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How United talks to fans – a Reds Away investigation

United will not speak with The Independent Manchester United Supporters Association so long as it wants the Glazers out, according to the club’s chief executive David Gill.

That is despite United signing up to an initiative earlier this year which requires them to speak to fans under UEFA rules.

United have said they are not breaking any UEFA rules and will speak to individuals of the group of they want to join the Fans’ Forum.

Here is part one of a two-part Q and A explaining the issue.

Q. What is this new initiative?

In 2010, UEFA drew up rules about how clubs communicate with fans.

Q. What changed?

Before the 2012/13 season, clubs competing in UEFA competitions had to have a supporter liaison officer (SLO) “to ensure that dialogue between supporters and the clubs remains open and constructive.”

That element of the regulations is called Article 35. The Premier League adopted this rule and called it R1.

Q. Who is United’s SLO?

The role is split between chief press officer Phil Townsend and the customer care manager Lorraine Hatton-Dow.

Q. According to the guidelines, who should they be talking to?

“Fan projects, virtual fans, unorganised fans, national and European fan organisations, under-represented groups, disabled fans, families/children, active fans, supporters’ clubs, supporters’ trusts and potentially violent fans.”

Q. And, according to the guidelines, what should they do?

“Attend meetings with fans about the latest developments, deal with fan-related concerns, organise events such as football tournaments, attend supporter club meetings, participate in discussions on supporter websites.”

Q. What has IMUSA said?

It wants to speak with United about a range of issues, from treatment of fans at away games to welfare of fans at Euro aways.

Colin Hendrie, of IMUSA, said: “The club are required to proactively seek the opinions of all relevant groups, so there is no opportunity for them to pick and choose…

“They should be contacting us and not the other way round.”

IMUSA wrote to the club about the topic in early August and got no reply so Mr Hendrie wrote to Mr Gill on August 16 to “to invite contact from the appointee (SLO) so that we can resume our dialogue with the club.”

Q. How did Mr Gill reply?

He wrote to IMUSA: “The club is aware of both Article 35…and the Premier League’s rule R1.
“The club is compliant with both.

“The club remains committed to improving supporter contact and has invested heavily in infrastructure, personnel and expertise to facilitate the two-way information flow between fans and the club.

“However, with regard to your own organisation, I see no reason to deviate from the position I set out to the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee in 2011 (when I said) ‘We do not communicate with certain fan groups, but they have an avowed aim to change the ownership.

“’It would be slightly strange to enter into dialogue with those groups that have that intention or that objective.’”

Q. According to United, how can IMUSA members talk to them about fan issues?

Mr Gill continued in his letter to IMUSA: “The Fans’ Forum exists to represent the full spectrum of match-going fans.

“Members of your organisation are able to stand for any of the categories for which they qualify. I see no reason to involve IMUSA separately.”

Q. How does the fans’ forum work?

Fifteen fans representing different matchgoing groups meet with club bosses three times a year to discuss issues.

Critics claim the forum is ineffective because members are appointed rather than elected, agendas are not published in advance and meeting minutes are usually published four months after the meeting.

Others claim some forum representatives do not respond to fan’s emails timely and do not actively seek the views of other fans, while some have questioned the topics discussed at meeting, such as the quality of the hand dryers in stadium toilets and the type of pies on sale.

Q. What does IMUSA think of the forum?

Mr Hendrie said: “There were IMUSA and Manchester United Supporters Trust representatives on the forum until 2005 when David Gill threw us off and has refused to officially engage with us since.

“We have put forward many constructive ideas to them – fans’ embassies (at European away games) being the best one – and the message is clear that while everyone at the club thinks these ideas should be turned into practice, Gill blocks this every time.

“(To make the publication of forum minutes faster) we’ve suggest they adopt a more efficient system but you can guess the response.

“We’ve also asked about elections but the excuse they come back with is (that it’s difficult with) 639 million fans.

“The response is that there are only about 100,000 members and so elections should in fact be very easy to organise.”

Q. So how did IMUSA respond to Mr Gill’s letter?
First, they clarified that their opposition was specifically to how the club was bought (using a leverage technique and land the club heavily in debt and, arguably, putting the club’s long-term future in doubt) – independent of who did it.

Second, they wrote to Mr Gill: “Thank you for your email, which leaves no room for doubt as to your position.

“Unfortunately our interpretation of member club’s responsibilities under the new…regulations is that they do not have the facility to select which groups they consult with as you suggest.

