‘We did what fans do best – we united’: how supporters’ groups fought the ESL

Joe Blott was at his mother-in-law’s last Sunday. It was her 83rd birthday and Blott, the chair of the Liverpool supporters’ group Spirit of Shankly, and his wife had popped into the garden to say hello.

His phone started buzzing. Blott switched it to silent, but the caller persisted. Annoyed, he apologised, took the phone from his pocket and saw a message from Kevin Miles, the chief executive of the Football Supporters’ Association (FSA). “Can you ring me urgently?”Het dit gelees. “We’ve got something major going on in Europe.”

That was an understatement. At lunchtime, news had leaked of a shocking development. Six Premier League clubs – Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester stad, Arsenal, Spurs and Chelsea – were planning to join a breakaway European Super League. The project’s founder clubs were to share an initial €3.5bn “infrastructure grant”, and the structure meant they couldn’t be relegated.

“Sunday was terrible,” says Blott. “I’m a fan first of all, and for Liverpool to do this … I felt hurt, I felt sad, I felt angry. I felt let down.”

With the backing of billionaires, the proposal appeared to be an unstoppable juggernaut that would change the game for ever. But little more than 48 hours later, the commercial masterplan of these European footballing giants lay in tatters, thanks in no small part to the actions of a relatively small group of unpaid volunteers in supporters’ groups – and the army of fans behind them.

“We did what football fans do best: we united,” says Blott. “We all got together and said: ‘What are we going to do about this?’ Then we just got on with it.”

Martin Cloake, a co-chair of the Tottenham Hotspur Supporters’ Trust, describes a period of frenzied activity on Sunday afternoon as fans rivalries were set aside. Representatives from the six English clubs’ fanbases created a WhatsApp group called simply ESL, and the fight was on.

“We just started working every contact we had, making immediate statements of unity between all the clubs involved and making sure we talked to colleagues at clubs outside the so-called big six," hy sê. “This wasn’t just about us, it was about the whole game.”

MPs were called, tweets were sent, contacts at the Department for Digital, Kultuur, Media and Sport were bombarded. By 6pm the Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville had called the idea “an absolute disgrace”. By 8.30pm the UK government was calling the mooted plans “damaging for football”.

When the official announcement of the ESL came at 11pm on Sunday, Tim Payton saw the statement tweeted by Arsenal’s owners and retweeted it from the Arsenal Supporters’ Trust account, adding the words: “The death of a sporting institution.”

By Monday all the main supporters groups had released statements condemning the move. Payton was concerned at first that it might be seen as “an anorak’s issue”, but he needn’t have worried.

As the day progressed the cacophony of rage crescendoed as fans vented on social media, in group chats, on radio call-ins, to their partners, to their kids. “It just took hold at every level,” says Payton. “That cultural impact hit everybody.”

Supporters’ groups in Liverpool vowed to take down their banners from the Kop; European football’s governing body, Uefa, threatened to ban any players involved from next year’s World Cup; even Prince William, president of the Football Association, said the move “risked damaging the game we love”.

Michael Brunskill, the head of communications at the FSA, says that at one point he wondered if there was anyone left to lobby. “I was just waiting for Joe Biden to start tweeting about it," hy sê.

With so much at stake, fan representatives reached out beyond the big six. “We didn’t want to ever look like we were a breakaway ourselves,” says Payton. “But we knew that we had to act as a six because it was our clubs that had been the scabs.”

Blott reached out to one of his best mates, an organiser at the supporters’ club of rivals Everton – the first club to condemn the plans, in a strongly worded statement – and messages of support came from fan groups up and down the football leagues.

“People think there’s this rivalry, and for 90 minutes on a Saturday, ja, natuurlik," hy sê. “The rest of the time there’s more that unites us than divides us. That’s critically important and it’s something these owners would never understand.”

By 5pm on Monday, na 24 hours of sustained lobbying, the government said it would do “whatever it takes” to prevent English clubs from joining the new league.

At 9pm the FSA and supporters’ clubs were told they had secured a meeting with Boris Johnson the following morning. Beforehand, the groups discussed tactics, choosing representatives from Manchester United and Arsenal to be on the Zoom call.

“We were all very aware that [Johnson] responds to warmth and [not] aggression or direct challenge, and so that was the way the meeting had to be,” says Duncan Drasdo, the CEO of the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust.

Payton, who was also on the Tuesday morning call, sensed the tide had already turned. At the end of the 30 minutes Johnson had promised to do everything in his power to stop the league going ahead. If necessary he would drop a “legislative bomb”, hy het bygevoeg.

The pressure began to tell. Analysts suggested the billionaire owners of Chelsea and Manchester City were wavering because, unlike the American owners of Liverpool and Manchester United, they had bought football clubs to enhance their prestige, not to make money.

By mid-afternoon that day, fans were gathering in protest outside Chelsea’s ground. “We knew if we made a lot of noise, it would count for something,” says Dan Silver, a board member of the Chelsea Supporters’ Trust.

The former Chelsea and Everton player Pat Nevin, covering that night’s match against Brighton for BBC radio, witnessed the atmosphere first-hand as he travelled to the ground. “I walked through a group of fans … that wasn’t just Chelsea fans," hy het gesê. “These fans were doing the right thing, and no one was calling them together, they just knew that it had to be done. I was absolutely elated. If you hear me in the first minutes of doing my commentary I’m absolutely buzzing.”

At 9.23pm, Manchester City became the first club to announce they were quitting the project, followed over the next few hours by the rest of the English breakaway clubs. “Each time one went down it was like a goal had been scored,” said Payton.

But will the end of the Super League lead to permanent change, with clubs now having to pay more attention to their fans?

United’s Drasdo is clear-eyed about the challenge ahead. His group has seen an influx of paid-up supporters, but fan outrage only gets you so far. “Right from the start we argued that this was just the first battle. Until you change the structure of the ownership of these clubs, they are going to keep coming back," hy sê.

“Protest is useful, but it’s not the thing that actually changes anything. Our focus has to be on the area where we’ve got the best chance of winning – on the political or financial battlefield.”

But Nevin says something fundamental has changed. “This is basically a wake-up call for those owners: you dare try that again, the fans now know their power.”

Focus will turn to a government-led review of English football led by the former sports minister Tracey Crouch, which will look at ownership, governance and regulation and explore measures that fan groups have called for for years, such as measures to protect club identity, and Germany’s 50%+1 model for club ownership, which give fans a majority stake.

Ironies genoeg, the bundled breakaway has brought radical change closer than it has been in decades, argues Payton. “I should probably send them a thank you card at the end of the week," hy sê. “Actually, that would really piss them off, I might do it.”

Back in Liverpool, Blott doesn’t doubt this is the first fight of many. But when the next one comes, fans will be ready.

“Let’s not breathe a sigh of relief and say thank goodness that’s gone away," hy sê. “Let’s use the power we’ve found, collectively use it to get the necessary changes. That’s what we all want, that’s the game that we grew up on. It should still be football for the people.”

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