Through this podcast I’ve been exploring sport and all the sectors that surround it – looking at what success means to people in each area.
For sport to perform as a product it’s not just about what happens on the pitch, it’s also about everything that surrounds it – and the fan experience is a big part of that.
In this episode I talk to two mega football fans. Sarah Messenger, a lifetime Manchester City fan, and Ben Wright, a member of Forza Garabaldi – a fan led campaign supporting Nottingham Forrest Football Club.
We talk about emotional connection, investing in their teams, and how they are managing during the coronavirus lock-down.
THE TRANSCRIPT BELOW WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, WE CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.
TX: 30.3.20 – Ep 54. Fans
HOST: TAMMY PARLOUR
T: Welcome to a Question of Performance. I’m Tammy Parlour and in this series I’ll be talking with leading figures from sport and business about what improves, limits and drives performance. Join me for 20 minutes of discussion twice a month to hear a range of views on what it means to be successful, how to cope with failure and what people have learnt along the way.[Music]
Through this podcast I’ve been exploring sport and all the sectors that surround it. I’ve been opening up the system and looking at what success means to people in each area. The sport of performers is a product it’s not just about what happens on a pitch it’s also everything that surrounds it, and the fan experience is a big part of that. So in this episode I talk two mega football fans, Sarah Messenger a lifetime Man City fan and Ben Wright a member of Forza Garibaldi a fan led campaign supporting Nottingham Forest Football Club. First, let’s find out where Sarah’s passion comes from.
SM: Well, I have to say it’s all down to my Dad. He’s of a generation – he’s now 84 – he’s of a generation brought up in Manchester where, when they were younger, they used to go and watch Manchester City one week and Manchester United the next week, but, thankfully for me, he ended up deciding to be a Manchester City fan. I’ve got a sister – no brothers, so he compensated for his disappointment of not having a son by dragging me off to watch Manchester from a young age, and obviously there was something that connected with me I wanted to go, I was a bit of a tomboy, I loved playing football. And so, yeah, from pretty much the age of six I used to go to watch City; I was a member of the Junior Blues, which was the fan club for children and had a season ticket with my Dad and went pretty much until I left home with him.
TP: It’s been a bit of a lifetime of Man City fandom for you?
SM: It has. And take out the last 10 years a lifetime of misery until that point, but I’ve definitely experienced the ups and downs of being a football fan.
TP: [Laughs]. How are you coping with football in lockdown at the moment?
SM: Well, along with everybody else, on one hand I miss it terribly but, of course, putting everything into perspective football really isn’t a matter of life and death and there are infinitely more serious things that we all need to worry about. So, part of me is getting slightly irritated with some of the social media traffic and seeing about how we’re going to resolve the season and what really matters when I think I’m not sure that really does matter. There are some serious issues I think around something for lower league clubs, also funding of course for women’s football because certainly for the premier league teams are funded by the club and if they’re looking to save money what will they look at and what is vulnerable, and there are some legitimate concerns about the future for football, particularly in the sort of echelons below the super-rich, but I think most football would be lying if they didn’t say they don’t really miss it. We used to moan about having to get to an international break which was only two weeks, so [laughs] months and months of this is really going to test of all us, but I guess we’ve also got to keep in perspective.
TP: So how do you interact with the team or the fan base and so forth when games aren’t happening?
SM: Mainly on social media, of course. So I’m a member of Canal Street Blues which is a supportive branch for Manchester City, and actually by some complete accident I seem to have got myself elected as Vice Chair, but I won’t dwell on that [laughs]. But, no, we’ve got a Facebook page; there are various Twitter accounts so I don’t want to embarrass myself by telling you how many Manchester City fans I follow on Twitter, and various sports journalists and yourself good self of course, Tammy – and Joe – so I get probably most of it from Twitter and a little bit on Facebook and so on. And I also read the sports pages of various newspapers online and I’m fascinated by the comments columns that are underneath the article, so are the main ways I get my information.
TP: What do you think makes someone follow something week in and week out as you do?
SM: For me, so I’m often being asked this question, particularly from partners and other people who don’t really get football or aren’t that interested in it, because they can see that the – very – I’m very way of confessing to this – but, actually, City’s results emotionally affect me, I don’t mean I become a danger to society if we lose, but I hate it when we lose and I’m ecstatic when we win – along with many football fans. And so the only way to rationalise that or explain it is there is an emotional connection to that team. It isn’t just a case of well, they’re rubbish at the moment so I’ll support somebody else. And some of it’s around identity; you know I obviously derived it from Dad’s love of City. He grew up very near to City’s old ground at Main Road, it was a routine every week and I remember being so excited when it was a Saturday, because almost all the games were played on Saturdays when I was a child, the excitement on the Friday knowing that the next day was a day when City were playing at home and therefore we were going to go to the match. My grandma lived near the ground and we used to park the car near her and we’d pop in and see her before the game and after, so all of those things evoke quite powerful memories.
