The same, only worse

Suddenly, all official club websites look alike. It's another triumph for commerce over diversity and independance, says Jan Lotze

In a move which proves that the desire for money will always overrule quality, all 72 Nat­ionwide League clubs, and a handful in the Premiership, have effectively handed over control of their official web­sites to Prem­ium TV, a subsidiary of the broadcaster NTL. Lured by an initial six-figure fee, and with the pro­mise of further revenue dependent on traffic and the number of “referrals” to an on­line bet­ting shop, clubs have opted to buy and oper­ate the PTV soft­ware for the next five years.

All League/PTV sites now look identical, and clubs have sacrificed editorial in­dep­en­d­ence. However, they can finally make mon­ey out of their websites, which few had previously succeeded in doing. Fans are en­­­cour­aged to visit the official sites and gamble, under the inducement that they are helping raise money for the club. Yet many fans don’t like the new sites because the template initially forced the clubs to cut out popular features.

The Tranmere Rovers website recently post­ed an open letter to its users stating that “the last few weeks since we launched the new site have been a nightmare”, and described criticism from fans as “alarming”. Slow down­loads, tardy match reports and the absence of sections such as archives, club history and fan message boards all caused frustration.

“As for those of you complaining about the amount of advertising on our site,” the Tran­mere letter continued, “this is controlled by Premium TV, and is the best way of generating income for the company, which in turn generates income for Tranmere Rovers Foot­ball Club.” Which implies that if you have a problem with it, you are being disloyal.

Even when these teething problems are ironed out, however, PTV’s com­mercial rel­ationship with the clubs remains problematic. Take the case of Reading, who used to enjoy a close link with the excellent unofficial webzine Hob Nob Anyone? The site’s creator Graham Loader co-operated with the club to publish news and ticket information and was actively involved in schemes to increase attendances. Now Reading have sev­ered all ties with him and refuse to pass him any information.

“It’s very important to the club that their [official] site gets a lot of hits,” Loader says. “The problem was that everyone was using my site instead, so the club decided to lay down the law. Which was a bit frustrating since my site only existed to promote and sup­port the club.” Reading asked him to rem­ove all club trademarks, the Royals Anthem, match audio, match photographs and even the fixture list.

Loader complied because he didn’t want to fall out with the club. “I’m pleased the club are getting the extra cash,” he says magnanimously. “Fans continually moan that the of­ficial site is shit, but continue to use it as the club now does an excellent job of keeping it up to date with the latest news.” However, he points out it has only improved because the club is making money from it, whereas before they didn’t care.

He is also sad at the way the club has axed its rapport with Hob Nob Anyone?, leaving him to conclude: “The extra support unofficial sites generate is simply not as important to the club as the huge cheque flying their way from the deal with Premium TV.”

While umbrella conglomerates like the homogenised Rivals.Net, the abysmal Footy Mad and Premium TV (see above) have gone a long way towards knocking the character out of football websites, there are still a few very good independent sites written and maintained by people who love their clubs and demand no financial rewards for their hard work.

The Wrexham webzine Red Passion is very much driven by the irrational force in its name, and the site offers a selection of articles from its printed version. These include a fat and lively letters page, and Wrexham steward Bryn Jones’ Diary, a memoir as frank as, but much more entertaining than, his female namesake’s.

Jones describes life in the orange jacket as little more than “peering through fences at the goalie’s arse while surrounded by loveable Cockneys waving their St George’s flags”. He laments the paucity of his £10 match wage, and reprints his comic dialogue with rude club officials after suggesting to them that eight undermotivated stewards might not be enough to control 3,000 Millwall fans.

Also enjoyable is the toilet report, including this from Wrexham’s visit to an Isle of Man pre-season tournament: “The Ladies incorporated two cubicles – they were clean and there was some nice soft loo roll – possibly Charmin Ultra.” Definitely the kind of thing you need to know when planning overseas away travel.

One further brownie point for Red Passion. The fanzine has so far raised £11,200 and put every penny back into Wrexham FC in the form of sponsorship.

Stockport County 2000 seems almost a throwback, if there can be such a thing in ­internet terminology, to the days where webzines were swashbuckling free-for-alls having a gratuitous swipe at local rivals, printing obscene and violent terrace chants, and calling for the manager’s head.

The day after Stockport went bottom of the First Division after losing at home to co-­strugglers Rotherham United, the anger on the site was almost enough to start my terminal shaking. “Rotherham United, famed only for buck teeth Goater and the Chuckle Brothers, played us off the park…” spumes one writer, outraged at the thought his side can’t even beat Crewe and Grimsby any more. Not a great site at all, but a refreshing one in the current climate. Then again, that’s not saying much.

In fact it has become so difficult to root out original, individually styled, passionate, funny, well-written club sites that this month I ended up wandering comatose in cyber-circles until a flying headline from within the Buckie Thistle official website inadvertently walloped me back to life. Buckie Thistle 8 Golspie Sutherland 0 – Jags’ eightsome reel shatters the Highlanders’ Scottish Cup hopes, it read.

What in hell’s name was I doing here? From nowhere, a child’s pleading, winsome voice was telling me that I had to click on the merchandise section and buy Bill the Buckie Thistle Bear from a limited edition of 50 honey gold mohair collector teddy bears specially commissioned by the club. For £66.

Can it be that four dozen or so kiddywinks are going to wake up to this overpriced monstrosity on Christmas morning? Will there be no end to the cruelty inflicted on Scottish bairns by Highland League marketeers? And is it not time, please, to wipe the internet clean and start all over again? Ian Plenderleith

From WSC 178 December 2001. What was happening this month