have nothing.
It’s taken a while, but the fans are finally where they should be, considered an asset rather than a hindrance.
So, to every A-League supporter, whether you’re in The Shed, Den, Cove, Yarraside, Red and Black Bloc, Yellow Fever, Red Army, Squadron, Yellow Army or Blue and White Brigade, or on here sharing your passion, congratulations and keep it up.