Football, like politics, divides opinion. From the tactics employed by your manager's favourite team, to weekly office banter about fantasy football performance, there’s always talking points about what is still regarded as ‘the beautiful game'.
However, for many that tag is beginning to feel extremely disingenuous. The Premier League currently seems a universe away from the lower reaches of the pyramid. And, the gap between the rich and the rest seems vaster than ever.
This state of affairs has been dramatically brought to life over recent weeks with the ongoing sagas of Bolton Wanderers and Bury. While the Premier League’s elite clubs splurged £1.4bn on their latest marquee signings, these two historic Lancashire sides faced their own battles for survival.
For Bolton the outcome has been broadly positive. After a protracted, and often controversial, sales process a deal involving Football Ventures was completed, enabling the Trotters to continue playing in League One (although having started the season on -12 points and losing the majority of their opening fixtures relegation is looking likely).
Not such a bright outlook for Bury. After playing in the English Football League (EFL) for an impressive 135 years, the Shakers were stripped of their membership, meaning the loss of their place in League One. An uncertain future for the community club is putting it mildly.
So, what does all this have to do with communications? Well, it goes without saying that these travails have generated headlines. And lots of them. For communication professionals like ourselves it’s been fascinating to follow the approaches taken by the different parties involved in the two crisis situations and see what lessons can be learnt.
Here’s my take on which of the main players performed admirably and who scored an own goal.
Bolton and Bury
There has been one marked difference between the two clubs. Although both were actively seeking new buyers to take them forward, Bolton was in administration while doing so but Bury wasn’t. While the respective club press offices did their best in horrendous circumstances, the situations meant that the majority of communications for Bolton came from its administrators, while Bury’s controversial owner Steve Dale was its main mouthpiece. And it told. Although not always perfect, Paul Appleton, joint administrator for Bolton, demonstrated a degree of control amongst the chaos and had an organised narrative that won trust. This included criticising other parties publicly where appropriate.
Steve Dale on the other hand, cut a progressively uncontrolled and angry figure, often taking to the airwaves to defend himself from critics. It regularly felt like preserving his own reputation was a priority, rather than an owner putting personal ambition aside for the good of the club. I’m all for people in positions of power having a personality, but that has to be balanced with a sound comms approach and interview skills. Although too simplistic to say this put off prospective buyers in its own right, it undoubtedly did more harm than good and potentially made them think twice.
Former EFL chief executive, Shaun Harvey, was no stranger to controversy, often bringing unwanted headlines to an organisation whose website purports it to be 'the template for leagues the world over'. In the cases of Bolton and Bury, however, current executive chair, Debbie Jevans, regularly showed compassion for the two clubs’ plights publicly. That said, the EFL has come in for criticism for an apparent lack of regular dialogue with the Shakers and Trotters, including in Bury’s case claims it refused to listen to ‘a credible new bidder’ moments before a deadline that saw the club’s league membership withdrawn, and instructing Bolton to fulfil fixtures with youth players.
But moves to ensure the same cannot happen again, including Jevans publicly declaring the EFL has to shine a light on itself, shows a degree of public-facing accountability at least.
In a world of pampered Premier League players trotting out the same old clichés, it was refreshing to hear stars from the two clubs speaking from the heart about why survival was vital for them as people first. With mortgages to pay and families to feed, players took matters into their own hands, with impassioned interviews on radio and TV. The result was an outpouring of support from the public on social media and in the mainstream media as journalists hooked on to the wider consequences of two clubs in freefall, helping to raise the profile of their plights to a wider audience.
Although the ultimate losers in both of these situations, the fans have been the real winners when it comes to communications. None more so than at Bury where supporters impressively rallied to launch a heartfelt campaign that put the club as a core part of the town’s community. Chaining themselves to railings at the stadium, carrying a coffin into reception and speaking candidly about emotional family links to the Shakers going back generations, supporters have demonstrated why clubs like Bury ultimately mean more to fans than balance sheets.
The Final Score
So, what does this all tell us? Like a real match, these situations have been unique, unpredictable and emotional. And controlling the communications narrative was always going to be hard. But those that quickly created and executed a credible communications plan, including using social media to their advantage with a unified voice, came out as believable, creditable and in control.
But ultimately, as that scoring sensation Jimmy Greaves often said, football will always be a funny old game.