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Is Cortese right in thinking football fans are just 'customers' now?
AMID all the many words written on the subject of Nigel Adkins’ shock departure, one five-word sentence should jar with Saints supporters.
It was written in the Sports Pink last weekend by chief sports writer Adam Leitch.
“The fans are customers now,” he wrote.
That struck a chord with me, the fact one of my colleagues described supporters as ‘customers’.
“There is no doubting that Saints, once one of the most homely and welcoming of clubs, have changed beyond recognition,” Leitch went on.
“It’s not that any more.
“Saints is less a football club there for the community in which it stands, and more a business.”
Sacking Adkins was by no means the first controversial move Cortese has made in recent years.
Dispensing with Alan Pardew after a 4-0 win at Bristol Rovers provoked an outcry at the time.
Many fans have also criticised the fact that season ticket prices have shot up in price (though, to be fair, Saints have risen two divisions and it would be a shock if prices had been pegged at third division levels).
In the summer of 2011 the concession for season ticket holders aged between 60 and 64 years was withdrawn, a decision condemned as “mean spirited” by fans at the time.
For the first time ever, blind fans now have to pay to watch Saints. Previously, the club gave free admission to supporters who suffered serious sight problems.
Last summer that changed, and an adult season ticket for anyone who previously had free entry would have cost almost £500.
There is more.
Some fans are unhappy that the white away kit has only been worn once away from St Mary’s all season, at Liverpool, with only one other likely ‘appearance’ left – at Norwich.
While fans can buy this kit that is so rarely used, the yellow away shirt – worn far more often this season – is no longer available to buy.
Pay and display booths were put up in the St Mary’s car parks. Previously fans and staff could park there for free, now only a few minutes is free.
Extra costs have been introduced for fans buying matchday tickets via debit cards.
Previously booking fees were paid for transactions, whereas now there is a separate fee per ticket – either if you buy online, over the phone, or at the stadium in person.
Talking of tickets, half-season tickets are no longer available.
Long-serving programme sellers were axed.
Andrew Murray, who had always previously sold programmes in an area underneath the stands at St Mary’s, was told, at fairly short notice, he had to vacate his room.
Talking of programmes, Saints made back page news in the national press for failing to mention Nigel Adkins’ name once in the Everton programme.
In my eyes, that was a disgraceful snub on a man who had overseen back to back promotions.
The saddest thing, though, was that no-one should have been surprised.
No doubt his predecessor at Saints, Rupert Lowe, would have been there.
Lowe often spoke at press conferences. Many Saints fans thought he spoke too much.
Cortese, though, doesn’t make many public statements, and he never holds press conferences.
I guess you can’t have it both ways, can you?
One chairman is castigated by saying too much, another for not saying much at all.
That was one thing, but to then not mention Adkins at all in the Everton programme was petty and sad.
Sad for Saints fans, because it (needlessly) gave their club a bad name in the national press.
Regarding the programme, Le Tissier also appears to have been air-brushed out of history.
A recent advert for a new apartment complex included the wording ‘appearance by ex-Saint’.
The same advert in the Daily Echo a few days later included Le Tissier’s name in the same space where Saints had used alternative wording.
Did Nicola Cortese really not want Le Tissier’s name mentioned in that advertisement?
Also in the programme for the Newcastle game last November, the only mention of Alan Pardew – making his first return to St Mary’s since being sacked in August 2010 – was on the back page.
Therefore, we shouldn’t have been surprised at Adkins’ airbrushing from history on Monday.
Former Saints players have spoken of not feeling hugely welcomed at St Mary’s, compared to some clubs where former favourites are made to given free tickets and hospitality.
The most recent was 1980s defender Rueben Agboola, who left Saints for Sunderland in 1985.
Agboola was at St Mary’s to see Sunderland win prior to Christmas, after buying a ticket himself.
“I’ll probably get an invite from Sunderland to the game there – that’s the difference,” he said.
“Sunderland even send me birthday and Christmas cards and everything is all-expenses paid when I go up there. But I can’t get a ticket on my own doorstep!
“Don’t get me wrong, when I was playing I hated asking for free tickets and would make sure I bought them. But Mick Channon even had to queue to watch Southampton play a pre-season friendly!”
This begs the question: Should former players receive free tickets for Saints games?
Clubs are under no moral obligation to offer them, but it is a nice touch if they do.
For Sunderland to send Agboola birthday and Christmas cards, when he played for them over two decades ago, shows a certain class.
It is a nice touch, and one which costs just the price of a stamp and a bit of forethought.
To a lot of fans, it might not matter one jot if Saints do or do not invite former players to watch games at St Mary’s.
Same with pay and display booths at St Mary’s car parks.
Would fans still prefer to get free parking at the ground and watch Hartlepool or Carlisle in League 1, or pay to park and watch Manchester United and Chelsea roll up in their executive coaches a few yards away?
Of course, it is a no brainer.
But it is all extra fuel to the fire created when Adam Leitch says Saints fans are now viewed as ‘customers’.
Long serving supporters do not like the word ‘customers’.
Supermarkets have customers. Other retail shops have customers.
We do not give our football club our custom, do we? We give them our support.
Therefore, we are supporters.
That is how we have always viewed ourselves, and always thought we will.
Nicola Cortese runs Southampton Football Club as he sees fit, and he runs it as a business.
He is not employed to be kind to everyone he meets, or to give away bunches of free tickets to former players.
He is a businessman first and foremost, and he needs to make money for the people that employ him.
No one can say he has not done that.
Just look at how much Saints will bank over the next few years just by being in the Premier League.
Even if they go down this season, they will receive £48m worth of parachute payments over the next four years.
This contrasts sharply with the £13m Saints received over two years on being relegated from the Premier League in 2005.
But there are different ways to do many things, however. Different ways to conduct business.
Surely you can be a good businessman but also acknowledge your club’s proud history at the same time?
Surely you can be a good businessman and admit that fans who suffer serious sight problems should not really pay to attend games at St Mary’s?
If a chairman feels the need to sack a manager, that is his gamble.
Cortese has gambled by sacking Adkins, but the gamble might pay off.
Saints might go on to bigger and better things. Cortese might well be proved right.
He might, in time, be viewed by many as a footballing alchemist.
He might not.
As usual, only time will tell.
But there is then absolutely no need to add insult to injury by not thanking Adkins publicly for his good work and wishing him well.
There are many Premier League clubs that are run well who don’t shoot themselves in the foot with regards to public relations.
Swansea, West Bromwich Albion, Everton, to name but three.
It would be interesting to know if their fans view themselves as ‘supporters’ or ‘customers’.
Perhaps, at Premier League level, all fans are now ‘customers’.
If they are, then it is a sad indictment of the sport at the highest level.
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