SM: And so, yes, I do feel an emotional attachment. In the past, if I’ve been on holiday and I saw somebody wearing a Manchester City or scarf – it used to be quite rare I hasten to add, it wasn’t as common as some of those teams that we won’t mention – you instantly felt like they were somebody you wanted to go and say hello to, they could have an axe murderer for all I knew [laughs] but there was a connection simply because they identified with something that you identify with.
TP: Do you think that’s come from – you said you started going to games with your Dad when you were six, do you think it’s possible to have that same passion and same emotional connection if you haven’t grown up with it, or is it something that can be developed?
SM: That’s a really interesting question and I’d only be guessing because I can only speak for my own experience. I think there is something about the longevity of that relationship that makes it more powerful. I think it depends why you start supporting someone – not someone – a team. I’ll have to give it a guess, I suppose you could have that connection, whether it’s the quite the same I don’t know, but, yeah, I guess people fall in love with all sorts of things later in life and may become very meaningful to them so there’s no why reason why that couldn’t be a football team.
TP: Yes, I suppose a little bit where I’m coming from, as you know I’m involved in women’s sport, and a lot of what women’s sports try to do is to build those audience more and get more spectators into the grounds etc. So it’s where does passion come from and how can you develop it in order to grow a team or grow a movement, do you have any thoughts on that at all or?
SM: Well there’s a profound question.
SM: I watch a reasonable amount of the Manchester City women’s football team, mainly on TV because I don’t live in Manchester so I kind of don’t go to home games as much, I watch the men’s team away from home quite a bit and definitely want to try and go and watch some more of the women’s team play, particularly if they’re down in London or off somewhere in this vicinity. But I guess my affinity with them is partly because of my love for Manchester City.
SM: I think it is possible for you to build a passion, I think lots of people in society are looking for something that they could connect with that they can attach to that becomes meaningful to them. And quite a lot of people enjoy being part of something that feels newer that isn’t dominated by everybody else and it isn’t just what the crowd are doing. And it’s certainly noticeable that the crowds at women’s football games definitely tend to be more female than the ones at the men’s game, a lot more young people and children proportionately, and so I think it is possible. I guess the other thing is that one of the reasons we love football is because of the hope it gives us. Football is largely about hope. Yes, you love to watch your team win but it’s always – even when Manchester City were bloody useless if you’ll excuse my French, which was for many years from probably about the 1980’s through to round about 2010 – sorry, around about of 30 years of misery we went through and yet you always hoped that maybe one year we might just win one cup and maybe one year we might just beat United in the Derby. And so I think if you can get a connection with people where they start to care about what happens to the club and the team, and they build a sense of hope and excitement about the journey you’re on then it is possible to develop a fan base.
TP: What in your view then makes a really good fan experience?
SM: Well, for me, things I would be…and speaking particularly as a woman fan, the standard of the ground, and particularly things like, I mean when I was kid I used to go to Main Road and there would be 15 toilet blocks for the men and one disgusting one single toilet for the women, so things like the facilities that are available so you can go without it being an awful experience in terms of obvious things [laughs] like the loos and so on; a ground that’s also accessible where you’ve got a view of the pitch wherever you sit so you’re not – again, some of the older grounds obviously had a lot of stanchions and so on that would obscure views; definitely being able to go and not having to listen to offensive – it’s not so much offensive language, I think I got in a friendly banter which I heard even if I set foot in a football ground again, but I certainly don’t want to hear racism and phobia and sexism and so on, and so that’s really important to me.
The thing is there’s something very special about going to watch your team away from home. So it’s the singing, the fans singing a lot more because there’s a sense of we’re a small gang surrounded by all these people who are “the enemy” and we’re going to band together and we’re going to sing our hearts out and we’re going to let our players on the pitch know we’re here and we love them and we’re right behind them, and that creates, I think, quite a different fan experience from going to home games, particular for bigger teams and bigger grounds.
TP: Is there one experience that sticks out in your mind?
SM: The most powerful match I’ve experienced is, of course, in 2012 when Sergio Agüero scored the very last minute winner for us that won us the premiere legal title and stopped Manchester United from winning the title. I think most City fans would struggle to top that. But I’d also pick out 2011, I went to the FA Cup Final when City also won and it was the first trophy we’d won for 35 years, so…yeah, 35 years, and that sense of for those five years I’d thought if I could just see City win one trophy before I die I’d be happy, and so they won it and therefore there was a sense a fulfilment.
But, the other one I would have to pick out as well is in 1981 City got to the FA Cup Final and I remember going on a coach down to Wembley twice because there was a replay, I was a 16 year old girl and I didn’t go with my Dad – don’t ask me why I can’t remember, I think I went with a mate, and I know 16 isn’t 7, but I remember thinking no mobile phones, no real way of connecting…I went with the supporters club sat on the coach and went to Wembley. We drew in the first game and then went again on the following Thursday night and got back home about three in the morning. So those things are special because that was the first time I’d ever been to Wembley.
