Bucking the Trend

Tuesday 3rd March 2015 at 11:25AM

What do I remember about my first trip to see AFC Telford United play?  Well, I remember late 19th century stopper Fatty Foulkes trying to save penalties taken by Dawley-born luminaries Captain Webb and George Cadbury while a small pig balanced precariously on the cross bar above him.

I described the above scene to my wife when we got back to West Yorkshire and she immediately had the local nurse check my medication. I dimly recall Gateshead being the opposition, but I don’t remember the score (or even if Telford managed a goal). But I do recall some enormous queues and maybe a crowd of over 2,500?

There’s a point to this, of course. Clubs, like Telford, want to grow sustainably. They don’t want to be like those clubs who celebrate Non League Day by doubling their attendance, sticking two metaphorical fingers up to the Premier League and then, perhaps unsurprisingly, failing to persuade any of those extra new fans to come back again.

Most people will admit that attracting back lapsed fans, for example, can only go so far as a growth strategy. At some point we have to embrace the idea that we can only grow sustainably if we have a plan to continually attract and retain new supporters. And this is where it gets interesting.

Back in 2006/07 when we first piloted what was to become the Football League’s Family Excellence Awards programme, my family and I attended 30 consecutive games (across the Championship, League One and League Two) as a new family. I was and continue to be a football anorak of the most disturbing variety, of course, and my son was having his Bradford City ‘awakening’ at that time. But my wife Ana and daughter Elena were genuinely new to the live football experience.

At the end of the visits (by which point my wife was speaking to me through the medium of a firm of local solicitors) I asked her which of the clubs she’d go back to. This is football, after all and YOU HAVE TO MAKE THE CHOICE. Shouldn’t it follow that the family would pledge allegiance to the club that provided the best experience for them? The club that made it easier for them to have the best possible time and the club that made them feel most valued? Her answer baffled me: ‘well, I’d probably go back to 2 or 3 of those clubs and maybe visit each one once or twice a season.’ And then the killer blow: ‘The thing is, they were all the same, really. Same song, different lyrics.’

Which is a problem, because football needs to breed loyalty from the first instant if it wants to grow. Being better than other clubs (cheaper tickets, better refreshments, better facilities, friendlier stewards, etc) can only get you so far, but if you want to attract people’s attention and make them sit up (no standing) and take notice, you have to be different.

You need to understand what makes you different and special: your values and the individual DNA strands that make up your identity. You need to flex those principles so that they come alive in the supporter relationship and, most importantly, on a match day. You need to focus on those little rituals and activities that people will remember. They won’t always remember the game or the result or even who scored, but they will remember the way you made them feel.

But if all we’ve got to offer is a game of football, then we’re going to face a lot of competition for the new supporter’s money and patronage. Be DIFFERENT, however, and we’ll have their attention.

That’s what AFC Telford United was on that October afternoon in the autumn of 2011 and that’s got to be a good starting point for the work I’ll be doing with the Supporters Trust and Forza as we build upon the great work that the Club’s volunteers do to make the club so special and grow support for the Bucks.

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