More than 300 football fans travelled to St. George's Park on Saturday to attend the 2013 Supporters Summit.
FA Chairman David Bernstein took part in the opening session of the conference – which was jointly organised by Supporters Direct and the Football Supporters Federation.
He was joined on the stage by Andy Burnham, the shadow health minister, formerly secretary of culture, media and sport and lifelong Everton fan.
The Chairman invited those present to consider the national football centre in Burton a “home from home for supporters”.
The day-long event included a number of workshop sessions, covering a range of topics including football governance, discrimination and fan engagement.
Mr Bernstein spoke about himself as a supporter “first and foremost”. He said: “I cannot remember a time when my club and its fortunes were not central to my life. It is a relationship which is sometimes rewarding, often frustrating, but absolutely irrevocable.”
He went on to add this experience coupled with his time as a club chairman and now as FA Chairman had given him an unusual perspective. He acknowledged the challenges facing supporters and welcomed efforts to bring them closer to the running of clubs up and down the country.
The Chairman also touched on the main matters he believed concerned fans and the importance of a governance structure in the game that considers fans’ needs and gives them a voice.
He said: “I believe these are the issues where can you make real impact, issues that matter to all supporters.
"Prices, clearly very relevant at the moment - accessibility, discrimination, the fan experience. These are the here and now issues and where the voice of supporters must and should be heard. And the clubs and authorities will listen because it is in their interest to do so.”
Read the Chairman's speech in full below
It is my great pleasure as Chairman of The Football Association to welcome you all to St. George’s Park for the joint Football Supporters Federation and Supporters Direct ‘Supporters Summit’. Today’s event is an important part of our 150th anniversary celebrations and I am delighted that so many of you were able to make it.
It was on the 26 October 1863 that Ebenezer Cobb Morley and his friends met in a London pub called the Freemasons' Tavern. That night they changed the world by producing the first laws of football. The modern game as we know it was born that day and its subsequent journey across continents and cultures has been extraordinary.
A 19th century London pub may feel a long way away from this wonderful state of the art facility – but I believe there is a great deal that unites us all in spirit with those founding fathers. They were friends who had gathered together – giving up their time and their means to discuss the game they loved. They had a determination to seek improvement, and a belief that by dint of their efforts the game as they knew it could be more accessible and enjoyable for all. I like you share that same determination and belief.
The spirit of accessibility and improvement is central also to St. George’s Park. As our National Football Centre it is of course the home to all of our 24 England teams – men and women, boys and girls, and all our disabilities squads – the physical manifestation of a ‘Club England’ environment which we believe will be so important to the long term success of future England teams.
But St. George’s Park is about so much more. It is the centre for Coach Education – bringing together the brightest and best coaching minds – not just from football but across all sports – to learn from each other, share ideas and experience, and bring forward a new generation of English coaches across every level of the game. The importance of this work cannot be over-emphasised. The key to developing more and better players is access to the highest coaching quality at the earliest age groups – that is the central mission of St. George’s Park and it is fundamental to the future of English football.
But there is another objective of St. George’s Park, and I believe it is wonderfully illustrated by our gathering here today. This is a place where football comes together. From every part of the game - coach, club, league, player, regulator, official, and of course fan – mingling, meeting, sharing a collective, and we hope, inspirational experience.
There are differences in football, but St. George’s Park has already shown, even in its short period of operation, that there is so much value to be gained when the game comes together. That is why I am delighted this summit is here this weekend, and I hope both organisations consider this place a home from home in the future.
I would like to talk briefly about your agenda today and the issues that both organisations have sought to address over a number of years. I believe I am fortunate to be in a fairly informed position to comment on the role and responsibility of supporters in our game. First and foremost I am a fan – like many of you I cannot remember a time when my club and its fortunes were not central to my life – it is a relationship which is sometimes rewarding, often frustrating, but absolutely irrevocable.
Secondly I have, if you excuse the phrase, also been on the receiving end. I have been a Club Chairman. I understand their pressures; the demands of running a club; the vagaries of the football industry, and the requirements of ‘managing a manager’ in a results driven environment.
And thirdly, I have for three years been Chairman of The FA. Leading the Governing Body with the authority to run and regulate the game from the pinnacle of international football right down to the grassroots.
