This club is different because it’s ours

There’s going to be a third issue of our fanzine soon – coming out in mid-September – so to celebrate, we’re posting a few selected items from the previous two issues. Events have taken over some of the things we wrote about a year ago. Our discussion of the club’s decision not to try for Category 1 status for the Academy under EPPP and frustrations with ITFC’s communications seems to have been addressed and Simon Clegg has departed (although he may make a brief comeback via this site). This article by Mullet, who isn’t a member of our collective but kindly wrote for issue 1 of Turnstile Blues, is still a good read though.

If you’re reading this you probably have one distinctive thing in common with me and everyone else involved in this publication, as fans of Ipswich Town F.C. we all know the belle époque expected under the charge of Marcus Evans hasn’t quite materialised. What has happened since our salvation from CVAs and asset strippers is a sea change in the game with massive trickledown effects for everyone including you, me and the various supporters’ groups affiliated and unaffiliated to ITFC.

If we look at the top of the English game there are many common themes – exponential increases in ‘wealth’, massive expansion in the media and a sense that ‘real fans’ are rarer than hens’ teeth the higher up the pyramid you go. The relationship between football success and authenticity amongst the fan base are two strong, yet fluid perceptions which dominate and colour many discussions about supporting our club. Oddly there seems to be a direct contradiction between the desires for footballing success whilst shunning the ‘modern’ aspects of being a big club.

The influx of Sky money; American models of fandom, the all-seater stadiums, decline of the working man in favour of more family based ‘fun’ at games are all common bugbears and phenomena I’ve seen and heard, as reasons for fans falling out of love with the game, throughout my years as a Town fan. They are also things which have crept in. The game didn’t change overnight and as fans we’ve seen some changes happen quicker than others. Moreover, ultimately both the club and the fans have had to evolve and endure.

Just as when the offside law changes clubs must adapt and grow that little bit stronger, they must also do this when the implicit ‘rules’ which govern attendances and cash flow change too. With fresh investment in this season’s rivals, Town have announced lucrative sponsorship from one of the few admirable sources possible in the Co-operative. It might be time we not only take their cash but some of their better ideas of business too.

This summer has seen both Manchester United and Barcelona launch vast multimedia assaults to recruit and retain fans. Both are clubs that count fans in their millions. Way beyond the capacity of their huge arenas whilst cornering the wealth and numbers across global markets is possibly way beyond the realms of Town now or for the foreseeable. However I think lessons can be learned and applied to us at Ipswich without introducing an ITTV channel, especially as the concept is over a decade old.

The club has a strong and very dedicated fan base which has been shown in these leaner, recession hit years to be as resilient as any. For a town as small and geographically isolated as Ipswich is, to have competition from half a dozen or so clubs and still maintain reasonable levels of support is admirable. But there are fans out there like me, who have migrated across the country, there is a staunch generation across Scandinavia, Northern Europe and the Netherlands who still count amongst the faithful and have had sons and daughters to pass the mantle on and these fans should be integrated as fully as possible.

In this digital age the rise of social media in the short timeframe since MEG took over at Portman road is a trick I feel the club really misses all too often. As a community we have so much to be proud of. Our charitable trust, the junior blues, our players who appear so often at community events all contribute to a sense of pride and belonging which as separate threads could be drawn together into stronger ties for all fans.

There has been in the past season heavy, and justified criticism of the official supporters’ club. This conflict became a starting point for many of my own pieces on the matter of supporters’ groups at ITFC.  Their ill-judged address to fans soured the views of many who felt ‘attacked’ and this spilled over in turn to much unjustified criticism. However, it highlighted clearly how the effort and hard work of a few can be seen, scrutinised and discarded by the many all too often.

There are still a handful of supporters’ clubs both sanctioned and non-affiliated to the club. As someone who grew up with the Halesworth branch now chaired by my Dad; and run by a small band of people I’ve known all my life, it is a vehicle of support I hold dearly but fear for. Where other branches have come and gone, the Halesworth lot are steadfast but steadily declining. The halcyon days of two coaches to every home game during the Premiership and previous nearly-Premiership seasons are long gone. The fans that had once filled those seats are too, on the buses and at Portman Road.

Like Town’s support as a whole, the Branch’s numbers are made up of the older Town fans that still turn out day in day out as it were to follow the club. While they are not likely to be interested in a Facebook group or in need of cut price tickets due to existing discounts, there is a whole range of fans being glossed over or forgotten about in my opinion. Games where numbers are down such as night games could be the perfect opportunity to welcome local amateur sides who sacrifice watching Town at the expense of keeping up the game they love could be invited in with group discounts. Likewise so could other community groups with an interest enjoy a night out under the floodlights and enjoy the hospitality of the club.

As with the foreign fans mentioned earlier there are fans with different levels of involvement, interest and ultimately cash which can be channelled towards the club – the use of supporters groups to provide an intermediate between the club and these people is something I truly believe in. This process can only be started through as many points of exposure as possible.

These days the role and remit of fans over consumers, is getting harder to separate. Semantics can be thrown around all you like, but at the end of the day we all pay lots of money for 90 mins of football per week, per month, per year. That comes in addition to paying for everything from polyester shirts to insulate the beer guts of some of us, right through to maintaining them with our award winning pies (despite a lack of celebrity chef types at the club).

How can we incentivise those too young, too old, and too immobile to join in if they can’t get to games in the first place? How do we sucker them with their generational equivalent of worshipping a Chris Kiwomya, John Wark, Treacle or Guus Uhlenbeek as ITFC did to me all those years ago if they can’t get to games? The club does a sterling job of laying on Galloways coaches to away games but they leave to and from Portman Road in the bottom corner of a vast and rural part of the country. What if these coaches ran through and picked up fans in the larger towns of the region en route? I’ve driven down from Halesworth to Ipswich and back either side of an away day and adding two hours to the day and not being able to indulge in a drink does take the edge off it for me. I doubt I’m the only one.

If the emerging generation fans now are savvy on the internet, why not signpost more fan stuff there? I used to love events where we played footy, pool, darts, cricket etc against other branches for fun and had a few beers to fill the void between seasons. Why not organise events between fans that are more likely to check their Facebook feed, retweet it and then plan tactics via BBM rather than wait for someone else to arrange it all and give them a lift on the day?

Membership to the official supporters’ club is automatic when you buy a season ticket. This is both wrong and counterproductive. Until the infamous half time address most people didn’t really know they were a member. It excludes those who live away and by excluding them presents a barrier between them and the club. These little sticking points can soon become the pebble which starts an avalanche of reasons to walk away from Town for good. Driving through Halesworth this weekend on a visit back home I spotted a kid crossing in front of me wearing a Chelsea shirt. In all honesty I was tempted to flick on my wipers and ignore the red light.

I implore the club to rethink how it engages with fans. How it can take what it does and turn it from excellent to the model which all other clubs follow. Innovative practice doesn’t have to be expensive it just has to satisfy fans’ desire to be heard and valued. If the Official Supporters club went out and met with fans, invited them and shared ideas it could be the sounding board, the liaison and the voice for so much and so many more, with a sense of justified authority and influence through real representation.

By supporting those already out there working hard just so they and others can enjoy ITFC the club could do and be so much more. With small, but smart investments in the right areas, by raising awareness and cultivating links the club has the tools to produce some amazing results through their fans. We all know the lottery of looking for success on the field in football. We shouldn’t resign ourselves to the same mindset when it comes to coming together.

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