TP: It’s almost – the way you’re talking about it – it’s almost like things hang off these experiences that you’ve had, would you agree with that description?
SM: I think that is true. I guess I hope I’m not so Manchester City obsessed that there are no other things that have been landmarked in my life.[Laughter]
I think that’s an interesting question because it’s like people have music that resonates with them it reminds them of something, it evokes a memory of something that was happy or important, and so, I think, sport generally, and for me football in particular, yes it does it brings back very…if you ask me anything else being 16 the nights out I had, I can remember some of my friends but I can’t remember anything specific, but I can specifically remember going to Wembley on that coach and then the following Thursday going back on a coach, oozing into the Ricky V like wonder goal and getting back home about three in the morning.
So, in that respect, I think all of us need things that trigger memories and ideally trigger happy memories, and music does it, photographs do it and experiences do it, and so therefore going to football matches that particularly mean something is an experience that resonates.
TP: Fans come in different shapes and sizes, so let’s hear from an avid van, Ben Wright, on his love for Nottingham Forest. Ben’s part of Forza Garibaldi.
So, firstly, what actually is Forza?
BW: I think we started about 2016, there were a couple of guys, Martin and Greg that kind of headed up all the things up then, and ever since then it’s really grown and the aim was improving the atmosphere at the City grounds and making things a lot better for fans, trying to reinvigorate it to what it used to be because it’s known as being as quite a lively environment and it’s started to die off so looking at ways to improve that and bring it back. And also doing some pre-match events in terms of getting big gatherings of people together in pubs, doing displays in the grounds, little boat trips, bus trips and all this kind of stuff to make us stand out and give a little bit of a different pre-match experience really as opposed to standing a couple of pints in a pub then head into the ground.
TP: So talk to me about what makes a good fan experience in your view?
BW: Oof! To me a fan experience is a different thing to everybody really, everyone’s got a different opinion of what it is, but from my side of things I always used to go to games with Dad and with my Grandad so there were three generations of us there which was always really nice, always go to the pub have a few beers and then head into the game really that was our traditional pre-match, but I would always love to get involved in the atmosphere and I would always love events where you would be in a pub full of people and everyone was singing and building the atmosphere up pre-game and then taking that into the grounds, I think that’s for me where the experience was and that’s what I want to keep on doing and putting these events and being a part of them is a big part of what we do and hopefully it resonates with other fans.
TP: What makes, do you think, someone watch something week in and week out?
I don’t know it’s a tough one; I have to question myself when you watch them and they’re playing the last game that we had…
TP: Well, why do you?
BW: Just the love for the club really, the experience before the match of seeing your friends, seeing your family, and then it’s the unknown I think as well, you go into the game and you’ve not really got a clue what’s going to go on, football is so interesting you can’t really predict what’s going to happen. Our last game before all this game into play was at home to [unclear 17;41] and I think we were three-nil down after about 25 minutes and there was first half hat trick for one of their players and, unfortunately, that’s our last memory of football at the minute. But yeah, I think it’s just the love of the club, you’re from the area and you’ve kind of got to support your local team and obviously that’s one of the big things for me the love for them and seeing, like I say, friends and family at the games.
TP: So talk me through what was one of the best things you’ve done with the group?
BW: I think the best thing that we’ve done – well, the one that I enjoyed the most was the Derby display this year, because it was the Armistice Day display that we did so we related it back to local, I guess, war heroes people that had fought in the war and were Forest fans, and it just basically, for me, during the minutes it was quite emotional to be fair. Looking back up at the stand and seeing all of the thousands of people contributing and helping out and the way it all turned out was just absolutely fantastic. I’m not sure if you’ve seen a picture of it all?
TP: Yeah, amazing.
BW: Yeah, it was perfect, to be fair, just being involved from start to finish, so it’s always nice to see how a plan starts and how it develops and then seeing the finished article.
TP: Going back to Forza, you’re back home and you’ve got a beer or whatever it is and you kick back and think, yeah, okay, I know that was good, what’s good to you?
BS: its weird little things, I think like the displays are always when you sit down after that and you kind of see everything afterwards you’re like ‘Wow that was special that was amazing.’ And then its silly little things like when the atmosphere is really good, I like everyone singing for 20 minutes non-stop and it’s stuff like that for me where I’m, ‘Oh that was brilliant.’ Or, recently, with all the scarves that were released and you see people at the games where your scarves. Only this morning, we saw one of the NHS heroes demonstrating one of our scarves that they had posing for a picture and Forest Tweeted that out and that was brilliant as well, it was really nice to see.
TP: Well it’s been great talking to you today, Ben. Thank you very much for that.
BS: Brilliant, thanks for that.
TP: Thanks for listening. You can follow the conversation on Twitter, Facebook and also don’t forget to subscribe online to www.aquestionofperformance.com.[Music]