Support Work – time for Rovers fans to work it out
In issue 72 of popular STAND, editor Glen Wilson (not Glenn Whelan) attempted to get to the bottom of recent discord in Rovers’ support, and see if we couldn’t all get along nicely.
I am not, by nature, a confrontational person. I see no reason for arguments, I bare few grudges. I have only ever been in one fight – inadvertently dragged into a bar-room brawl of Wild West proportions as it rolled through Lincoln Students’ Union. It just all seems like such an unnecessary use of energy. I am more of a mediator; the person behind the voice which intones “come on now we’ve all had a drink”.
At a match earlier this season, I heard, from a small pocket of fans – perhaps a dozen at most – a chant of ‘Fuck the VSC!’ Hardly another entry for Great Terrace Chants of Our Time – it’s no ‘Curtis Main, I bet you thing this song is about you’ – and so I was happy to ignore it. But then I heard it again at another match, and then again. And once I heard it a third time I began to wonder ‘why?’ Why is it being sung? Its aims are clear enough – voice frustration and cause disruption, its outcome similarly so – fragment our support a touch further – but why had fans been moved to sing it in the first place? Was it something petty or was there more than I realised? And could whatever was the catalyst for this chant be addressed and resolved, so that then chants might stop, and we might all move on as a collective support of one football club? (Yes, I think a lot). Because whilst I’d seen the chant raised on the Viking Chat forum, and on Facebook, I was yet to see any feelings of dissatisfaction discussed fairly and unobjectively – free from petty point scoring and personal insults.
It would be easy to follow modern media’s lead and simplify the debate into for vs against, us vs them. But I believe in opinions over sides, and that there can be a greyness in how we look at issues; not everything is black and white. To frame the discussion in clear sides at the outset would only exaggerate the divide, and what good would that do? So instead I asked questions – firstly to those who considered themselves to be less than enamoured with the VSC. Some wanted to speak, others chose to make flippant and unhelpful remarks on social media.
However, it is worth noting that in the same way the extreme mentalism of Abu Hamza is in no way a fair representation of the Islamic faith, someone posting ‘Fuck the VSC’ should not be considered to be completely representative of unrest. From those who did get involved came reasoned points for discussion, on a range of topics including membership, purpose of a Trust, and communication. The latter of these proved a common theme of dissatisfaction across all those I spoke to, with many highlighting confusion over the purpose of the Viking Chat forum:
‘Possibly the biggest problem they have is the forum. The VSC is on record stating that it is their most important tool for promoting the work of the VSC. However, I’ve lost count of the amount of times they’ve stressed “the Forum is not the VSC”.
Others duly felt that when they had looked to engage with the VSC on the forum they had found the responses to be unnecessarily defensive from the off, and also dismissive of younger posters.
It’s not that bad I thought, and perhaps those who feel that the VSC is being overly defensive or dismissive, are just a bit sensitive, or have in the past wound directors up. Not that these are reasonable excuses of course, no one should feel they are being knocked casually away for a single by any organisation, but I did think that maybe folk were exaggerating. That is until I asked on the forum whether one of the Directors could answer some questions for the fanzine for this piece, to make sure they had the opportunity to reply.
I expected a private message in return, or perhaps just a post to say whether it was in hand. Instead a bizarre thread panned out which began with a question in return of ‘These are your questions are they?’ and other statements including ‘It’s not a question of ignoring, it’s just the confusion over who is asking the questions,’ and ‘You initially asked us to comment on the anti-VSC concerns and their questions, not yours’. That last bit isn’t true by the way – I hadn’t – but still, why was any of this necessary? It genuinely made me angry, all I wanted was a a simple yes or no answer, and instead I had my intentions and my approach questioned. All for the temerity of asking some pretty broad questions, one of which was, with glorious irony, ‘can you see how a defensive and dismissive tone on the forum reflects onto fans’ perceptions of the VSC?’ Should it even matter who asks questions or where they’re coming from? What harm is there in giving answers?
