Culture At Clubs Doesn’t Just Come And Go

Darren Young


Darren has a weekly column on the D3D4 Football website. He is responsible for The Fan Experience Company reports that in 2019/20, went to over 200 clubs in 13 countries. 

Before the lockdown curtailed all travel plans curtailed, I was at a meeting in Switzerland with a group of people described as the ‘leading European minds on the subject of the football fan experience’ and we tackled ways to improve the match day at stadiums and thus, encourage more fans to attend games in countries all over Europe.

The ideas were plentiful, and very workable, but my primary concern – so much that I mentioned it twice – was culture. Not a lack of it; every association, league and club has one, but that this culture needed to be right or otherwise, the rest of the potential improvements were not worth implementing. I said this mainly to mitigate against pointless effort and wasted time. Yes, the landscape has changed a lot in the ensuing six weeks, but one day football will return again and this will become an important debate once more; arguably with more relevance than ever.

Culture, for me and to try to simplify it, can be described as the ‘way things are done around here.’ It’s not a trained attitude or behaviour but rather a learned one. In other words, if you began working at a small business, large corporation or even a football club, you’d pick up on these ‘ways’ naturally and in spite of what people might say. In a job I started in 2002, I was asked to spend half a day with the Head of Sales and half a day with the Head of Manufacturing as a form of induction. ‘You’ll like it here’ they both said, ‘it’s the least political company I’ve ever known.’ They must not have known many, as the company was one of the most ‘political’ companies imaginable and the culture was one of back-stabbing, untruths and double-standards, even if the company slogan pointed towards one big happy family.

In that kind of culture, it’s hard to do anything constructive, everything feels like trying to push water uphill. Note, I don’t say the wrong culture – after all, who am I or anyone else to define wrong – but a culture that is not conducive to change or one not ready or able to listen to or look at other approaches. A culture might be perfectly acceptable in the eye of the beholder, and that’s fine, but it’s also not an organisation or body that is worth trying to work with on new ventures and different strategies. As hard as it is, in my line of work, to walk away from someone needing help, there is sometimes a moment when it’s prudent to diplomatically agree to ‘come back when the conditions are different.’

Every Day Is Like Survival

Does this matter in football? Well, as with any organisation, a culture that they don’t recognise or understand can be very dangerous. Worse still, if they think an entirely different one exists then this also leads to problems. Liverpool, who internally framed the line, ‘This Means More’, showed us that the sentiment behind the message is only as strong as when the club announces it is furloughing staff and asking for government aid shortly after posting huge profits and while being in the hunt to purchase Kylian Mbappe.

Yes, after a very brief session in The Court of Public Opinion, they reversed the decision but that they did it at all gives an insight into the culture at the club that any marketing slogans cannot. That’s the thing about culture, it’s almost invisible to the naked eye; often only seen explicitly in the way an organisation acts in extreme situations. When AS Roma players defer their wages for four months, or help in campaigns to find missing children, they do so as part of something bigger, maybe sub-consciously. It is not a directive from above,  telling them what to do, but more a case of them doing what they want to do. Because it inherently feels right. It’s the way they do things.

There are always outliers who are counter to the culture. That is why, even in the very worst of organisations, there will be great people doing what they do in spite of the culture. But they tend to stand out for their differences, and most are brought into line quickly if at all possible. ‘That’s not the way we do things here.’

Strangely, fans (own and rivals) pick up on a club’s culture very quickly, sometimes in one visit and before a ball is kicked. It’s incredible how fans can work out what a club ‘stands for’ even if the club and its hierarchy doesn’t know itself.

The significance of this is also much deeper than the club (or any organisation for that matter) knows. If I arrive at a football stadium, and the first person I see that represents the club (usually a car park attendant or a steward outside the stadium) is miserable, rude, disengaged or indifferent towards fans there is a very good chance that the it’s not just the individual who is these things, but the club too, or large parts of it.

That sets the tone and forms impressions. It may be enough to put me off them instantly, or to form lasting opinions that are hard to change. It will shape my relationship with them in the way I engage and communicate, how I refer to them when talking to others. And lots more besides.

" Usually, culture is driven from the very top. The owners, leaders, example setters and other influencers will often display very similar traits (sometimes overtly, often not). I once consulted at a company where the boss walked in, chose the route that took him past the least number of people, never said a word to anyone and then, once in their glass walled office in the far corner, said to me ‘right, how can we get these people [pointing outside] to be more friendly to each other and work together as a team?’ "

The power of unspoken gestures is startling. This empowers and permits such attitudes and behaviours everywhere, in all staff at all levels. To see for yourself, once the lockdown is lifted, listen to how many Sports Direct staff openly discuss customers and them potentially stealing stuff. And while culture can be changed, the bad news is that the change is usually driven from the top too. So those in positions of power have to want it to change. And it takes time to change – you can’t just introduce a new one when you choose to.

