Ahead of the curve: fan engagement is in Doncaster's nature

2017 01 28T165345Z 128624025 MT1ACI14740401 RTRMADP 3 SOCCER ENGLAND YEO DNR

New rules, coming into force at the start of the 2016/17 season, mean clubs have to engage in structured dialogue with their supporters. As Martin O'Hara points out, FSF deputy chair and secretary of the Vikings Supporters Co-operative at Doncaster Rovers, some clubs are far better at this than others and Doncaster Rovers are way ahead of the curve...

Football is a traditional game, and its innate beauty relies on local community feeling and a history of club and supporter believing in each other. 

So why, after all these years, does the game feel the need to instruct clubs and its owners to actively talk to its very own supporters? Have we lost that ability to trust? Have we moved so far that we need to create rules and guidance notes with checks and balances to carry out such basic activities?

And the answer for the most part must be a sorry yes. A yes that acknowledges that the game is structured differently from its historical beginnings, and yet one that can’t, no matter how hard it tries at times, shake off its community ties, ties that bind ever tighter.

AFC Wimbledon and the MK Dons, as a case in point, demonstrate that 14 years later that tearing up of the emotional bond still hurts, and hurts very much, enough probably to deter anyone else from acting in a similar fashion.

Acknowledging that the structure today is different and that relationships have changed instigated, in part, the government to create the Expert Working Group, or EWG in shorthand.

It served a number of functions and came to support several conclusions about today’s game and those vital relationships between club and community.

It acknowledged that supporters had a right to question the activities of their clubs owners, managers and custodians. That basic right has been enshrined in new EFL rules for this season, 2016/17, instructing clubs on how and when to talk to its own supporters.

And, for the most part, clubs are doing exactly that this season, meeting on a regular basis to discuss more in depth issues and topics that concern the average supporter. It has varying degrees of acceptance and understanding, and can easily be demonstrated where it succeeds and where it doesn’t. But it is working in a fashion, some clubs adopting its responsibilities far readily than others.

One club in particular though, Doncaster Rovers, embraced this very idea and did so very successfully that it has become an integral part of the club DNA. A creation of a Supporters Board that meets regularly came from the EWG recommendations but without waiting for the EWG and government recommendation it began to move in this direction about five years ago with a twice yearly gathering of supporters and club officials.

Its bi-annual gathering, held in the Keepmoat's Legends Lounge, was simply titled ‘Meet the Owners’. And meet the owners is exactly what happens at these evening events.

Despite starting from scratch, and nobody being any the wiser as to what outcomes they were looking for or expecting, these evenings would go ahead with a top table consisting of all current owners, the current CEO and of course the teams manager of the day.

Despite three relegations in that five year period, plus two takeover bids from an ex-owner and chairman, the thought never occurred to anyone that these evening should be suspended, delayed or cancelled.

To most supporters of course the questions are most valuable when asked of the club manager and his thoughts and tactics for the prevailing position in whatever relevant league.

But the most insightful questions are asked of the owners, their ambition for the club, and their hopes for the future preservation, legacy, and role within the community it serves.

And there lies the real point and value of a ‘Meet the Owners’ night. Its reminiscent of attending the clubs very own board meeting. We, as individual supporters, can ask whatever question we like as though we were there, as though the board were compelled to respond to its mightiest shareholder and bare all its thoughts and feelings on whatever subject we choose.

On a Monday night in February 2017 I sat towards the back of a room that held a couple of hundred Doncaster Rovers supporters of all shapes and sizes. On the top table were the clubs majority shareholders and owners, the CEO, Chairman and Manager. At the back of the room stood all the departmental managers, financial, marketing, commercial, media, ticket office, academy and training staff. Alongside them were the representatives of the Club Foundation team, the Dons Rugby League team, club secretary, catering representatives, security and stadium personnel, local media and then, if that wasn’t enough, the whole event was being streamed to those supporters from afar who couldn’t make it.

Questions of all types and to all departments were asked and answered, nothing was shirked, avoided or deferred. Furthermore the club provide a ‘signer’ so that its small population of deaf supporters can feel part of the evening’s events, both understanding and asking questions in equal measure.

And I found myself smiling. I smiled because I knew at that moment that my club was in very safe hands, that my club no longer had to find reasons to hold a MTO event or a Supporters Board meeting, it held them because it’s in its nature to do so, its engrained in the day to day activities just as opening the turnstiles on a Saturday afternoon.

To see all those people, this Doncaster Rovers community, all coming together, all giving up their Monday night so that we can share and discuss what really matters to us. I smiled further as a co-owner of the club, who admits his football knowledge is lacking, demonstrated his understanding of a basic rule of football, that scoring goals is so very important! You can pass backwards as much as you like he quipped, so long as the ball ends up in the back of the net as often as it has this season.

So, safe in the knowledge that this club embraces its community values in the way it does gives me tremendous hope for the future.

Despite different forms of ownership, new rules on clubs calling for structured engagement with its supporters means that in a few short years other supporters will be able to smile the way that I do, that clubs approaching their responsibilities with the same gusto and openness that we do can reap the rewards. I look forward to that day very much.

The FSF blog is the space to challenge perceived wisdom, entertain readers and inform our members. The views expressed are those of the author and they don't necessarily represent FSF policy and (pay attention journalists) shouldn't be attributed to the FSF.

Thanks to Action Images for the picture used in this blog.