After a year of travelling around the UK and Europe, we’re looking forward to putting our tired feet up for a short break. It’s a good time to reflect on what we’ve been doing and what we’ve seen on our travels. We’re learning all the time too.

It was a 2018 that began battling the elements of the harshest British Winter in recent memory but as we near the conclusion of it,there has been a lot to warm us and demonstrate the determination out there in the football world to make the sport so much more than what takes place between the first and last whistle – however important that remains.

There seems to be a growing understanding that the audience is not just changing but has already changed. Many more women and children makeup the attendances; families want to have football as an option for a day out at the weekend but even the ‘traditional’ supporter is different too; their eyes opened by what other venues and events are doing and can offer. Suddenly,a Bovril and meat pie at half time (still great BTW) aren’t always enough. They want more choice and they don’t want to wait till half-time either.

Too often I hear about the core fan and what they want and don’t want. But our travels to The Netherlands this month have shown us that the needs of core fans and families can be catered for in the same stadium on the same day. They can actually co-exist perfectly; the experience is even enhanced if they do because there is more than enough room in a football stadium to combine the best of both worlds; making the atmosphere loud and vibrant but also introducing the next generation of fans to the game and clubs in a safe and friendly way.

It’s often a case of getting the mix right. Just like a perfectChristmas cake, you have to get all the right ingredients and you have to begin preparing several months earlier.

Perfection,if there is such a thing, happens when all of it becomes part of the culture;the fabric of the club, if you like. When people who work for the club do the right things instinctively, and the club focuses on the things that really matter then the magic begins to happen.

Avery small handful of clubs are getting close to this, but the majority are scrambling about in the back of the kitchen cupboards. They want to get it right – they know its crucial to future growth and prosperity – but very often the key is knowing which ingredients work and most importantly, when to add them.

Hopefully, that’s where we’ve added some real value this year.

One of the brightest signs – after the snow cleared – was the record number of clubs in the EFL that achieved the Family Excellence Award in 2017/18. This was the evidence that more clubs are taking it very seriously and making it a priority. What was even more encouraging was the number of clubs who made it clear that they were getting on board, and we’ve seen further improvements this season already from them.

Our numerous sojourns to Denmark – to support their Superliga and women’s league too – made us realise the huge importance of identity, community and connections between the club and the fans.

The majority of clubs don’t have the kind of crowd numbers we see in the PremierLeague, nor do they have the superstar players that we see in the ChampionsLeague, but they have something really special and that is a bond between those in the stands and the team on the pitch. Whether this bond is displayed via a pre-match player-fan ritual or afterwards in a genuine show of gratitude, it creates a ‘we’re in this together’ pact that we’ve not seen very often despite visiting hundreds of games over the last dozen years.

When the away team manager walks out before kick-off and engages with the travelling fans – not just with a wave from afar but with a personal fist-pumping thank you and handshakes – who have followed the club, you just know that those fans are going to repay that affection in spades the other way, especially when the team need their help.

One of our abiding memories of 2018 was the last few minutes of a relegation play-off first leg match in Lyngby Boldklub in Denmark when the home fans, despite being two goals down, kept screaming and encouraging their team to the final whistle. The outcome? A last-gasp goal that gave them hope for the second leg. Would this have happened regardless of the fans undying support and chanting – even in such adversity? We’ll never know of course, but we can make a pretty good guess.

But then we already knew that people are always the key ingredient in any of this.

Our work with the National League has bought us into contact with clubs and the volunteers that work tirelessly and for no financial reward on their behalf,and who without, many of the clubs would struggle.

In Estonia, where attendances are even smaller, we’ve seen that just one person in a club, as long as it’s the right person, can move mountains with hard work,charisma and a megaphone. Crowds have risen by unprecedented numbers but more than that, fans – especially younger ones that are new to football – have enjoyed matches and been engaged with clubs in ways they never have before.

At the other end of the attendance scale, we were lucky enough to be involved with the NFL’s three London games in front of capacity crowds at Wembley. Proof that, no matter how many people are there, they are never just ‘the crowd’ but individuals who are there for a great day out. That the NFL focus on the smaller things, such as having American-style food in the kiosks to handing out pin badges and footballs to young fans in the stadium, is no accident. They know that a fundamental part of the experience happens well before the game begins and while it’s taking place. In a way, what happens on the pitch takes care of itself and it should – for example, the league in England has been around for a hundred and twenty years so they’ve had plenty of practice – but the off-pitch stuff is relatively new and still organically developing, so it needs a lot of care and attention.

The Wembley NFL Fan Zone (aka Tailgate) is amazing, but we’ve seen many more – on a slightly smaller scale perhaps – but no less brilliant at football clubs. Brondby, in Denmark, have a literally jaw-dropping one as well as a family lounge that’s arguable even better. With seen others in that country, England and Holland that are also very impressive. In Holland, kids interact with the e-Sports stars of the present on consoles before matches, and players meet fans after the match in the supporter’s bars (win or lose).

These are the moments that matter. Not every team can win every week – football would be pretty boring if they could – and clubs will all have their ups and downs in a cyclical fashion that can change in the blink of an eye. Very often the bad times are a necessary part of the process – because they make us all appreciate the successes much more sweetly.

Off the pitch it’s not so up and down. Get the focus right, introduce the right ingredients at the right time, make it cultural and the ‘way things are done around here’ and those improvements can last indefinitely.

The opportunity is there. We’ve seen the first shoots of it and the potential is incredible.

We’re looking forward to continuing the journey and helping these leagues, associations and clubs go even further with their fan engagement in 2019.

But for now, where are those mince pies and slippers?

A very Happy Christmas from everyone at The Fan Experience Company and best wishes for the New Year.