Kevin Rye discusses the benefits of talking and listening to fans to find out more about your club’s identity.

I feel very lucky doing the kind of work I do. I love the interaction with supporters, with officials, directors, owners. There are so many dynamics and relationships in a football club, and they need understanding, people need listening to, conversations need to happen.


Sometimes relationships are at such a low ebb that a simple exchange of emails between club and supporter groups can be an achievement. At other times, it’s about moving the conversation onto one where the club takes time to listening and absorb what its fans are saying, perhaps as part of a wider project.


I’m even luckier that from time-to-time, I get to work on a project really close to my heart, and so it is that I’ve recently been working with another consultant on a review of communications, messaging and brand for AFC Wimbledon. I’ve been able to provide some professional advice and support on the big issues, but where I’ve been really active has been in surveying, and in particular, running several focus groups of supporters of the club – all ages, all types. Long-term to just arrived. Old hand to newbie.


Without delving into the details, as the process is still in train and has to be respected, it’s been illuminating to me professionally to be able to help guide some really constructive discussions on what the club itself means to its supporters. Although in the case of Wimbledon, the supporters are its owners, I’ve learned a lot that can stand anyone in good stead for a similar process at any club, no matter who owns it.


We can all agree about how important it is to listen to and engage with others, but the problem can often be that we don’t necessarily choose the right way to do it. We might focus too much on surveying, or very tightly managed consultative groups. And we might default to a presentation and Q&A, rather than a proper conversation.


Giving Wimbledon supporters, albeit only relatively small groups of them, the opportunity to express how they feel about the direction of the club as it prepares to return to its Plough Lane home, and following 15 years of nearly unbroken success, has been fascinating and enjoyable. There has been a maturity to the discussion that I hoped for, but which exceeded my expectations. It has justified my view that if you give people the chance to engage meaningfully, it can reap rewards.


Here’s a brief take-away from my experiences so far:


1.    Don’t try to perfect the process: I’ve followed professional guidelines and thought carefully about what I’m doing, but in many ways it’s about getting on with it, and guiding a discussion, not doing it perfectly. A cross section of supporters is important, as much as you can, but don’t get too bogged down in process.


2.    Expect criticism, but deal with it constructively: There is bound to be some that emerges, but as a consultant its part of the process, and as a club, you should try your best to reflect on it, and not bristle too much. Admittedly, in football it can be a bit different to other organisations or businesses (how many businesses have to deal with their ‘customers’ singing rude songs at them when things aren’t working very well?!), but the face-to-face nature of this process is really worthwhile, most of all because where there is criticism, it can be discussed, understood better and in context.


3.    Use a third party where you can: Although a fan of the club myself, I’m seen as someone professional who can create a space for people to have the conversation they want, without pushing it in a pre-determined direction. Gentle probing and encouragement have I believe, really opened up people’s confidence to talk about things as they see them.


Kevin Rye is a Structured Dialogue and Supporter Communications Consultant


Visit his website


Image: PA Images