© The Fan Experience Company 2020
To Have And To Hold (Onto Those Three Points)
Darren has been a part of The Fan Experience Company since 2017.
He has a background in working on customer service excellence projects in the UK and Europe, and an MBA that included studying in the USA .
A UEFA Mentor and Fan Experience Company consultant, Darren works with clubs across Europe to improve the match-day experience and increase attendance through engagement with fans.
A football fan, especially one of a lower league club or one that doesn’t perpetually reside in the top half of the Premier League, has to go through a fair few lows in their time.
Cup upsets, relegations, getting rid of managers that don’t work out, losing good ones that do, defeat in cup finals (singular if you support Walsall like me) and the odd play-off heartbreak. They can be season-defining, like the latter two, but sometimes they just happen – often mid-season – and while they might not define the whole campaign, they certainly put quite a downer on it.
So it was last week as we lost our seventh successive game, ironically away at bottom-club Scunthorpe who had lost seven straight games themselves going into it. Despite being reduced to ten men, they stopped the rot with a hard-fought 1-0 win. For Walsall, it proved the end for Head Coach, Matt Taylor, and left fans contemplating the scrap against falling out of the football league altogether. With the next games against the current top two, the Rovers of Tranmere and Forest Green, optimism was, perhaps understandably, in short supply.
But of course, football doesn’t work that way. Despite grey clouds above and a pre-match fan’s protest, the team produced one of those performances that sometimes get described as a ‘dead cat bounce’ – but maybe this is the worst possible week to use the phrase – as players came together to resolutely defend for a rare but deserved clean sheet, then having that little bit of fortune at the other end to be awarded and then convert a late penalty; the only shot on target but one of massive importance.
For the first time since New Years’ Day, fans were mostly happy as they left the stadium (although the now-somewhat-subdued protest did continue after the game) and made their way home or to the pubs. It’s just one victory, of course, but as the fans cheered every clearance and time-reducing free-kick in those closing moments, what was obvious was how much they cared. They obviously wanted the club they loved to win, and make the weekend that much better, but here’s the thing; they didn’t love the club any less during those seven defeats on the bounce. It just felt like they did.
Of course, it’s the aforementioned lows that also make the highs so much sweeter. If you don’t ever lose seven (or more) successive games, it’s hard to describe how it feels when you do. It’s not elation, nor is it an OTT reaction where we think that we can now kick-on and win every game. It is a satisfaction that we can get it right and that, with luck, better times may be ahead. Although at least one supporter was heard, post-game, calculating how many points we’d need to take to reach the play-offs. It’s the hope, after all, that kills you.
All football fans are – in essence – only ever just one game away from falling in love all over again. The distant memories of that win at Arsenal, the run to the League Cup semi-final and a draw at Anfield, promotion clinchers at Bury and Notts County, winning the title at Swindon and two play-off final wins and the only trip to Wembley, don’t happen every season – or even many seasons – but they do happen. Last week I watched as West Ham’s late equaliser at Kidderminster denied the home team the ‘biggest ever FA Cup shock’ and it was mentioned with comparable memorable FA Cup upsets but not the real GOAT (greatest of all time). That was when third division Walsall beat Arsenal 2-0. A full-strength Arsenal team who not only went on to win the league, but that had provided seven of the starting XI for England’s previous game. Although there are few still alive today who would have witnessed that giant-killing act, it doesn’t make it any less significant. It is one of the reasons that supporters continue to go, season after season, hoping that one of these days, a day like that one might just come around again.
It might work for some, but not fans of lower league clubs. We need to treat the twin imposters the same and never get too carried away, lest we look out of place. At a game once, I was actually accused of not being a fan, because I was too happy.
Walsall are, statistically, the club that has won more tier three points than any other (the line – that is along the lines of – we are 87 points ahead of Bournemouth but that they have 163 games in hand still makes me chuckle) so we know a thing or two about the lower leagues. It is that knowledge, and memories of many a season of mid-table obscurity, that make the tilts at promotion that more special (even when they aren’t ultimately successful) and make even the great escapes fill us with warm recollections.
There is a misapprehension in football (at all levels) that fans are only happy if the club is winning, and therefore, the club needs do this at all costs, even if this means forsaking other things. That is not only wrong, and does fans a major disservice, but flawed. Walsall, for example, have won about three homes games in every ten since the start of the 2016/17 season. So, if clubs are to rely on winning as a strategy for growth and improvement, they’d either need to learn to win a lot more than they currently do, or else prepare for a lot of weekends when fans will go home disappointed.
In reality, most fans of clubs outside the upper echelons of the Premier League don’t expect to win every week nor do they feel a divine right to be in any particular division unless their team earn their place in it. They do expect the team to work hard on the field, the club to communicate and engage with them off it and for there to be a sense of trying to move forward; whatever that means, and it might be different for each fan. Developing young players might be one way or dealing well in the transfer market another. It might translate to league position, but it could also just be about how much they enjoy their Saturday afternoon out, and that can be about much more than the 90 minutes.
If clubs conclude that fans will only truly love them when they win, they underestimate those fans and misunderstand what love actually means. After all, we say ‘for better, for worse’ when getting married, not ‘for better, but I’m ditching you the moment things go the other way’.
Love is, as someone said, a ‘many splendored thing’ and while three points are always welcome, we’d do well to remember there’s a lot more to life than that.
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