“Indeed, such an interpretation is clearly at variance with UEFA’s stated requirement for clubs to be proactive in seeking the opinions of all fans’ groups. Hence we will be asking UEFA for clarification.

“We fail to understand your reference to IMUSA’s position with regard to the current ownership.

“Our objections are, as you say, a given.
“Hence any discussions between the club and ourselves would presumably concentrate other issues and our invitation to reopen that dialogue remains open”

David Gill

Q. So IMUSA are saying that, just because they disagree with some aspects of United’s structure, that shouldn’t prevent it from talking to the club about other things. What does United say in response?

They gave us a lengthy response defending their non-engagement with IMUSA.

Q. What were the points raised?

“(The club) has retained the position for a while that it will not engage with groups that have an established position of wanting to remove the board.”

Q. What else?

United are keen to stress that, despite IMUSA’s claim “SLO roles are not tightly defined, nor are they intended to be imposed as a one-size fits all solution.

“This framework applies to clubs from the whole range of European football, the vast majority of which do not have the scale of those in the Premier League.”

Q. So United believe the rules were brought into impose minimum standards that they were already above?

Yes and they particularly believe they already provide fans with information and handle complaints well.

“This does not mean that each club has to be in permanent dialogue with every individual fan or fan group on every issue that it may wish to raise.

“Given the size of the fanbase, such a commitment would require disproportionate effort.

“This would not be in the interests of the club and, more importantly, would not be in the interests of the majority of fans who, by and large, want reliable communication on the key issues that affect them directly.

“The league’s view is that the judgement as to how best to communicate with fans is best left to each individual club.

“Circumstances vary so hugely across the Premier League, let alone the rest of league football in England and in Europe generally, that it would be a mistake to believe that central direction would be effective.”

Q. So what is United’s bottom line?

“The strong direction we have received (from UEFA and the Premier League) is that it is for each club to decide how to communicate with each group, and our approach, to ensure fair access to the Fans’ Forum by individuals regardless of their group allegiance, while also dealing promptly with correspondence, is, we believe, perfectly reasonable.”

Q. Does the club accept criticisms of the forum?

Yes, but it says things are improving as applications for membership of the forum this year was at a record high (despite it only being advertised in the matchday programme).

“I am encouraged that, in the last 12 months, the forum has convened a couple of working groups (on how away tickets are allocated and the proposed singing section),

“The away tickets group has been asked to conduct further work and return to the February meeting with suggestions.

“That is a new way of operating for the forum and one that allows us to call on other fans as necessary.

“I am interested in exploring the idea that there could/ should be more interaction between the Club and the Forum members outside the regular meeting structure.

In part two, we will be exploring whether the absence of talks between the club and IMUSA means the SLO rules are meaningless.

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9 comments to How United talks to fans – a Reds Away investigation

  • Utd fan

    Why does your article on MUFC, contain a pic of FC Utd fans?

  • vitty

    Genuine error…I was after a general crowd picture. Well spotted though, I’ve replaced it.

  • Robert

    I note above that you mention an away ticket group, Who is this group and are they seeking opion from season ticket holders etc that apply for away tickets or are they just chatting among themselves?

  • Oli

    Robert, you’ve missed the boat. A subgroup of the fans forum was formed, they opened up the debate on most fanzine sites and other forums like this, collated feedback and then used it against data given to them by the club (every away game, number of applications, how split was done etc). That group reported back at last FF meeting and club has now given them more data to go into more detail before the next one.

  • Robert

    Thanks Oli , will we get to see any of this data etc, if nothing has been sorted can views on aways still be expressed to the group?

  • Oli

    Robert, the data is pricate so no. However, from what I hear, it does actually dispel a lot of the myths fans like to portray. For example, for City away last season, where people have claimed all sorts. the club allocation for staff./ players/ sponsors etc was VERY low.

    In terms of expressing views now, there is nothing stopping you emailing the fans forum members whenever you want. You may have missed the boat given the process is pretty far down the line, but worth a shot.

  • Micheal

    Oli , is there any details or main points summarised from the last FF that I could read ?

  • Oli

    Michael, the minutes aren’t apparently out yet but should be soon on manutd.com I

  • Kstandsteve

    I’m dissapointed that despite numerous emails to the club regarding joining the FF I seem to have missed the boat once again. An ad in the matchday programme is hardly going to be read by the majority of regular matchgoing reds?