Football: Souness and the sourness: Inglorious exit: Liverpool manager's departure underlines the increasing power of fans - Simon O'Hagan studies the effects of a louder voice for football supporters

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The Independent Online
AT THE bar of the Liverpool Supporters' Club, just round the corner from Anfield, the beer is pounds 1 a pint. At the social club 250 miles away where the Southampton Independent Supporters' Association (SISA) hold their meetings, it is pounds 1.20. Who says the North-South divide is no more?

But to be in these places last week was to realise not only that there was a lot they had in common, but also that they are not just there for you to drink and meet your mates in. They are political headquarters, homes to a new generation of football supporters who want a bigger say in how their club is run. The signs are they are getting it - and the tremors are being felt throughout the game.

As Howard Wilkinson says, there was a time when 'fans were things that kept you cool'. Nowadays it is the opposite. At some of the country's biggest clubs the heat is on from an unexpected quarter. Not hooligans, but groups of articulate, organised supporters, self

appointed agents of change who are putting clubs under increasing pressure. And while Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United, is not happy about it, the Supporter Power movement is gathering pace.

Graeme Souness's resignation from Liverpool on Friday was the only the latest in a series of instances of supporters bringing their collective will to bear on a club's affairs. Two years ago West Ham's fans managed to overturn the club's Bonds Scheme, while this season the trend has been evident at Southampton, where an orchestrated campaign led, or so the campaigners maintain, to the departure of the manager, Ian Branfoot, in December.

Nobody at Manchester City doubts that the demonstrations against the chairman Peter Swales contributed to his going. At crisis-torn Celtic, the directors are under attack from a 3,000-strong group of supporters called Celts For Change. And Souness left Liverpool with the boos that followed their FA Cup defeat by Bristol City still ringing in his ears, not to mention talk of supporters boycotting the next home game.

There is nothing new in fans expressing discontent. Chants of 'Sack the Board' are as old as the game. But football has changed; and in the age of the Citizens' Charter so have the expectations of fans who, while appreciating that most clubs no longer regard them as a necessary evil, are not prepared to be merely tolerated.

What are the roots of this vocal, but almost entirely non- violent movement? Most people point to the Eighties disasters of Heysel and Hillsborough as turning-points. After Heysel, football's disgust with itself signalled a steep decline in terrace violence. Threatened with ID cards, the game was forced to argue its way out of trouble. A mood of greater self- awareness was abroad, in which fanzines flourished. And after Hillsborough, sympathy for fans provided a further chance for their voices to be heard.

Suddenly the fans have got a lot to say for themselves: not just about facilities and travel arrangements, but about how the team play and who should be the manager. This was what happened at Southampton, and Clive Foley, a SISA committee member, justifies it on the grounds that Branfoot's managership was killing off support. It was as much about the way the team were playing as the results. And, he points out, 'when the protests started, they were taking place in the car park, very disorganised, and people were getting arrested. All we did was get it organised. If it hadn't been for us there'd have been even more trouble.'

Foley was speaking at the end of a meeting at which the Southampton chairman, Guy Askham, Lawrie McMenemy, back at the club he was managing so successfully 15 years ago, and the club's Community Officer had spent an hour and a half answering questions from SISA members - an extraordinary display of open government which perhaps offers a way forward in this new era of club- supporter relations.

It is what he sees as the secrecy with which Liverpool conducts itself that bothers Ted Morris, secretary of their supporters' club. 'We were kept in the dark last year,' he says, referring to the Board meeting at which Souness's future was under discussion. 'That's abusing your customers. There are so many other attractions these days. If clubs don't involve the fans they'll find it harder to get the fans to come. Half the time clubs don't appreciate that.'

Can that ever give fans the right to try to dictate who the manager is? Nobody on the other side of a club will countenance that. McMenemy, aware of the credence he was giving SISA by agreeing to meet them, stressed to them that 'you did not get rid of Ian Branfoot. What got rid of him was losing 16 games. Don't think that demonstrating will get rid of the manager.' McMenemy has a tremendous gift for PR - there were times at last week's meeting when it was more like the Lawrie McMenemy Roadshow - which helps to give a club breathing space. But it stops well short of letting the lunatics take over the asylum.

The trend towards Supporter Power is deeply troubling to Howard Wilkinson who, as chairman of the League Managers' Association, says that 'a lot of managers are increasingly concerned about it and the problems it might cause if it continues unchecked'. He agrees that the fan is a customer, but says: 'It's like if I buy a record by Streisand or Sinatra and I've spent a lot of money on it but I don't like it, does that give me the right to tell them how to sing? I accept that they are trying their best.

'Obviously fans have a right to good facilities and to expect the club to do all it can in that respect, but they can't get involved in decision-making. It's power with limited responsibility. There's a freedom that goes with being a fan. You can change your opinion, you never have to justify it, and at the end of the match you can go home.

'But inexperienced directors are affected by what's said at the golf club or scratched on to the boot of the car with a pen-knife. It's what leads to a rapid turnover of managers. We don't want that.'

Graham Turner, at Wolverhampton Wanderers, is a manager who has been on the receiving end of fans' protests, now all but disappeared as the club's form has improved. 'It's certainly on the increase,' he says, 'making the job of the manager that much more difficult. If the Board is positive they can nip it in the bud. But there is a new type of supporter who is getting more vociferous. It's an emotional game, and a lot of it is just a short-term reaction to things.'

The reaction may be short- term, but Supporter Power looks like it is here to stay. And while on the one hand you can argue that it is another welcome sign of the rehabilitation of the football fan, on the other it threatens consequences to football - and managers in particular - which could be damaging.

(Photograph omitted)

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