By Lee Daly
This past Sunday, I was fortunate enough to attend the Supporters Direct/Football Supporters Federation Supporters Summit, a gathering of fans from all over the UK, Ireland and Europe.
The event is now a number of years old but what was unique this year was the fact it was hosted at St George’s Park, the FA’s new center of excellence for coaching and training in England. Built at a cost of nearly 200 million pounds and set on 330 acres in rolling English countryside close to Burton-Upon-Trent, the center is an impressive monument to footballing ambition.
What was equally impressive was the work done by the activists who were in attendance this year. At home and in the UK, football is experiencing significant challenges and fans were eager to discuss how to change the game for the better. There were a number of sessions throughout the day.
The event opened with some remarks from FA chairman David Bernstein. The FA is celebrating its 150th anniversary and Bernstein was keen to stress that the Association was established by football fanatics looking to better the game, just as fans are trying to do now. Andy Burnham MP, a long time campaigner and one of the leading people who first established Supporters Direct, followed Bernstein, urging better governance in football and for young players to get a chance at the highest levels.
The second session I attended was on sustainable finance in football. Although heavily focused on the English game, there were still lessons to be learned with contributions from Paul Rawnsely of Deloitte, who also played a role in the fans takeover at York City, and John Beech, a professor of business with expertise in the area.
After lunch it was time for a session on the Improving Football Governance Through Supporter Involvement and Community Ownership project. It was here that the most significant Irish interest of the day was present, as Niamh O’Mahony from FORAS outlined the work of the project. Compared to the rest of Europe, the outputs from the Irish project were incredible with one of the largest handbooks (available at heartofthegame.ie), the largest response rates on a survey per capita and a new network of fans groups and supporter owned clubs.
The final sessions of the day were on Transparency and Governance before a more general discussion on the state of football. The organisers had managed to pull off an amazing coup by securing a representative of the Green Bay Packers, the only fan owned team in the NFL, and his contributions were excellent throughout.
Finally, we rounded off the day with a tour of the facility. A replica of the Wembley pitch and indoor astro turf pitches are just some of what is on offer there and teams from all over the world travel to use the pitches, the majority of which have under soil heating.
One of the teams who were using St George’s Park whilst we were there were the Japanese women’s national team, who are the current world champions. I managed to get a snap with them in my Shels gear but unfortunately an offer for them to line out at Tolka wasn’t accepted!