Community Development and local football – thoughts inspired by watching gap Connah’s Quay
Back in November 2012 I attended a football match between gap Connah’s Quay (known as The Nomads) and Airbus UK Broughton FC. It was my first visit to the Deeside Stadium and though the fixture was relatively low-key, being as it was a midweek League Cup fixture, it was an enjoyable game, that offered good value for money (especially as it went into extra time) and benefited from a good atmosphere.
An exchange at half time with a fan running a modest merchandise stall (I bought a pin badge incidentally) has led me since to reflect on the role of community development in local football.
The friend with whom I attended the match mentioned that I was visiting from south Wales…
Nomads fan: You should come and watch us at Port Talbot next week.
My friend: Are you going?
Nomads fan: Oh yes.
Friend: Do you have much of an away following?
Nomads fan: We don’t have much of a home following!
Connah’s Quay’s average home attendance this season is 486. It is the sixth highest average in the twelve team league, and is 27% higher than the league’s average of 382 (source: Welsh Premier League website). All in all it is not the worst attendance in the often-maligned league so perhaps the fan’s self-deprecation is unjustified. But the exchange has got me thinking about the role of Community Development in the development of small football club.
Community Development is founded on, among others, a principle of self-determination and this is at the root of many of the supporter-led ‘takeovers’ of clubs in recent years such as Wrexham and Portsmouth, or the establishment of new clubs in response to the perceived mismanagement, exploitation or betrayal of values of ‘traditional’ clubs e.g., Chester FC, FC United of Manchester (FCUM) and AFC Wimbledon. In each of the above cases supporters have collectivised across a broad demographic and challenged the incumbent ownership in terms of personnel, business model and power balance.
Community Development can be at its most urgent when/where oppression is manifest. In the case of Wrexham a succession of owners looked to profiteer at the club’s expense by asset-stripping it of its core infrastructure (ground and training ground in particular). The club was constructively forced into administration in a bid to expedite the fire sale. FCUM was set up following a succession of decisions made by the family that owns the club to take it into private ownership, leverage enormous debt against the club and the increase in season ticket prices.
Such overtly pernicious influences do not appear to be present at The Nomads. Perhaps there is a view that the fan base is so small that to collectivise would not leverage much additional influence or bargaining power. However Community Development maintains that collectivising allows not only for the sharing of values but skills, knowledge, experience and networks. Even a modestly-sized collective can bring about considerable change, for the sum is often greater than its parts. Oppression in this instance is an inadvisable word to use but the ambivalence that local people may have towards the club might be the motivating force behind taking action. The neo-consumerist, ‘build it and they will come’ model that has inculcated itself in professional football is arrogant in its expectation that people will by some invisible hand be enticed to consume what it has to offer. Supporters are viewed increasingly as solely consumers of a brand, whether it is at the turnstile, in the club shop or of a myriad of other products, including credit and loans. Conceiving supporters in such a reductionist way, and by prohibiting them from having any say in the running of a club, sees clubs place no value on local people who do not attend football matches but nonetheless recognise and value the role a club plays in shaping identity, cementing social cohesion and fostering civic pride. Since they do not go to matches and clubs cannot ‘monetise’ their values they are of no relevance.
So one initial objective for a club like Nomads could be to reach out to parts of the Deeside community that it currently does not reach. The recent popularity of the share issue of Oviedo in Spain is a case in point (and the Wrexham experience is also illustrative here). People with no affinity with the club, indeed resident outside Spain, have bought into the club because they had an affinity with the values of the campaign to save and revive the club. Many fans are increasingly aware that their own club might one day need to call on the support of traditional ‘non-affiliates’ in order to rescue it. What is this if not a form of collectivism? So Nomads must expand beyond the confines of its fanbase and work with people who may not be interested in football but recognise that the club contributes to other aspects of local community life: providing opportunities for young people; the commercial benefits of the town’s profile being raised; infrastructure that could be used in health and exercise intiatives; local facilities; local supply chains; opportunities for volunteering, work experience and job-ready schemes. Such ‘reaching out’ could take the form of a share issue. Should it do so Wrexham FC’s current experience is surely a local, north east Wales example to follow.