Burnley have nurtured a community-conscious image, but their response to this summer's riots confirmed the club's blind spot over racism, says Andrew Firmin
The last few years have been strange ones for Burnley. We no longer fight relegation to the Third Division, but instead hold plausible hopes of a top six finish in the First. A new regime runs the club, season ticket sales are through the roof and our manager has put together a team that wins a lot. Supporters are, therefore, mostly happy. They also have an opportunity to feel more involved. Representatives from Burnley’s diffuse network of supporters’ clubs are treated to regular meetings with the chairman and chief executive. Compare to the infamous days when one director asked: “What can a fan tell us that we don’t know?”
Since the current chairman Barry Kilby saved the club in 1998, Burnley have been keen to say that they want to listen to supporters and work with the community. An outstanding innovation last season was the introduction of the £35 child season ticket. Rather than cash in on promotion, the club saw a chance to capture a new generation of Clarets by offering a higher standard of football – at a cheaper price. Thousands were sold.
The club also showed an understanding of what motivates supporters when it came to the question of shirt sponsorship. When no new deal had been done last summer, we faced a season without sponsors. The club made a virtue of this, announcing that the shirt would not be undersold. Kilby said: “The famous claret and blue is sacrosanct and worth a fair price.” This was stirring stuff. Sales of the “clean” kit were huge.
Of course, while these examples demonstrate a willingness to engage with supporters and reach out to new ones, they also have a grounding in commercial considerations. Perhaps there isn’t anything wrong with this. If good relations are shown to be good for business, all the better. But among some supporters there is unease that the relationship between club and fans is becoming increasingly commercialised. Sure, they want to talk to us, but maybe only so they can sell us their phones and credit cards.
At least we can say that the new regime has made an effort, and this at a club once notorious for its aloofness. And there are some things they do where it’s hard to see a commercial benefit – the supporters’ clubs get privileged access to tickets, while the club’s website is eager to tell us about the community programme, which has done a ton of work in schools.
Clearly, they don’t need to do this, especially in a time of success. But it all feels rather paternalistic, and there are times when you get the impression that the club expects gratitude for “all we’ve done for you”. It’s also hard to escape the feeling that these things mattered more when we were struggling. As we’ve grown bigger and become more professional, it seems the club has found criticism harder to take. Most importantly, there is a significant section of the town’s community that still has little involvement in the club.
Burnley is no longer known just for its football team. This summer, we had the race riots. The club adopted a policy of silence over these. They had their reasons, but it still feels like an evasion not to have taken a stance. Burnley isn’t like most places. Here, more than elsewhere, the football club matters. Burnley FC is the town’s major social institution, the biggest thing around. This status confers responsibility. If the club represents the town, it can and should also lead it.
To some extent, it’s trying. Before the riots, the club appointed an ethnic minorities development officer, Nourredine Maamria. His job is to talk about racism at schools and coach kids of Asian origin. This is an important step, although a recent article in the Independent noted that his wage comes courtesy of a grant, and that he is employed by the separate and self-financing community programme.
It’s a start, even if success will be judged in years rather than months. Meanwhile, you won’t see many non-white faces at Turf Moor. Racism is society’s problem, and Burnley are not the only club to struggle with it, but not many clubs represent towns that got such a large BNP vote (11.3 per cent) at the general election. The riots polarised opinion in the town, making work against racism harder, but ever more vital. The impression left by the riots, albeit simplistic, is of two separate communities living apart from each other: a visit to the match will do nothing to correct this impression.
The club needs to make Turf Moor a welcoming place for all the community by doing everything possible to stop racism at matches. Here, the evidence is unpromising. Before the riots, the club issued a strong statement against racism, but condemned “foul language” in the same terms. The statement wasn’t backed by action. Apparently only one person was thrown out for racism last season. The club would suggest this proves there isn’t a problem – I’d say it shows their methods aren’t effective. My impression is that Burnley keep quiet about racism because they want to play down the problem.
Recently, and perhaps in response to publicity elsewhere, the club has started to become more vocal about its efforts, even if some of these sound tokenistic. It takes more than a sign and a poster. The biggest problem, still, is that supporters cannot complain about racism in the ground. The club’s view that people should ask stewards to intervene shows almost touching naivety, although anyone who’s ever tried this won’t be amused.
So the story of Burnley’s relationship with its fans and the community is one of yes, but. Yes, we have cheap child season tickets, but high adult prices. Yes, we had the unadorned shirt, but when two TV games came up, the club stuck their website address on it. And yes, much more seriously, the club has made small efforts towards reducing racism and bringing in the town’s Asian community – but in this important area, it isn’t doing nearly enough.
From WSC 177 November 2001. What was happening this month