Supporters being heard on and off the pitch

FOOTBALL: The Premier League boardrooms are slowly realising the importance of keeping their customers satisfied
Click to follow
In her recent book, Karren Brady, the managing director of Birmingham City, describes how, when she arrived at the club, she had to tell staff: "This is the leisure industry and customer service does not begin and end with picking up the phone. No one will ever again answer a call and say, 'nah, I don't deal with tickets' and put it down again. Do that and you are fired."

Many supporters will recognise the problem. Football has long had an ambivalent relationship with its customers, believing that the turnstile fodder will keep turning up - and paying up - come what may. At best, fans were subjected to a benevolent dictatorship - at worst they were just dictated to.

Supporters have recently found a voice, through the Football Supporters Association and the fanzines, but it is has rarely been heard in the boardrooms. Now, finally, someone is listening.

For two years the Premier League has been taking soundings from groups of supporters. On Saturday it was the turn of the Queen's Park Rangers supporters' panel, the first such meeting of the season.

Four hours before the club's 1-1 draw with Nottingham Forest, eight supporters gathered. They were not entirely representative, there was a preponderance of white-collar workers, but the group was fairly disparate considering it had been chosen from replies to a programme request. Ages ranged from 20-odd to pushing 60, there were five men and three women, all were season-ticket holders, one travelled away regularly, six occasionally.

The debate covered crowd behaviour, the role of the club in the community, and live television coverage. As usual, the group defied the belief among non-football people (and some inside the game) that supporters are neanderthals with a four-letter word vocabulary.

Some findings were obvious: They were against Sky's monopoly of live games (only one had Sky), disliked having fixtures moved to Monday night, and were fed up with watching Manchester United on Match of the Day every week. However, there were other, less likely points. John, a local council worker, wanted to see more European football on television.

There was a general feeling that the increase in stewards replacing police was good, but that their training could be improved - and their readiness to halt excessive swearing or racism. But Nigel, a sales director, warned there was a danger of the growth in regulations and seating ''sanitizing'' the game. Brian, a civil engineer, noted that although crowd behaviour had improved there was a feeling that ''one day it is going to erupt again. Matches are so important - there is so much money involved''.

There was a strong feeling that more of that wealth should be put back. Brian said: "The greed and commercialisation needs to be balanced by community involvement." Maryla, a secretary, added: "Clubs have the facilities, they should open them up," [QPR, incidentally, do run a pensioners' club at the ground]. Cut-price admission for children and greater involvement in local schools was also suggested. [Another area where QPR are strong]

There was a reluctant acceptance that satellite television's hold on live coverage, while undesirable, was inevitable. The Sky deal was praised for featuring every club - rather than concentrating on a few as ITV used to. But there was a feeling that the amount of coverage is approaching overkill.

In an indication of the future [the Premier League set the agenda] the panel was asked if it would favour ''three or four games being played most Sundays, and all of them televised''. This will soon be possible, but was thoroughly unpopular.

These meetings can make an impact. The ruling that all clubs must supply 3,000 tickets - or 10 per cent of capacity - to away fans is a direct consequence of last year's meetings.

The presence of away fans is popular because it improves the atmosphere. This was apparent later on as 4,000 Forest fans packed into the School End. After a pretty, but uninspiring first-half they were given something to cheer as Jason Lee's header squeezed under Jurgen Sommer from Ian Woan's cross.

Rangers, with the 39-year-old Ray Wilkins a growing influence, gained a deserved draw when Trevor Sinclair began and ended an eight-pass move with a brave diving header from Simon Osborn's cross.

That goal made the day worth remembering, especially for the 17-strong party of primary schoolchildren that were still chasing autographs an hour after the whistle. They had come from Newport and their teacher, John, unwittingly underlined one of the morning's comments when he compared clubs.

"They do a great offer here. Three pounds each. When I wrote to Tottenham they said we could have reduced tickets - down to pounds 15 from pounds 17.50. And that was only for certain games - Wimbledon, Coventry and such." Tottenham will argue that they can almost fill the ground at full price with regulars, but it is an unfortunate attitude.

John's other beef was also familiar - Monday night football. "Forest's next two Saturday games have been switched to Monday. I get home at 2am from a midweek game so although I am a season-ticket holder I rarely go. My young son, also a season ticket holder, cannot go to any of them."

Forest's season tickets are good value - as is their football - so he will probably renew. But it is a difficult balance football's authorities must strike when taking the Murdoch shilling. At least they are listening to supporters - with a new TV deal in the offing we will should find out how well they hear.

Goals: Lee (46) 0-1; Sinclair (75) 1-1.

Queen's Park Rangers (5-3-2): Sommer; Bardsley, Maddix, Ready (Goodridge, 65), Yates, Brevett; Barker (Osborn, 65), Wilkins, Impey (Brazier, 80); Sinclair, Gallen.

Nottingham Forest (4-4-2): Crossley; Lyttle, Cooper, Chettle, Pearce; Stone, Gemmill, Bart-Williams, Woan; Roy, Lee. Substitutes not used: Inge- Haaland, Silenzi, McGregor.

Referee: S Dunn (Bristol).