There was little to be positive about in 1985, the game’s year zero, till the founders of the FSA reinvented fan politics.  Adam Brown charts the body's highs and lows

It is now 20 years since the Football Supporters Association was formed by a handful of souls in a Merseyside pub and began to transform the landscape of fan politics in England. Before 1985 there was only the National Federation of Football Supporters’ Clubs, a federative body of officially sanctioned club organisations, their activities based on raising money for the club and organising travel. The “Nat Fed” was certainly not politically radical.

The lack of an organisation that represented fans effectively seemed particularly odd in 1985 of all years. The Bradford fire, the death of a fan at Birmingham, the pitch invasion when Millwall lost at Luton and an accompanying moral panic all contributed to a sense that the game was on the edge of imploding. Then came the death of so many Juventus fans at the Heysel disaster, as Liverpool fans fought in a crumbling, badly policed and inadequate stadium. As if to sum up the low ebb of football a squabble between the League, the BBC and ITV meant there were no live televised games – something that seems mildly quaint now.

The FSA responded to a need for a democratic, national organisation that would campaign on behalf of fans, represent them in the media where “fan” was almost synonymous with “hooligan” and seek to influence the government and the game’s authorities.

The FSA also represented an organisational corollary to the explosion of football fanzines. These publications began to suggest to the wider world that fans were not merely knuckle-dragging idiots, but articulate, funny and creative. Together the FSA and fanzines also articulated a growing dissatisfaction with the way football was being run.

They reached national prominence in 1989, in the desperate aftermath of Hillsborough. The FSA, alone at times, stood up for the victims and successfully opposed the government’s identity card scheme. Through articulate commentary and campaigning they blazed a trail, ensuring that the media could not ignore fans’ views at a time of huge change in the game. Former chair Rogan Taylor wrote: “The representation of supporters to government, football authorities and various other bodies – though hardly satisfactory – is more frequent and serious than ever before.”

Internationally, the FSA alone recognised the particular needs of travelling fans, launching its first “fans’ embassies” at the 1990 World Cup: they have been a feature of every major tournament involving England since. It is a sign of the regard in which this work is held that the embassies are now partially funded by government; and a sign of the game’s changing commercial context that they are now sponsored.

However, these successes – along with minor victories such as a better distribution of Cup final tickets – could not hide significant weaknesses. The FSA never achieved a mass membership – certainly not one that could offset the jibes that it was not representative of fans. In part this reflected the fact that most supporters’ allegiance is to their club and the FSA operated a national membership structure. Also, fans on the whole do not want to join campaigning organisations for a leisure activity unless their club face an immediate crisis, a factor still limiting fan power today.

The FSA was also powerless to stop the imposition of all-seat stadiums following the Taylor Report, the birth of the Premier League, the Sky TV deal, the flotation of clubs on the Stock Exchange and the first wave of enormous price increases. In the face of this onslaught it was in many ways club-based, independent supporters’ associations (ISAs) that scored the key victories, from Charlton’s return to The Valley to the various groups around IMUSA that successfully battled against BSkyB’s take over of Man Utd.

The FSA made considerable efforts to bring ISAs into the fold, arguing that if fans acted together they could be incredibly powerful – however hard this was to achieve. During the life of the Football Task Force from 1997 to 1999, the FSA played a leading role in attempting to persuade the government of the need for an independent regulator in a sport now utterly dominated economically and administratively by mega-rich chairmen, corporations and the biggest clubs. The Labour government’s historic failure to adopt the FSA’s proposals reverberates today.

A key obstacle thrown in the face of FSA proposals was that there remained two national fan organisations, representing different traditions. Discussions begun in the mid-1990s eventually produced a marriage between the old Nat Fed and the FSA in 2002, giving us the Football Supporters’ Federation. Although the FSA disappeared as an independent entity, there was, for the first time, one national body with the potential to really challenge the status quo.

The FSF, which stages an annual “Fans Parliament”, now boasts that it “represents over 130,000 football fans of clubs and national teams throughout England and Wales”, through both direct membership and affiliated organisations. However, committee member Mark Longden says that they “can only be successful if we have an active mass membership and we can only do this with the promised, but never delivered, core funding”, alluding to unfulfilled pledges by government to back a unified fans’ organisation.

Also, in current debates on attendances and the wisdom of the Premiership corporate model, the FSF has been strangely absent: there is a continued difficulty for a national campaigning organisation to have a significant presence “on the ground” at clubs.

In part the FSF has also had to share the limelight with Supporters Direct, the government-funded organisation that seeks to establish fan ownership of clubs through mutual supporters’ trusts or shareholding groups. But the FSA itself had helped to create this, one of the very few positives to emerge from the Task Force. The FSF is represented on the Supporters Direct board and the mere fact that a government gives money to a supporters’ organisation is itself testimony to the work of the FSA. “The two groups have clearly defined but complementary roles,” says Longden. “The FSF concentrate on core match-going issues, prices, kick-off times etc. Supporters Direct concentrate on ownership and governance.”

With many clubs existing on a financial precipice, supporters’ trusts illustrate the continuing desire of fans to organise at club level and the importance of a crisis to galvanise collective action. Also, in many ways, fans who have either taken control of their clubs (eg at Lincoln and Stockport) or deserted the professional game to form their own (AFC Wimbledon, FC United of Manchester) represent a new way of achieving the FSA/FSF’s aim of gaining representation.

We are now at a crossroads. On one hand we have Abramovich and the Glazers, and a government and a football establishment unwilling or unable to regulate in fans’ interests. In international and European football, corporate interests continue to dominate – there will be many ticketless England fans for the FSF embassy to advise next summer due to corporate allocations of tickets. On the other, we now hear UEFA’s Alex Phillips talking about their preference for clubs to be run democratically, with fans holding controlling stakes, and Lord Burns’ calls for FA reform.

Whatever the role and influence of the FSF and Supporters Direct in the playing out of these seemingly conflicting forces, the fact that there is even a debate about the role of fans is in large part due to the formation of the FSA all those years ago. This is perhaps the most significant achievement: a shift in the public consciousness and the parameters of debate.

From WSC 226 December 2005. What was happening this month

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