Blood money

Everyone resents forking out for a humilating defeat but Tom Lines ponders if refunds miss the point of being a supporter

Arsenal’s decision to cover the cost of a future game for fans who witnessed their 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford in August is the latest in an alarming and seemingly growing trend where supporters are reimbursed for poor performances by their team.

In 2009, Energie Cottbus players repaid the ticket of every fan who witnessed their 4-0 defeat to Schalke. Wigan players did the same six months later after a 9-1 drubbing at Spurs, with captain Mario Melchiot explaining: “We feel that as a group of players we badly let down our supporters yesterday, and this is a gesture we have to make and pay them back for their tremendous loyalty.”

Of course, a “gesture” is exactly what it is – a bit of PR designed to divert attention from players and executives feeling the heat. But, with fans having been milked by clubs for years, who would argue with supporters getting something back? In all of these cases it is important to note that the fans themselves did not ask to be compensated – in fact, Arsenal’s travelling contingent have been praised for their enthusiastic support, displaying the sort of gallows humour that must be something of a novelty to them. But the idea that fans should be routinely compensated for embarrassing performances does seem to be gaining a dangerous foothold in English football.

When Blackburn lost 7-1 to Man Utd last season, a caller to the BBC’s 6.06 phone-in demanded a refund from the club. Apparently, making a relatively short trip to watch a defeat to one of the best teams in the world is now considered so beyond the pale that it deserves financial recompense. Just a week before Arsenal’s humiliating defeat, Ipswich lost 7-1 at Peterborough, leading to chants of “We want our money back” from the away fans and the local paper calling for Ipswich to reimburse “those supporters who paid their hard-earned cash to sit through Saturday’s debacle at London Road”. (In the end Ipswich offered free coach travel to their game at Blackpool.)

Supporters have been described as “customers” for so long now that some mindsets have clearly changed. Nevertheless, buying a ticket for a football match is not quite the same as buying a vacuum cleaner. I can reasonably expect my Hoover to work properly for the first few years of its life but journeymen strikers and moody wingers from the Belgian second division don’t come with a two-year guarantee, more’s the pity.

The second reason that fans shouldn’t expect refunds is that it breaks the pact made with their team – a grudging acceptance of the bad times in the knowledge that they will make the good times all the sweeter (that’s the theory, anyway). Moreover, a colossal drubbing is just as likely to enter club folklore as a famous victory. Such is the perverse one-upmanship of many fans that plenty will take pride in having been one of the hundred or so who saw their team thrashed away at Carlisle on a Tuesday night in December. Why sully this with something as grubby as a refund?

But let’s imagine what would happen if a compensation culture did become commonplace in football. There is the question of criteria, such as whether it would have to involve a six- or seven-goal margin or if supporters could take out insurance against Cup giant-killings. Compensation could even be awarded retrospectively, as with the mis-selling of pensions or payment protection insurance. (One suspects not, but I’ll still be writing to Walsall to enquire after the £16 I spent in 2004 to watch us lose 6-1 at home to Coventry on my birthday.)

Back in 2001, Tranmere Rovers were something of a pioneer when it came to compensation. After a 4-0 defeat at Brentford, the club said that those who had travelled on official coaches would be reimbursed. As this amounted to just 80 of the 500 fans in attendance it’s not surprising that many were less than enthusiastic about the offer. When interviewed about Tranmere’s gesture at the time, Andy Doyle, chairman of the supporters’ association, probably summed up how most fans feel: “We don’t expect money back, we expect the team to play better.”

From WSC 297 November 2011