‘We’re out, we’re out!’ Super League collapse shows football fans have never been more powerful

This resounding defeat should serve as a reminder that supporters have a permanent power as well as a motivation to keep on going

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
@MiguelDelaney
Wednesday 21 April 2021 14:29
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Chelsea fans react as club withdraws from Super League

It was a moment when an angry protest became a jubilant celebration, when a depressing and infuriating story became one that was truly uplifting. Shortly before 7pm at Stamford Bridge - in a scene reminiscent of George Bailey running down the street in joy at the end of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ - one Chelsea supporter ran through the crowds waving his arms and shouting “we’re out, we’re out!” It caused rapturous cheers that rippled around until it was one mass scene of celebration.

Through that, it was also a mass scene of community, and the power of unity.

There are an infinite number of strands to the super league story, from the humiliation of the game’s most obnoxious figures to the viability of certain ownership models, but one of the most profound is the realisation of supporters’ true influence. That had been easy to forget, in a football world where the big clubs always seem to win. This resounding defeat serves as both a reminder that fans have a permanent power, as well as a motivation to keep persevering.

The second part is particularly crucial.

In the aftermath of such euphoria, many would cynically point to the remaining problems in the game: the fact Uefa are passing through deeply unpopular Champions League plans, the existing imbalances, the status quo, the predictability of so many leagues… meet the old bosses, they were the same as the new bosses.

Except all of that is precisely why this is not a time for jaded cynicism. This is a happy moment, that should give way to hope, and impetus for the future.

They illustrate all of these many problems can be tackled. This very story has already changed the power balances, while showing what is possible.

Wider supporter power was the driving force behind the definitive moments of Tuesday’s remarkable turnaround. It was why the populist in Prime Minister Boris Johnson got so invested, and gave full legislative backing to the Premier League. It is why Uefa were so unmoving. The governing body may still have to address many recent problems inherent to its own structure, but the current incarnation - led by Aleksander Ceferin - do have the wider game at heart. The president himself has often been criticised for being too parochial. He stirred the entire game with his rallying speeches on Monday.

This was all based on the purist principle that football is ultimately about playing, and representing community.

On Tuesday, and especially in west London ahead of Chelsea’s match with Brighton, those communities rose up.

These were unprecedented and historic scenes, but still reminiscent of images we’ve seen elsewhere - and not just in film. Throughout this whole crisis, the German game has been lauded, with the resistance of clubs like Bayern Munich put down to the influence their supporters have. Many have long bemoaned the absence of a similarly empowered fan culture in England.

This was proof it exists. These were very German scenes.

They were also in frankly disappointing contrast to the apathy in Spain and Italy, although Marca’s front page hailed “the pressure of English supporters” and how the “cheer of ‘football is for the people’ toppled the pharaonic Super League”.

That is why there will never be a greater opportunity to seize the moment, and act on institutional will to introduce a German model of ownership. Sir Keir Starmer on Monday told The Independent it would form a core part of the Labour Party’s policy on football, that “entrenches a much greater say for fans in the future of their clubs”. The momentum for this shouldn’t slip.

The moment shouldn’t pass. A window has opened, as have some eyes.

To take one problem from the “breakaway 12”, many Liverpool fans have long lauded their owners, FSG. That is for big reasons and small ones. The group did rescue the future of the club, supercharge it to the point they were the English, European and world champions, and have been responsible for many romantic touches.

The last few days have nevertheless showcased that their fundamental principles are at odds with what a football club - and particularly ‘Liverpool Football Club’, to use the fans’ grandiose full title - is supposed to be about.

As venture capitalists, FSG - just like the Glazers, and the owners of Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur - are primarily interested in perpetual financial growth. That is their primary objective, way beyond the core ideas of just playing football to represent your community.

They are actually divergent aims that only occasionally coincide.

The pursuit of perpetual financial growth leads to notions like super leagues and fixed places, that are intrinsically at odds with what football is supposed to be about. The last three days should have made that abundantly clear, so nobody can be under any illusions.

One of the primary motivations for The Super League was because the owners want financial guarantees, and don’t like the economic uncertainty that comes from unpredictability. The essence and lifeblood of sport, however, is that very unpredictability. It is what thrills us, and makes it worth following.

It cuts to the core of this tension between clubs as businesses and clubs as social institutions. The reality is they are both, but these owners almost exclusively see them as the former. More specifically, they saw them as commodity or content businesses, like Spotify or Facebook. It was among many misunderstandings of what clubs are. The last two days have shown they are really about so much more - they are about community. Even their “content” - the drama and emotion of games - comes from meaningful relationships and years of emotion.

And it brings this situation to an unavoidable, logical conclusion. If ownerships were closer to a German model, they would be primarily concerned with just the sustainability of the club to play football - and not growth. Economic "uncertainty" would not matter, because the only certainty needed would be enough finance to be sustainable.

That would inherently prevent crises like this.

Guarantee of place wasn’t the only motivation for this “nonsense project”, to quote Ceferin. There were also the mad-cap ideas Andrea Agnelli and Florentino Perez had about interest in football, particularly among the youth. They could do with showing their workings. Some in the believe that these ideas - the basis of a hugely disruptive project that led to a football “nuclear war” - were based on nothing more than spin. Virtually all studies and surveys are actually hugely positive for football. They show 50-60% interest across all age groups and demographics, which is huge, especially relative to almost any other cultural pursuit. Agnelli and Perez did little more than spin that on its head and try to make out 40% was a bad thing. This was the foundation of what most people see as little more than an attempt at a mass refinancing.

The scenes at Stamford Bridge showed the real interest in the game. The many "16-24 year-olds" seemed all too invested. Football has never been more popular. Football support has never been more powerful.

This isn't a moment for cynicism. It is a moment to seize.

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