The combination of these three experiences is, as I say unusual, and it is with them in mind that I would like to highlight what I believe to be the key elements to fostering positive relationships between clubs and their supporters.
I think it is unfortunate that a perceived culture of ‘them’ and ‘us’ has developed in the game. As I mentioned I have been both an ‘us’ and a ‘them’. This idea that those who run clubs are not supporters, or do not have a care for the interests of supporters, is I believe a false one. The vast majority of Club owners are supporters and care as passionately about results as their fans.
Even if they are not originally fans of that club they do understand that there is no club without its supporters and that its inextricable link to its community is what makes every football club special and unique. For all the commercialism and global campaigning of leading Premier League Clubs, those efforts are dwarfed by their work in their very own communities. I believe that the key to breaking down this ‘them and us’ mentality is mutual trust and that starts with information sharing.
When I was at Manchester City Football Club, and I put a great emphasis on that word 'club'. I met with our supporter groups regularly. Wherever possible I would share with them as much information as I could about the state of the club, our plans and where we were facing challenges. In turn they talked to me about the concerns they had and where they would like to see change – from ticket prices, to centre-forwards – we exchanged views openly. This level of information exchange brought increased levels of trust and partnership – and I believe exemplifies the best way for clubs and their supporters to come together.
I look today at the Arsenal Supporters Trust and see this model working effectively – and I note the introduction of Supporter Liaison Officers across the Leagues and hope that these new officials can make this their essential mission. In time every club must and will find their own way that works for them and their own supporters.
But with greater openness there comes a need for responsibility on all sides. Responsibility on the clubs to engage their supporters with timely, relevant and useful information; but also responsibility on the supporter trusts and groups themselves to engage constructively with their clubs.
And let me be clear by that, I do not mean that it is not the role of supporters to hold their clubs to account, to demand improvement when they see fit – but a structured relationship must be just that - structured. Supporter Trust and Groups have the responsibility to aggregate and represent the views of as wide as possible representation of their members and their fellow supporters. I know this is not always easy, that many if not all of you are volunteers giving of your time and energies, but I believe it to be crucial to creating mutually beneficial relationships between clubs and supporters.
Alongside openness and responsibility there must on all sides also be a level of pragmatism. I commend all your work in pursuing the philosophical arguments of greater supporter representation and ownership, but for me it is in the realms of the ‘pragmatic’ where we should collectively focus our efforts. Supporters and clubs asking questions of each other, such as...
How can we make the fan experience better? Where can supporters work with their clubs for mutual benefit in their local communities?
How can clubs better benefit from a stronger community supporter base?
I believe these are the issues where can you make real impact – issues that matter to all supporters - prices, clearly very relevant at the moment, accessibility, discrimination, the fan experience, these are the here and now issues and where the voice of supporters must and should be heard. And the clubs and authorities will listen because it is in their interest to do so.
At Wembley for England matches we have been determined to set our ticketing prices right – to be responsive and flexible to the needs of fans – not just because it is right to be accessible to as many supporters as possible, but because we want a full stadium cheering on England and unashamedly generating revenue that we can re-invest into English football. Getting ticket prices right is vital and should be to the mutual benefit of all - supporters, clubs and the broadest development of our game.
Finally I would like to refer briefly to the matter of governance. As many of you know the issue of supporter representation and advancing the cause of supporter ownership was a key element to the Government’s football governance recommendations. In our initial response we outlined a number of initiatives and commitments in this area, many of which I am please to say have progressed despite the slower pace taken across the wider reform agenda. We were very clear in our response that all of the football authorities would welcome the establishment of a Government Expert Working Group on the issue of Supporter representation and ownership, and I reiterate this commitment again to you today.
So in conclusion, 150 years ago the founding fathers met in the spirit of teamwork and a determination to improve. Over the years all of us in the game have ‘stood on their shoulders’ sharing the burden of guardianship and development. It is a wonderful story – but it has always been with the football fan at its heart. John Charles, the Leeds United, Juventus and Wales legend once said “the fans are the heart of football”.
I could not agree more. Those of us who have been privileged enough to have the transitory honour of leading our game in any form, must never forget that our stewardship is only temporary – and when Chairman, owners, managers, and players have been and gone – it is you the fans that still remain.
I would like to wish you all an enjoyable and productive 2013 Supporter Summit here at St. George’s Park.