Replies did thankfully come, with the VSC reiterating on this issue that:
‘The Viking Chat forum is simply a public football forum, paid for by VSC Members, hosted on the VSC website that we also use as our main communication tool with both our members and all other Rovers fans. As it says in the disclaimer when forum users register, all opinions made are of the poster who makes them, in the same way that other organisations are not responsible for comments made on their forum or facebook pages.’
I asked again whether the VSC felt the tone of some directors when posting could reflect onto fans perceptions, to which they replied as follows ‘All posters opinions on the forum are their own. And as long as Directors stick to the VSC rules regarding board conduct, they are free to post their own opinions like anyone else,’ which I feel, disappointingly, doesn’t really grasp the issue I was raising. Because whilst the VSC and the forum are different entities, the messageboard is part of their website, which as the VSC reiterated to me in response to another question is ‘used as our main communication tool with both our members and all other Rovers fans’. As a main communication tool, and indeed main point of engagement, it surely pays to ensure that messages on it are delivered welcomingly and sensitively, so as not to dissuade involvement.
One of the other things I asked was what fans felt the role of a Supporters’ Trust was.
‘A Supporters’ Trust should be consulting with all fans on all issues and liaising with the club to improve things where it can. If it’s doing this well, and communicating its limitations effectively, it would really struggle to be unpopular. The VSC does some of this, but falls short in some areas.’
Which reiterates the need for this article; to try and address how a body representing the fans, could have become seen as a point of dissatisfaction among what should be its own key members.
The VSC are keen to stress that they ‘are always open to ideas on how to improve communication with both members and non-members.’ I asked if there were any restrictions on membership, and whether anyone would ever be turned away from an application to join. ‘We have before quoted the member rules to an individual to make sure they knew what they had to agree with before signing up. That individual decided not to join. The VSC actively encourages all DRFC fans to join and, if they are inclined, to also consider joining the board of directors.’ So, if you are over 16, the only barrier to joining is your own decision.
So what does all this mean? Well, if you are chanting ‘Fuck the VSC’ at matches, and yet choose not to not take up invitations to discuss and resolve the issues, such as the invitation to voice concerns for this piece, then frankly you’re ultimately helping no-one, nor your own cause, and you’re just driving another line between a support that hasn’t truly been together since ‘The Experiment’ save for maybe the week after those final 18 seconds at Brentford.
But, similarly, if you are a body who are there to represent the voice of all supporters, then you can’t afford to dismiss a constant presence as this, as simply ‘a group of kids’, as one VSC member put it. It is patronising for one, but it also assumes that any unrest is confined to this vocal minority. There are genuine concerns from supporters, who don’t join in with chants, about how the VSC is pitching and conducting itself, concerns which are dissuading them from joining the group.
No-one I spoke to felt that there should be no VSC. Indeed, although ideas on what a Supporters’ Trust should be differed – some felt they should be solely striving to purchase shares (although the VSC can only do this when shares are available), and others felt they should perhaps realign their objectives to be more representative – all were generally supportive of the notion, and the reason for a Trust. As am I, and I have been enthused in recent years by the Trust’s willingness to ask awkward questions of the club and prospective owners.
However, simply because a body’s overall aims are good does not mean there’s no room for improvement, or criticism. When I’m not foolishly wading into these dilemmas I work for a charity; we do good things to benefit huge swathes of the population, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t improve what we do. Criticism needs to be taken on the chin, and used constructively, rather than constantly dismissed or deflected.
It is clear the VSC needs to look at how it communicates with fans, and the Viking Chat messageboard is key to that. It may not be an official VSC outlet, but if it is the key tool to communicate to supporters, then they need to look at the tone and manner in which posts by their own members are made, because currently, for many, this is creating a false impression of a defensive and dismissive hierarchy, which puts people off willing to engage with the Trust, and ultimately fuels the unfortunate mudslinging which we’ve seen over recent months.
I want the VSC to succeed. I want it to be there fighting the corner for me and other Rovers fans, as it has in the past. I wanted this article to draw a line under the nonsense and the name-calling so we could all move on. It probably hasn’t done that, but hopefully it has shown some fans that three word chants aren’t really the way forward, and highlighted to the VSC the importance of effective communication, and just how important and decisive tone can be in engaging as many supporters as possible.