The day before the disconnect between top-level football and its supporters was laid bare by plans for a breakaway European league, the Sheffield United squad would probably not have been too pleased had you told them that having just been relegated from the Premier League there would be fans waiting at Bramall Lane for them late on the first Saturday night since the pubs reopened.
As it turned out, it was a heart-warming experience which reminded interim manager Paul Heckingbottom of the bond he thinks will be so important in next season’s rebuild.
“The fans were waiting outside Bramall Lane when we got back from Wolves, wishing the players well, and saying thanks for the last four years, we’ll come back stronger,” he recalled. “I thought that was a real classy touch and I really appreciated it.
“They wanted me to pass on those messages to Chris (Wilder, the manager who left in March) and the rest of the staff.
“I think they feel frustrated they’ve not been able to play their part in helping the team. As much as we as staff and players have missed the fans, the fans have missed the players. I can only speak from my experience but I’ve had lots of positive chats with the fans.
“It’s a sad situation and fans were upset with Chris leaving and the relegation but they all recognise the amount of good work that had gone on, appreciate the situation I’m in trying to help their club out and they’re looking forwards, wanting to get back into the ground to help the team for what will now be a Championship season.”
Heckingbottom has spoken to the board about how the club can move on from a potentially debilitating season which will almost certainly end with them bottom of the Premier League having won four of their 32 matches to date. Playing in a way that keeps the fans on board is something he has stressed.
“I experienced it at Barnsley with a Barnsley man owning the club, a Barnsley man managing and a Barnsley man as captain,” he explained. “Not only that, there was an alignment of expectations from the club to the manager to the fans to the players. That’s what Sheffield United’s had as well with a Sheffield United fan (Wilder) in charge, the expectations of the club were mirrored by him and the fans were exactly the same, everything was in line and sync. And then you can drive each other forward.
“There’s certain things plastered all over the place (at Bramall Lane and the Shirecliffe training complex) and it ran through the academy and the first team when Chris was here. In terms of values outrun, outfight, outplay is something that’s constantly reinforced. I really like that, it’s really simple and I think it represents the fans, the city and the football club.
“It’s not a style of play, it’s not a formation but it’s certainly a mentality and I think it’s really important going forward in the recruitment of the manager and the players because you can’t get that mentality without the environment being right. Every decision we make has to keep building on that and reinforcing that.
“Those values are important because fans want to understand how their team plays and feel connected to how their team plays and it can add so much value to what you’re trying to do.”
The plans for and breakdown of a European super league has led to some soul-searching about how English football can make fans feel more a part of their clubs across the board.
During his time as manager of Hibernian, Heckingbottom worked at a club with a fans’ representative on the board but for all that he thought it was a good thing, he is sceptical about it catching on.
“Would I like it to? Yeah. Can I see it happening? No, I think it’s very difficult,” he said.
“I think it’s up to individual clubs to have initiatives. Some clubs have allowed fans to buy shares to increase their representation in boardrooms and I think that’s a great idea, I’ve experienced that as a manager.
“That was a good idea welcomed by the fans. it’s not necessarily a decision-making position but one that provides a lot more clarity to the fans groups but I don’t think we’ll get to the model they have in Germany of fans owning a certain amount (a majority shareholding) of football clubs to not have one person in overall control. That’s great and probably had a big thing to do with the fact no German teams signed up for the super league.
“There’s a lot of initiatives can be done and I’d love to see them done but it’s very difficult and down to the individual clubs.
“(At Hibs) fans could buy shares in a club. It might have changed now. An owner of a club can change at any point but there was a maximum percentage the fans group could own, they voted a person onto the board and they represented the fans at board meetings. It gave that fan a lot of clarity into the decisions and probably reassurance they could give to the fans groups that key issues were being spoken about and there was an openness to any sort of process.”
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