The Agenda: What must club owners do to forge good relationships with fans

It is not success that fans want - just respect and a respect for tradition as Mark Douglas discusses

Mike Ashley and Joe Kinnear watch Newcastle United in action
Mike Ashley and Joe Kinnear watch Newcastle United in action

You've probably never heard of Matthew Benham.

The 40-something Oxford graduate is a former financial trader turned professional gambler who just happens to own his boyhood club Brentford.

He has just replaced his manager Uwe Rosler with a former city worker who has never played football to professional standard and applies a healthy scepticism to the opinions of fans and the media.

“It’s a funny one,” he told author Michael Calvin in his must-read book about football scouting Nowhere Men. “Fans and the media see something in everything when it’s actually randomness.”

Whatever impression that might give you, Benham is no homegrown Vincent Tan. He happens to be a shining example of progressive football club ownership and the sort of benefactor that would be welcomed with open arms in the North East. He took on the club’s outstanding loans of £10million, bought back the training ground and funded a restructuring of their Academy.

With a mathematics PhD to support an approach which empowers forward-thinking staff, he is also at the forefront of a new way of looking at players.

He said: “If I am looking at a striker I do not care about his goal-scoring record. For me the only thing that is interesting is how the team do collectively within the context of an individual’s performance,” he says.

Benham springs to mind as we survey the latest depressing dispatches from Hull City, where Egyptian owner Assem Allam has threatened to walk away from the club if his bid to change the club’s name is not backed by the Football Association.

Given his £70million investment – a chunk of money Hull fans have not asked for, it must be remembered – he would appear to have a strong case, but for many in English football he is guilty of football’s equivalent of crossing the Rubicon.

It is not the idiosyncracies which are the problem here.

Owners like Benham and Swansea chairman Huw Jenkins frequently make unpopular decisions and understand supporter engagement is completely different from being led by public opinion. Yet when Allam tinkers with the name and Tan turns Cardiff red it is attempting to alter the DNA of their clubs – and that, surely, is beyond the pale.

Allam’s threat to walk out on Hull led to support from Alexi Lalas, the former president of LA Galaxy and New York Red Bulls.

“What is so appalling about an owner wanting to rename his team? It’s his team,” the former US international said on Twitter.

The point is it is not Allam’s team or Tan’s team: it belongs to the people of Hull and Cardiff. That might not make financial or business sense to men who have made their money on markets who do not take emotion or belonging into account but it is the game they have chosen to invest in.

It might seem strange to Allam the word City is so important to the East Yorkshire community but the passion and adulation fans have for their home-town club is an odd thing too. The latter is why Allam got involved in the first place, so it makes little sense for him to react so indignantly when the same emotion opposes a name change.

The Football Association does not have a specific rule which prevents an owner changing the name of his club, presumably because they did not anticipate it.

However, they should start assuming worst-case scenarios soon because those attracted to the English game are paying such huge amounts for the privilege they reason they should be able to do what they want with their investment.

This is plainly wrong. It was suggested yesterday that, instead of looking at ways of weeding out megolamaniac owners, the FA should scrap the Fit and Proper Persons test and look to find a way of classifying football clubs in the same way listed buildings are – perhaps preventing prospective owners from making material changes to the foundations of the club. That sounds reasonable: perhaps specifying things like name, colours and being based in the city or town where they were founded as requirements for anyone buying a majority stake.

It would not solve all of the problems, of course. In the North East we are uncomfortable with the ownership of Mike Ashley but it is for different reasons. Public opinion has curdled under Ashley but not only because of a perceived lack of ambition under his tutelage.

Transfer windows coming and going without additions prompts a wave of upset but it is not why Newcastle United feels broken and divorced from its public at the moment.

It is the reticence to engage, encourage or explain that has led to such deeply-held discontent in the North East.

The owner, and the club, do little to dissuade the idea the club now exists solely to provide a global marketing platform for Ashley’s business Sports Direct. Renaming St James’ Park was not quite in the league of Tan and Allam but explains why patience is so thin on Tyneside.

Across the River Wear there is an interesting counterpoint.

After Gus Poyet’s first game at Swansea – a 4-0 walloping notable only for Phil Bardsley’s ignominious recall – Sunderland appeared to be on the verge of flat-lining.

Bottom of the league by a distance and with a supporter base riled by a return which they felt typified the club’s lack of understanding, tension was the Wearside watchword.

The very next week, Short penned programme notes which apologised for his part in Sunderland’s dire predicament and a process of rolling back the retrograde steps began.

In recent weeks, the Black Cats have fought the decision to classify the Tyne-Wear derby as a bubble match and also funded transport to the Capital One Cup semi-final second leg as a show of solidarity with fans paying inflated prices at Old Trafford.

The team, in case you had forgotten, remain in the bottom three but there is a growing feeling that, allied with the gains being made by Gus Poyet, Short’s stewardship has started to turn a corner.

Maybe he is beginning to understand something which seems to have passed a new generation of owner-manager-dictators by.

Football supporters do not, on the whole, expect success, perfection or investment on the scale of Manchester City’s Abu Dhabi owners.

What they would like is a dash of accountability, respect for traditions and a feeling that, whatever decisions are being taken, they are being done for the football club’s benefit rather than some flight of ego-driven fancy or to enrich an investor.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer