Consolidating supporter groups and changing fan attitudes

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I remember dreading the football close season when I was a lad. I played the game myself so missed the camaraderie and discipline of the dressing room. In addition, you could never quite enjoy any summer holiday as you knew the rigours of pre-season training would come around soon enough. Living reasonably local to the legendary Gullane Sands, this often meant a trip to Murder Hill as Jock Wallace wasn’t the only East Lothian football manager who liked his players to work the dunes. The most annoying aspect though was the down-time just seemed to drag. Indeed, when I stopped playing myself and bought my first season ticket in 1999, Rangers were still a top quality team so it was always a chore when the season came to an end.

Unfortunately, recent years have generally yielded opposing feelings. Financial problems, regular courtroom dramas and poor quality football on the pitch has seen Ibrox crowds fall to 1980s levels as fans become more and more estranged with the club they love. As such, in many ways, the summer break between seasons turned into something fans embraced instead of pushing away. June and July were now months where you could switch off from many of the countless problems the club faced and it genuinely became a holiday in my eyes. And, after failing to win promotion back to the Scottish Premiership in last season’s play-offs, the beaches of continental Europe never looked so welcoming at the end of May…

However, just as many bears prepared to take a break from these stresses, a fresh management team was appointed by the new directors that forced their way into the boardroom by way of an EGM in early March. Was this the start of a bold new strategy at the club? Certainly, with over ten players also leaving by the start of June, there was going to be an inevitable change of direction on the park. Add in a few new (and interesting) signings, then my summer holiday later this month doesn’t look quite as enticing as in recent years. Suddenly I was checking whether my location had wi-fi and mobile coverage rather than ensuring it didn’t. Add in the positive changes within the boardroom I was also more eager than ever to renew my season ticket. A recent prediction by chairman Dave King that he’d sell 45,000 such tickets didn’t seem likely but with around 20,000 of last year’s numbers already renewing and many more fans who, like me, hadn’t done so the previous season likely to do so for the new campaign, then perhaps the most pleasing aspect of the summer was fans looking to re-engage with the club.

With that in mind, the situation appeared to improve further with Rangers announcing in early July that, after consultation with the various fan groups, the club desired “to create one overarching organisation/body that would encompass all the positive aspects within the various supporters groups.” Further they stated such a body would be “made up of democratically elected representatives” and “would operate independently of the Club whilst working collaboratively with it.” Given five fan groups were represented at the meeting with at least another three less formal groups also part of the supporter narrative in recent years then such consolidation has to be an agreeable aim but how exactly would this work?

First of all, the main question has to be which groups will merge/dissolve and, as detailed in the minutes of the meeting, which groups would “remain free to pursue their individual objectives, independently of the new body, if they so wish”? For example, prior to administration in the David Murray era, the Rangers Supporters Assembly were seen as the official ‘umbrella’ group but since 2012 have been ignored and, arguably, were superseded by the official Rangers Fans Board last summer. Similarly, the Rangers Supporters Trust and Rangers First are both share purchase vehicles with substantial holdings in the club while the Rangers Supporters Association historically represent a number of supporters’ clubs in their ticketing dealings with the club. Add in groups like those who represent disabled fans, younger supporters and ex-pats in North America and Oceania then I can’t be the only person easily confused by the plethora of abbreviations and constitutions for each organisation. Obviously this confusion makes the overall principle agreeable but nevertheless difficult to achieve.

Let us look back eight years. Sir David Murray was still in charge of Rangers, our tax affairs remained private and Walter Smith was just about to take us on a run to the final of the UEFA Cup. Unfortunately, while the post-admin years may give these more simple times an attractive haze, the period was still difficult for the club. We hadn’t won a title for two seasons, the club was downsizing at all levels and groups like the RST were becoming more popular as negative stories in the media become ever-more prevalent. In fact, in July of 2007, the RST announced that, in the interests of unifying the three main fan groups of that period, the Assembly and Association chairmen had been co-opted to the Trust board. Further, at the club’s AGM the following month, Murray announced that he intended to democratically elect a fan to sit on the board by the following year. Any of this sound familiar…?

Unfortunately but probably unsurprisingly none of the above came to proper fruition. The intention to merge the fan groups was met by suspicion while Murray’s announcement, although positive on the face of it, cleverly (from his point of view) caused negative friction as the groups sought to secure their nomination and promised seat on the board. Eventually, as quickly as this apparent chance for supporters’ representation in the Rangers boardroom appeared, it was gone. And all that was left was fan groups fighting again instead of working together. This all happened in less than a year.

Indeed, many of the same questions exist now as did then. How can any affiliated organisation remain independent with two club representatives on its board and how can it have a “strong voice in the media” when fan opinion is often diametrically opposed to that of the club? After all, we’ve seen continually over the last ten years or so the fans being frustrated by the club’s PR functions. Furthermore, given the problems we’ve seen with the Rangers Fans Fighting Fund monies being utilised, the suggestion by John Gilligan that any new body would have ‘fund-raising powers for contributing towards capital expenditure projects” will alarm many fans that contributed to the RFFF. With season ticket prices already rising 5% this summer, just how much spare cash are fans to invest into the new regime? Yes, supporters want to play their part – whether by buying season tickets or looking to increase our shareholding – but our resources are finite and that has to be recognised in any long term planning.

Of course sometimes it’s easier to be negative without looking at the positive side of the debate. Quite simply we have far too many supporters groups so we must suitably rationalise these. For all the good people of groups like the Assembly, Association and RFB; they’re too similar in nature to warrant separate bodies. By the same token, while the Trust and RF have both done a superb job in recent years of opening our eyes to what’s possible in terms of share purchases and board representation, having two different bodies for essentially the same task just adds to the confusion of a subject that isn’t easy to understand in the first place. Thus, it will be interesting to see which groups will be prepared to fall on their sword as the process is followed through.

Taking that into consideration, as I highlighted in this column last August, the condensing of the groups has to happen but I remain unconvinced it can work with one umbrella group. Yes, such an ‘official’ club-sanctioned organisation should exist which can be made up of various constituent sub-groups (i.e. Assembly-like but more democratic and accountable in nature) but it may be agreeable to retain an outside influence as well. For example, the Trust merging with RF would be ideal in that sense to concentrate our share buying efforts into one substantial bloc of shares which can be added to more easily going forward. This could be represented within any official group but also independent from it where required. After all, surely there must be the ability to challenge the club’s stance on any given subject and this may not be so easy with just one officially affiliated group?

To conclude, it is clear change is required and I doubt many fans would be against such consolidations. However, lessons must be learned from previous efforts to fold organisations into each other and the associated Machiavellian-type problems promised board representation can bring. Consequently, just as the club has changed a lot in recent years, and this summer especially, so too will the fan organisations that sought such a transition. The next few months will show us just how flexible we need to be and if we’re to truly progress the idea, it will require a maturity and humility that is often difficult to find in a support that remains as volatile as ever.

Article from issue 11 of WATP Magazine reproduced with kind permission of owners. Find out more about the magazine and subscribe here.

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