The Roar
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Active support, passive leadership: What makes the A-League great, and what's holding it back

The RBB changed football in Australia. (AAP Image/Brendan Esposito)
Expert
26th January, 2018
78
2097 Reads

I’ve been your target. Emotional frustration or strategic distraction, manifesting in insults, sarcastic compliments, projectiles flung my way. I’ve copped your coins, your golf balls, your over-priced beer and water, but one grenade was particularly memorable.

The moment before it infiltrated my peripheral vision the senses became heightened. I felt the air of anticipation from the pulsating mass behind. A lull descending before impact. This one was close. It sailed passed my right ear, inches away. A tracer that arced at a hyper parabolic rate. A trajectory necessary to rise above the net that’s erected either to protect the crowd from errant attempts at goal, or shield opposition players from the rabid throng. Hindmarsh is where it happened and a full soft drink bottle is what it was. Made of plastic, yet a serious concussion waiting to happen.

It probably seems counterintuitive to the majority but I would give up most things to be right back in the fire. A big part of me welcomed and accepted being target practice. Objects were noticed but most jibes didn’t register, although the odd original insult brought a smile and was appreciated for its thoughtfulness. Consigning an opposition home crowd to a loss and an ensuing week of football discontent always allayed any words or objects directed my way.

However, I’ll be upfront. Hardcore active supporters, I don’t understand you. The closest I’ve been to energetically supporting something is nodding my head and periodically flipping the ‘devil horns’ at a heavy metal gig. I surmise that for some it’s about the comfort of group interaction, for some an overwhelming need to action your support in an overt manner, and for others chanting, booing, and hurling abuse, and sometimes missiles, is a cathartic release from your everyday life.

Despite my lack of comprehension, the truth is I admire you, or, more accurately, what you embody. When in great numbers and full voice it means our league, our sport, is in a healthy position. You represent the lifeblood of the circulatory system of Australian football. A strong pulse indicates a robust system.

Moreover, you are our point of difference in a saturated sporting landscape. We do not reach for the sporting cosmos without your engaged, committed support. It’s like live music without crowd interaction. One does not really exist without the other.

Unfortunately, you haven’t been thanked enough. You haven’t been adequately valued, requisitely nurtured, made to feel consistently important. Instead, you’ve been publicly derided and demonised. Over-policed to the point of feeling unwelcome. At times treated like second-class citizens instead of priceless stakeholders of our sport.

Regardless of not having an understanding of how you’re wired, I have a serious chip on my shoulder about the manner in which the vast majority of active fans are being portrayed and treated. I know some of you are not there in the best interests of your fellow supporter, your team, your club or the sport. As far as I’m concerned, those that are there simply to cause havoc and mischief can hit the road and don’t come back.

Western Sydney Wanderers active support fans

(AAP Image/Brendan Esposito)

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However, to suggest these aberrant behaviours are solely the domain of football is agenda-driven, headline-grabbing, sensationalist nonsense perpetrated by those acting out of self-interest. Show me a walk of life that doesn’t have a misbehaving human element.

Intuition senses a racial undertone, underpinning a hefty portion of the attitudes of outside disruptors. A lack of understanding and fear of the unknown also plays its part. Instead of attempting to gain knowledge, it seems easier and more comfortable for the ignorant to apply the tactic of suppression. Experience of society in general and life here in Australia suggests these factors cannot be ignored.

At times, the militant nature of patrolling A-League game day attendees can now seem more in line with a North/South Korea border crossing. Occupying the majority of A-League matches I’ve attended over the last couple of seasons is a heavy police presence and an overly officious security staff. Circumstances affect behaviour and these antagonistic conditions can lead to tension levels rising and unnecessary altercations.

I was fortunate to attend the last match of the 2013-14 English Premier League season in Manchester where City clinched the title in the last round with a 2-0 victory over West Ham. Cue bedlam at the final whistle. What looked like thousands of City supporters invaded the pitch. Whether pre-meditated or swept up in a state of euphoria, there was no holding back the throng.

But as I thought to myself, “how do you get them off the pitch while there’s still daylight?”, the police and security staff in attendance handled the situation effortlessly. They allowed the supporters a moment to enjoy their team’s success, a memory they’ll always cherish, while taking up position on the pitch to gradually usher them off. There was no physicality or overly domineering attitude from officials and after about five minutes of frolicking, the supporters started to return to the stands. After about ten minutes, the pitch was cleared with no altercations and the official ceremony took place with barely a delay.