Your Wicked Words Every Day

I know it’s not in the ‘Blitz spirit’ we’re supposed to live within right now (and at the risk of upsetting someone) I will step precariously through the minefield and call out Sainsburys, after visiting a store on Saturday.

Even in the queue to get in, culture played a part, when a staff member said a child would have to wait outside, and as I entered, a customer was eyeballing a staff member saying, ‘don’t ever speak to me like that again.’ I wondered what was happening but it soon became apparent; some staff were rudely chastising customers for any slight infringement of the two-metre rule but other staff were standing shoulder to shoulder chatting to each other. The mood was more prisoner-of-war camp than retail, but this is culture wreaking havoc, not individuals merely having a bad day.

At rival stores, their competitors are getting it right with a mix of friendliness, smiles and mutual respect not a ‘we poor, critical workers have to put up with you would-be-disease-carriers’ attitude. But we would-be-disease-carriers are still the ones paying – with money that’s quickly running out – to shop in their store after all. Or some of us are; I future, I’ll go to somewhere that still welcomes customers.

It wasn’t coincidence. I didn’t happen to be in-store for the 20 minutes that four or five members of staff who happened to be rude, just also happened to find people to be rude at. Culture has meant that these attitudes are probably encouraged or accepted in others. Shopping has already become the most-worst part of a lockdown without it being made any worse.

Someone from head office apologised on Monday, saying that if I gave them the store name and described the people they’d pass ‘my complaint’ on to the store manager. I told them not to worry. It will almost certainly start with the store manager. Or their manager. Although neither probably know they are doing it.

How To Sell A Contradiction

A culture is, therefore, another potential hidden killer or at least a relationship-spoiler. Organisations can be unaware they are damaging (or destroying) their reputation and relationships right up until the point that it’s too late. What they do when they don’t say a word can speak volumes about them.

Actions speak louder than words, as we know, and they betray culture even more. Take politicians cheering when a vote to increase pay for nurses was defeated in 2017, for instance. Words betray culture too; Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Dr Jennie Harries said on Sunday that ‘there is some very good news. Today the UK deaths were down to 596 from 888 yesterday.’ Simply a poor choice of words, or also suggesting of a culture where lives aren’t as important as statistics?

Culture takes so long to change because it relies on so many smaller things changing first. Anyone who defines a solution to a problem as culture change is really saying that it’s organisational change on a much larger scale; culture is just the intangible part at the end that will automatically change if the rest does. It’s not an overnight process. There’s no magic button. If a football club wants a better culture now, they need to start at least twelve months ago.

Two thirds of British people said in a survey last week that they didn’t want to go back to the way things were and that they wanted a different life after the coronavirus lockdown restrictions end. I think that is partly because they want a culture change too, not just less pollution and more home-working. There is this talk of a societal change, where we co-exist with much more harmony, acceptance and care for our community. It’s a nice thought but requires a lot of smaller changes. It will only happen if the governments, the media, the other major influencers and organisations they represent move in this direction. Occasionally change comes from the bottom up, but this doesn’t feel like the French Revolution just yet, more that we are waiting to be guided and led by real leaders, if such a thing exists.

This is where football comes back into it. As the world’s largest participation and spectator sport, it will have a role in the rebuilding of people’s lives. Clubs aren’t just a football team, they are often representative of the heartbeat of a local community. The owners and leaders have great power and great responsibility.

They might need to change to meet the needs of the future, one that will be very different from how it was in the past. How they handle this – how they approach the needs to their fans and the community – will tell us a lot about their culture. One of the first signs will be the way they move forward from this; the way this season is concluded, the way transfers and contract talks are conducted, the way they want future seasons to work or how they tackle the tricky dilemmas about season tickets, live streaming and fans going back into stadiums.

How they do this will mean far more than headlines on their website or media soundbites. Does it really ‘mean more’ to them, or is that just some ‘telling people what they want to hear’ bollocks? 

If they get this right, it doesn’t necessarily follow that their actions will be a 100% guaranteed guide to the culture at the club moving forward, but, Boy George, it’s a good barometer.

Originally published 22.04.20 on D3D4 Football

© The Fan Experience Company 2020