Soccer

Importance of fans has grown during pandemic, former Crystal Palace chief claims

Crystal Palace fans in the stands

Former Crystal Palace co-chairman Steve Browett believes the importance of fans has grown during the coronavirus pandemic and even more so in the wake of the European Super League fiasco.

Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham announced themselves as founder members of the Super League on April 18, but had withdrawn within 72 hours amid protests from supporters and opposition from the Premier League, Uefa, Fifa and even the British Government.

On Wednesday, it was confirmed the ‘big six’ would face £25million fines and a 30-point deduction if they ever attempt anything similar and Browett, who is still a minority shareholder at Palace, feels the last 12 months – where most games have been behind closed doors – has highlighted football’s big asset.

“It is not all about the sport and the actual football, that is one thing that become totally apparent in the lockdown when the games were played without supporters,” he said.

“It became so clear that football, professional football in England, is not really all about football, it is about the fans, the atmosphere, the passion and sense of belonging of where you come from.

“Some of these owners at other clubs don’t really get that at all and I don’t know how they all thought a league with no promotion or access to other clubs would be accepted.

“Hypothetically, if Arsenal had finished 10th and Leicester second, how would it be acceptable that Leicester wouldn’t be playing Real Madrid and Barcelona next season but Arsenal would. It was just mad.”

The Super League controversy sparked renewed calls for at the very minimum increased supporter engagement with a fan-led review into football governance expected to be published this summer.

It will look into creating a new regulator, changing the “fit and proper person test” for owners and examine how to give fans a greater say in how their clubs are run, with the Bundesliga’s 50+1 Rule, which ensures more than half of every club has to be owned by its supporters, a much-discussed clause.

While Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea have all added fan representation to future board meetings in the aftermath of the Super League fallout, very few in the top flight can boast having a boyhood supporter at the heart of its decisions like Crystal Palace with chairman Steve Parish.

Browett added: “To have someone who is a lifelong Palace fan but also a great businessman and who is incredibly astute as chairman is fantastic.

“When you look at the Premier League these days and I am trying to think of another club who is run by a boyhood fan. Steve actually went as a kid, as I did, and I guess Bill Kenwright is a genuine Everton fan but apart from that…

“We go in the boardroom of all the clubs for away games and we tend to jump up in the directors’ box even though you are not supposed to when Palace score.

“But you don’t get that reaction from a lot of the other directors because they tend to be not as passionate because it is their job if you like, they are not proper supporters but Steve has managed to combine doing it as a fan while doing it very professionally as well.”

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There are similar examples at West Ham and Brighton whilst promoted sides Norwich and Brentford also have fans-turned-owners in charge and for many, the reason behind getting involved is because their clubs were left in turmoil.

Parish and Browett had no ambition to own a football club, but rescued Palace when they were part of a consortium, with Martin Long and Jeremy Hosking, which saved them from liquidation in 2010.

Three seasons later promotion was won to the Premier League and that journey has been charted in a docu-series called ‘When Eagles Dare’ released on Amazon Prime Video this month.

“It was fantastic because it’s a big part of my life. To look back on it and see what a creative thing we did to buy it and then the 2012-13 season, it was such a rollercoaster and I had forgotten that,” Browett said of ‘When Eagles Dare’.

“Now you only remember the end result but looking back on it and seeing the documentary as it went through that season, you realise what a ride it was.”

The Palace rollercoaster has levelled out in recent years with Roy Hodgson able to keep the club in the Premier League relatively comfortably since taking over in September 2017, but his decision to step down last month means the Eagles are heading into unknown territory again.

Since American duo Josh Harris and David Blitzer acquired large stakes in the club six years ago, Browett, Long and Hosking no longer hold active directors’ roles and yet with Parish and ex-forward Dougie Freedman as sporting director, plus long-serving staff Phil Alexander and Christine Dowdeswell still at Selhurst Park, one thing remains certain.

“We have people who really care about Palace right at the heart of the club. It is great we still have that whilst on the other hand having the American shareholders helps us to compete financially,” Browett admitted.

“The last eight seasons in the Premier League have been incredible and under Roy – who did a great job and is a fantastic bloke – we haven’t even been in the relegation zone at any stage of the last three years which is quite unusual for Palace. The rollercoaster has gone onto a flat bit!

“Next season we could be fighting for a place in Europe or fighting relegation and that is the exciting thing about English football and why those leagues in America, with no promotion or relegation, are so boring.”

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