Either the police and security staff had identified and prepared for this possibility and what action they would take pre-match or were taken off guard by the spontaneous nature of the supporters’ actions. But if they were unexpectedly taken aback, they reacted with the utmost calm and, dare I say it, feel for the sport and its active supporters.

At the heart of agenda driven headlines and stories targeting football supporters are politicking, positioning and fear mongering, and it is usually propelled by stakeholders from other sports. But to place the blame in other sectors is to waste our energy. We need to look inwards for improvement.

It is said that the ‘price of excellence is constant vigilance’, and in this regard, the sentinels of our sport have failed. The Double FA seems to be lacking in a clear vision. Whether distracted, underequipped, focussing their energies in poor areas, or attending to their own agendas, the struggle within Australian football continues to escalate.

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The communications from a governing body are as poor as could be imagined. Confusingly and embarrassingly out of touch. When they do surface for air, the reactive posturing, soaked in denial, lacks understanding and genuinely frustrates those of us that are yearning for visionary leadership.

Football Federation of Australia (FFA) CEO David Gallop (left) and newly elected Chairperson Steven Lowy

(AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

In the meantime, false prophets have filled the void but they aren’t the brave, selfless captains needed to weather the storms. We need bold, proactive leadership forging a vision of a high quality, sustainable professional A-League/W-League that engages and nurtures all Australian football supporters. Importantly, that stops treating A-League/W-League members and supporters as customers, and instead as valued assets. Shape the game day experience to ensure all supporters can enjoy themselves and simply concentrate on actively supporting their team.

Once a quality on-field football product complemented by a unique, vibrant atmosphere becomes the norm, we can firstly consolidate then expand into new markets, increase sponsorship and ultimately attract fresh active supporters.

Broadcasters also have a large role to play in improving the experience of A-League supporters through match scheduling. While their investment is undoubtedly welcome, and needed, the timing of A-League matches this season suggests the focus of the main broadcaster is more eyes on televisions. While on one hand this is understandable, in my opinion it’s short-sighted.

Complementing the expected footage of goals scored and players holding trophies aloft, broadcasters are using the images of A-League active supporters to advertise the league with the intent to attract the fringe football supporter. But a high quality and visually compelling production is now being compromised without the continual chanting and roars of football supporters in near full stands that we’ve seen in previous seasons.

Knowing the value of your core supporters, and not just their price, is a failing of leadership and commercial departments that are driven by metrics. Contriving a football landscape with the endeavour to attract new supporters before requisitely nurturing the hardcore supporters, therefore continually endangering their loyalty, is undermining the organic development of our sport.

The time for rhetoric and excuses has to come to an end. We need football champions and football visionaries and we need you now. For the leaders of our football future make us believe that you have a clear vision with our game’s best interests at heart. Reflect on the past, understand what’s happening today, and strike a compelling course for the future. It doesn’t matter which way we’re facing, so long as we’re rolling forward.

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Adelaide United fans celebrate

(AAP image)

As football lovers in this country, we are hopelessly hopeful. We have to be, because this is a war of attrition that has gone on for decades, and will continue for the foreseeable future. Instead of telling you, the diehard supporters, what to do, we should be listening. It is time for communion with the loyal, active Australian football fans.

To the National Soccer League supporters that have been disengaged and alienated from the reform of Australian football, thank you. It saddens and annoys me that you were treated in the manner you were. The mishandling of hearty Australian football supporters, while soccer operated largely under the radar, is a blight on our sport. It has left deep wounds, which we can only hope will be healed in time.

To the A-League supporters, you have been through so much and you still have testing times ahead. Organise with each other, engage with your club and support your team. You can be the difference to team success. Either a wave of emotional support when the side has momentum or is in need of a lift, or the pressure magnifier when opposition individuals err. I’ve felt both extremes and every shade in between.

With endurance in mind, maybe mad lyricist Dexter Holland nails the sentiment of an Australian football diehard best when he sings, “the more you suffer, the more it shows you really care”.

It might get worse before it gets better. If it does you will need to display the endurance you’ve shown to this point. This characteristic gives football its best chance. It’s difficult but we’ve come this far. For me, there’s no turning back, and this is the area that I believe I share something in common with you.

I hope the day arrives soon that visionaries lead us back onto the path of football enlightenment, recognising, appreciating and appropriating the value of each stakeholder, and in particular the active supporter.

To the Adelaide United supporter who threw that bottle, thank you. I’ve never felt more alive than in moments like these.

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Once again I thank you Australian football supporters. You have given me some of the best moments of my life.

Thank you.