Published on 02/06/2021
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Sign outside Old trafford protesting European Super League
  • Football fans’ activism has been growing since protests against the ‘breakaway’ Premier League in the 1990s
  • Many supporters are now part of a growing global network which is spreading their voices
  • Research by Aston University’s ‘politics of sport’ expert to be published in specialist journal

The recent pitch invasion by hundreds of Manchester United fans in protest at a proposed breakaway European league made headlines around the world.

But the seeds for the angry Old Trafford demonstration, which led to the match with Liverpool being postponed, were sown 30 years ago with the formation of the Premier League.

That’s one of the main findings of a fascinating new research study into the growth of football fan activism by Dr Danny Fitzpatrick, a lecturer in politics and international relations at Aston University.

Results of the study, carried out with in partnership with media lecturer Dr Paddy Hoey of Edge Hill University, are to be published next year in a special edition of football research journal Soccer & Society.

Dr Fitzpatrick, who is one of the UK’s experts on the politics of sport, spoke about his research in the latest episode of the 'Society matters' podcast series, presented by journalist Steve Dyson.

The podcast played snippets from BBC interviews with Manchester United fan Beth and Everton supporter Dave Kelly, who both slammed the proposed European Super League (ESL) which would have included Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham.

They described the ESL, which collapsed when the English clubs withdrew in the face of fans’ protests, as “disgusting” and “absolutely abhorrent”.

Dr Fitzpatrick said there was a “moral shock and revulsion” over the ESL which he described as a “quite blatant money grab” by the top clubs in Europe. And the English fans' outcry quickly made the ‘big six’ clubs realise that the proposed league was not going to be feasible and was also “awful PR”.

But Dr Fitzpatrick, co-founder of The Football Collective, comprising more than 300 academics and practitioners, said the fans’ reactions to the ESL “debacle” had built on the previous 30 years of football activism since the Premier League’s establishment in 1992.

He said: “Both were breakaway leagues which sought to increase the revenue of top clubs and weaken the ties of solidarity with the rest of the football pyramid.”

His research examines three distinct phases of fans’ activism, starting with the initial reactions against the Premier League then protests against Arsenal and West Ham’s proposed bond scheme.

Dr Fitzpatrick said the schemes were designed to help pay for all-seater stadia in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster, but the “resultant uproar” from fans was partly around the perceived exclusion of poorer and young fans.

The second phase came in the 2000s with two “huge club ownership” involving the “leveraged debt takeover” of Manchester United by the Glazer family and the “debt-laden” takeover of Liverpool. Dr Fitzpatrick said fans’ collective action became “much more sophisticated, much more networked and much more global in scope”.

The final phase covers the last five years which, Dr Fitzpatrick said, documents the emergence of a new type of fan activism – “through football rather than in football”.

This includes Liverpool and Everton fans uniting in 2015 to fight food poverty in the city through regular food collections on match days. And three female Celtic fans began a campaign in 2018, which later spread throughout Scotland and the UK, to get free period products at football grounds.

Meanwhile, supporters last year successfully campaigned against a proposed pay-per-view charge to watch matches during COVID-19 by urging fans to donate the £14.95 fee to local foodbanks instead.

Dr Fitzpatrick said supporters’ activism had been driven by the advent of the internet, fan forums and then social media, plus via advocacy organisations like the Football Supporters’ Association.

Another change was that fans were increasingly seen as the game’s “legitimate stakeholders”, while the notion of football club owners and directors as responsible custodians had “diminished”. Dr Fitzpatrick predicted that fan activism will increase, pointing to an ongoing, fan-led government review as evidence.

Notes to editors

About Aston University

Founded in 1895 and a University since 1966, Aston is a long established university led by its three main beneficiaries – students, business and the professions, and our region and society. Aston University is located in Birmingham and at the heart of a vibrant city and the campus houses all the university’s academic, social and accommodation facilities for our students. Professor Alec Cameron is the Vice-Chancellor & Chief Executive.

Aston University was named University of the Year 2020 by The Guardian and the University’s full time MBA programme has been ranked in the top 100 in the world in the Economist MBA 2021 ranking. The Aston MBA has been ranked 12th in the UK and 85th in the world. The University also has TEF Gold status in the Teaching Excellence Framework. 

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