Inside a protest football club

Some disillusioned fans of one of the UK’s biggest football clubs, Arsenal, have set up their own “protest club” to counter commercialism in the game.

In October 1886, a group of workers from a munitions factory in Woolwich decided to form a football team. In the 136 years since, that team has become one of the most successful in the country. Now a group of disgruntled fans have decided to start from scratch.

A little before 2 p.m., the chatter of a hundred people accompanied a modest cohort of players on the modest ground of Alwyns Lane. It’s a Saturday like any other in Chertsey, about 40 kilometers south-west of London. A far cry from the loud chants that echo simultaneously around the Emirates Stadium packed with 60,000 people, but these contrasting crowds share one defining characteristic: a love for Arsenal football club. Or rather, what Arsenal should stand for.

Loyal fans anxious about the situation at their beloved clubs are nothing new, especially at Arsenal, a gaming colossus with recent fortunes swinging. However, some grievances transcend tactical debates or complaints about player form. For many, elite football’s relentless quest to maximize revenue, its prohibitive ticket prices and the sport’s relentless monetization have gradually driven them into apathy. Stuart Morgan is one of about 100 fans gathered to watch FC Square Dialthe ‘protest club’ he founded when his disillusionment with the club he spent his whole life following reached its peak.

“There was actually a lot of discussion online among Arsenal fans about what they thought of the modern game. Some even mentioned the creation of a breakaway club. Personally, I was just fed up with the commercialism of “corporate and global in the game, and that Arsenal had become a victim of this process. I felt it undermined their principles, not to mention neglecting the fans along the way.

Unlike the Emirates Stadium, Dial Square FC play on the modest Alwyn Lane ground

“Dial Square” was the name originally given to Arsenal in early October 1886, when a group of munitions workers came together to form a football team at the Woolwich Arsenal armaments factory. They were referring to the imposing sundial that adorned the facade of the factory in name your team. In 2020, after losing hope in elite football’s ability to heal itself, Morgan borrowed this iconic piece of Arsenal nostalgia to start afresh.

“Some people have criticized the project because they think Dial Square is something Arsenal fans should join while turning their backs on Arsenal. It’s complete nonsense. It’s a football club for fans. I have to say I’ve noticed that Arsenal have been really trying to reconnect with their fans recently, so that’s positive, but here at Dial Square we allow the fans to have a lot more say and to control things.

‘Loyal fans anxious about the situation of their beloved clubs is nothing new’

Although Arsenal have a trophy-laden history and a large fanbase across the country, fan discontent was palpable and reached a boiling point in April 2020. Results were down on the pitch and the club announced that he would be joining a new breakaway competition. , the European Super League (ESL). This closed league would include a collection of preeminent clubs from across Europe and would have no possibility of relegation or promotion within it, thus guaranteeing income to its participants in perpetuity. High stakes and true competitiveness would be foregone, in favor of a share of the sky-high TV broadcast revenue such competition would generate. After 48 hours of fan protests and numerous condemnations, the competition was abandoned.

Already more than a year into the Dial Square journey, Morgan was both vindicated and appalled. “Nothing has changed (since ESL). There will be no changes to the modern game and no changes to structures. It’s crystal clear. We only focus on ourselves and will make things better for our fans. They are our most important product.

In recent months, Arsenal’s performance on the pitch has improved dramatically and the team’s revival has translated into more positive sentiment among fans. They are currently top of the Premier League, and their much-maligned owners have been praised for improving their communication with fans, which they previously lacked. As considerate as owners are of their fans, Morgan argues that the ownership structures themselves prevent real inroads. For Dial Square, it was paramount to reinvent those same models with fan ownership at their center.

“We have a company called ‘Dial Square FC Enterprise‘ (DSFCE), which currently owns a 15 per cent stake in the football club. This will increase as the club moves up the non-league pyramid. Eventually, when the support is greater and we are at the level that will require more funding, DSFCE will retain control of the club.

Fans are encouraged to purchase DSFCE memberships for a flat fee of £90. Ownership gives members an equal voice in crucial club decisions, ranging from a change in team kit colors to a full club relocation.

“Morgan argues that the [traditional] ownership structures prevent real breakthroughs”

“They can bring anything to the club. The DSFCE should hold board meetings and communicate regularly with its members, so that they can articulate the things they want the club to implement. It’s quite flexible.

The 2020 European Super League debacle led to an influx of applications from budding fan owners, virtually all of whom were discouraged Arsenal fans. Dial Square FC grew from a few dozen fan owners to 140 at its peak.

This latest attempt at a ‘phoenix club’ will draw on previous successes in English football. In 2005, Manchester United supporters formed FC United of Manchester in response to “the shift in kick-off times in favor of television, soulless all-seater stadiums (…) an overbearing steward and tickets at ridiculous prices.

Manchester United

Manchester United fans also formed a protest club in 2005

Wimbledon FC supporters had reacted similarly two years earlier when their club was transplanted 60 miles north of Milton Keynes to become Milton Keynes Dons, despite fierce opposition. Fans formed AFC Wimbledon and would see their team rise through the footballing ranks to reach League One, England’s third tier, by 2016.

“It takes more actions than words for the voice of the supporters to be heard meaningfully in elite football”

Currently competing in eighth tier English football, Dial Square FC have ambitions of their own. As the systemic issues that drive supporters to ‘protest clubs’ gain more attention, Morgan admits it takes ‘more actions than words’ before the voice of supporters is heard from significantly in elite football.

“I think if they really shared those sentiments, efforts to help would not be so laborious. Once we get to non-league football, stage 6 and above, we will look at the stadium situation in London, to see if a piece of land is available.Then, in the future, we would look to build our own stadium on our final resting place, a place that the fans would vote for.

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