On Saturday football fans from across the country attended the Football Supporters Federation’s annual Supporters Summit at Wembley. The Football Supporters Federation is an incredible group representing the interests of football fans in everything from the “twenty’s plenty” campaign to cap away ticket prices to safer standing which is now being trialled at Celtic. The FSF are a huge support to use here at Proud & Palace, especially Anwar Uddin who leads their campaigns on diversity and inclusivity, so we were delighted to attend.
It was a great day on Saturday and truly inspiring to see different supporters groups standing up and making their opinion heard. The incoming chairman of the Football League, Ian Lenegan, gave an opening address and Q&A hosted by Owen Gibson of The Guardian and was challenged by impassioned fans in attendance on everything from accessibility for disabled fans to revised plans for the Football League Trophy.
Our group questioned him on support for LGBT fans of Football League clubs. Premier League clubs often have the resources and the fan base to implement their own supporter groups, as we have done with incredible support from Crystal Palace. For Football League clubs that is often not the case and so a stance from the league itself, or a tool kit to help clubs, is even more important. Ian’s short response was that it was not a question he had been asked before and he would discuss it at the next board meeting. An unsatisfactory answer in itself made even more so when members of our group spoke to Ian after the presentation and he required clarification on what we meant by “LGBT”.
While obviously those moments make you despair, that a leader in football is so oblivious to homophobia, one of the key issues in football and one preventing millions of people from engaging with the sport. However, as we went through a day of workshops and then our group AGM what became more apparent was a resolve that if we couldn’t count on those at the top to understand and confront our issues then it is even more important to work together to do it ourselves. In a diversity workshop we talked to fans from Woking and AFC Wimbledon about what they can do increase their fan base through more diverse groups – even more important for smaller clubs where gate receipts and merchandise sales are their lifeblood, not TV deals.
Over the course of the day, Spurs and Arsenal fans took opportunities to make cheeky digs at each other but when we sat down for our AGM the support and cooperation was undeniable. We enjoyed ribbing our counterparts from Charlton (“did you find your way to Wembley alright…?”) but applauded them for an incredible Football v Homophobia tournament they hosted at The Valley. We have a Norwich fan as chair, a Spurs fan as treasurer, Arsenal Palace and Leicester fans working on campaigns and overall 25 different clubs represented in our group. All working together with a shared purpose of inclusivity.
The day ended with an emotional speech from Roy Bentham of Liverpool supporters group Spirit of Shankley on the Hillsborough verdict. Roy spoke about the tenacity of the families of the 96 in pursuing justice for their loved ones. He concluded with a heartfelt message of thanks to Everton fans, whose supporters trust were sat right at the front of the auditorium for his speech, and who have unwaveringly stood by their rivals from across the city. There is a lot being said at the moment about people’s differences, a lot of divisions appearing across the country and across the world. The beauty of football is that while the whole model is based on rivalries and supporting your team above all others, when it comes to the things that matter those rivalries are set aside in a heartbeat. Roy’s closing words to the Everton fans, “there is more that unites us than divides us” is an important lesson for us all both in and out of football.