Right now, in English football’s lower divisions, there appears to be a powerful force uniting clubs from top to bottom of the league pyramid, and one that is not limited to British football either.
This is the phenomenon of organising personal protests in public view, taking personal to mean matters concerned with individual football clubs.
This was seen most recently in the rescheduled FA Cup game between FC United of Manchester and Chesterfield, BT Sport’s live Monday night fixture. Here, we had the spectacle of the fans paradoxically using the source of their opposition as the vehicle through which they got their message across to the outside world.
Suddenly, the power of television exposure in British football has taken on a whole new meaning. Before this, the collocation of live TV and football was one that suggested disadvantage for clubs in the league’s lower reaches, as the gap in TV money and so-called parachute payments grows ever wider, with each season.
Increasingly though, clubs in the lower divisions are starting to turn the power of live TV to their advantage, and coming up with creative ways of getting their message out into the public view. This has not only featured issues related to football, such as problems with ownership, ticket pricing, and so on, but also broader social, cultural and political issues. One such instance of this comes in the way that Middlesbrough, as a town and a football team, has rallied around the plight of the Teesside steel workers. Starting with very localised protests, the Boro supporters have managed to bring this issue to wider attention through a combination of approaches. First there were banner protests, as seen in other places as far apart as Leeds and Dortmund in past months, and then the symbolic wall of light in the recent League Cup game where they defeated Manchester United on penalties.
Here the message was simple. Despite the closure of Teesside’s steel plants, and subsequent inaction of the government, the light of hope was still shining in the North East. Deploying mobile phones to act as beacons in the darkening amphitheatre of Old Trafford, the Middlesbrough fans showed the country, and our political leaders, that this struggle is one that is not yet over.
More importantly, the Save Our Steel campaign has awakened a sense of solidarity amongst supporters that transcends division upon the terraces. Towns and cities, once pitted against each other in the decades of industrial decline, now find themselves united in a common purpose. Middlesbrough and Scunthorpe, for example, were once rivals in the production and sale of the steel that has now galvanised them in a sense of common purpose, of being on the same side, and being unashamed to express that in public view.
This new sense of solidarity amongst supporters has been seen in other unlikely places too, and has brought together clubs and people with little shared history to help battle common concerns. The shared protest of FC United and Chesterfield was one such example. Another can be found in the increasing cooperation between Charlton Athletic and Leeds United fans as they seek to get back a stronger sense of ownership of their respective clubs.
The Leeds protest, running for several seasons, is longer established, and at a far more advanced, more effective stage. The London club’s protest is new, and only stirring, but causing tremors all the same in the ecosystem of those it has been aimed at. Some Charlton supporters, unhappy with the direction of the club under the ownership of Belgian businessman Rolan Duchatelet, have embarked upon a protest that like the others mentioned employs very direct, straightforward, and simple tactics to get the message across.
That message is directed at the owners in the form of a straightforward demand for them to spell out their plans for the future direction of the club, at a time when they seem to be in freefall, not just in terms of performances on the field, but also in the whole culture and mood that surrounds the club. Once seen as a club with its roots firmly entrenched in the area where it is based, Charlton is now part of a network of clubs that does little to capture the imagination of established fans or attract new ones.
Supporters, feeling alienated and even abandoned by the Duchatelet regime, have thus embarked on a Spell It Out campaign, which uses the symbolism and wearing of black and white scarves as the main form of protest.
The choice of colours, like those used in Manchester United’s green and yellow scarf campaign, has its roots in history. When Charlton won their only FA Cup in 1947, they wore white shirts and black shorts. More aptly though black and white is the colour of print, and of writing – the most basic means of putting a message across.
Charlton’s Spell It Out campaign is intended to reach its crescendo in full view of the television cameras, when Charlton host Ipswich Town at The Valley live on Sky TV on Saturday 28th November in the early kick off. There, under the gaze of the country and further afield, Charlton fans will spell out their demands in black and white, with peaceful dignity, becoming part of a growing pattern of making personal protests in public.
Perhaps the reason such campaigns catch the attention of so many others, from Middlesbrough to Munich, is that underneath the personal there are echoes of something deeper and communal.
The issues at the heart of these protests often go right to the heart of the main contemporary issues facing British and European football. That’s why as simple as these protests might be on the surface, they represent and resonate with supporters across territorial boundaries, national or domestic, because they represent and recognise the fact that supporters are the lifeblood of football clubs.
Thankfully this reality is starting to get the attention it deserves, whether expressed in walls of light, or black and white.
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