[The original version of this article covering the Villa supporter protest and the ‘We Don’t Want McLeish’ Facebook group was published 19 June 2011]
As media rumours swirled about Aston Villa being interested in appointing Alex McLeish , the prospect of a Villa supporters protest grew and the Facebook group of ‘Aston Villa Supporters: We Don’t Want Alex McLeish’ grew way beyond what the young guy who set it up ever expected.
As the numbers raced into thousands, he asked members for admin support to help run it.
Having come across the group on Facebook and feeling outraged by the rumours of Aston Villa considering Alex McLeish as manager, I told him to direct message me to discuss the situation, to see if I could help.
We had a good instant message discussion. He seemed a smart guy and his views on the Villa situation mirrored my own. I’ll protect his identity at the moment, out of good will (although I’m exercising severe restraint here), so let’s called him ‘Mr S’.
‘You’ve created a monster’, I joked to Mr S.
‘Yes, and it’s getting big and scary’, he replied.
We seemed to be singing off the same hymn sheet, so I told him a few of my ideas.
The first problem was the news of Villa wanting Alex McLeish was still unconfirmed by the club. It could be simply further media gossip that was winding-up Villa fans.
With the FB group at 12,000+ and raising members, thousands of fans could be getting irate over potentially nothing. McLeish to Villa – that surely couldn’t be true?!
Fans wanted to protest, but it’s better to protest with facts.
I told Mr S, I would contact the club and tell them that they had a duty to their fans, as it what was an extremely unique situation. Of course, the club should do their business behind closed-doors, but no Birmingham City manager has come to Villa, since the team was formed in 1874. The prospect was not something any Villa fan would be able to stomach easily.
Mr S was happy for me to get on with it and I kept him in the loop, step-by-step.
Request to Villa for Transparency for Fans
I phoned the club and asked for the Head of Media & Press (who came in on Martin O’Neil’s appointment, so knew the board very well). He was away in London, do I insisted I wanted to send him a letter via email, and I was a promised a prompt reply.
I sent an emailed letter to him – explaining our position and reinforcing the duty of the club to the fans to at least admit they would consider McLeish, if they couldn’t say anything more due to legalities.
With a couple of hours, they did more than reply. They released an official statement to the fans to confirm that the club was indeed in talks.
The club rep then arranged to speak to me later in the evening.
Around midnight, the club rep and myself until 2.30am in the morning, had a very amicable and far-reaching conversation/argument/discussion about the prospect of McLeish and all the matters that surrounded it.
While we both had our differing views, in a nutshell, I argued that McLeish’s credentials were good enough for Villa, while he argued that McLeish was an outstanding manager.
We knew where we stood, and there was a proposed protest the next day, which was the collective wish of outraged Villa supports. I defended its purpose and its peaceful intentions.
THE DAY OF THE PROTEST
We spoke several times the next morning, discussing the evening’s protest.
Initially, it was the intention of the club to lock the gates to prevent access to the North Stand car park. I suggested that the supporters are morally right to feel that it’s their stadium too. The club’s point of view was understandable though; as it’s private property, a commercial space, and there’s insurance implications and so forth, to be considered.
Later, I dropped him a follow-up email, just to say, personally I felt, fans would feel they had been shunned by the club, and a peaceful protest may see this as an antagonistic measure.
To the club’s credit, he rang me back and said he agreed and fans would be allowed to protest freely.
Later in the day, I received a call from the head of the division of the West Midland’s Police that is dedicated to Aston Villa. In what was a very good-natured discussion, the police were happy with the proposed project and even were very empathic the feelings of Villa fans. They were surprised as we were about the club’s choice.
In short, in terms of the protest, the communication from both the club and West Midlands Police had been first rate (better than what was to transpire with Mr S).
The only problem with the protest was that various fans had posted on the facebook board, different times to meet. Unfortunately, the ones that thought 4pm or 5pm would be a good time, forgot to consider that most fans who would be at work at that time. And in their enthusiasm they had informed Sky Sports, Talk Sports, ITV Central etc, that the protest would begin at 5pm.
The AVFC Supporter’s – We Don’t Want McLeish party-line on the protest, was it was a 6pm start to allow people time to get there.
Now, Mr S happy with the official organisation of what I had done, then went off to the protest with his friend the other admin guy (whose main job was to deal with blue nose activity on the board).
I was in London working, but I said would I work as ‘mission control’ and oversee the protest through the board.
Directing people there, encouraging the ones who were asking if it’s worth going down, posting any news, report and pictures that would come in from fans. And also act on fan’s ideas and almost watch their backs in terms of the media and police.
Essentially, what I created was a live newsfeed and a command centre. If I had been in Birmingham, I would have been at the protest, so in the end, it was lucky I wasn’t.
Fans watching TV and listening to the radio would post information of what was being reported, so it could be acted on.
Reports of low numbers, because of the early meeting times that were posted by other groups, proved a problem, as Sky Sports News filmed early in the evening and just looped the same report all through the evening.
Fans alerted me to the fact there was a bias on Sky Sports News, who favoured reading out texts of ‘Villa fans’ pro McLeish (potentially bluenoses in disguise), so I told the fans who couldn’t get to the ground, but said they were ‘there in spirit’, to get to work sending emails to Sky Sports and various other media voicing their feelings on McLeish’s appointment.
Other reports came in from board users posting that Talksport and other media outlets were reporting the gates at Villa Park had been vandalised and broken. This upset several Villa fans, who said their anti-McLeish feelings were being misrepresented by thugs.
I immediately rang the division of West Midland’s Police monitoring the protest. The officer on duty scrolled through the reports of the protest. After scrolling through the onscreen reports on her computer, she told me, the protest was ‘completely peaceful’ and ‘the gates had been opened’.
I posted this news on the board and coupled with fan’s actual reports and evidence of swelling numbers, a real sense of pride amongst fans in the achievement of our peaceful protest was being felt.
We had also attracted widespread national media coverage across TV, radio, newspapers and online, and this started to attract fans from other clubs to show their solidarity to our cause.
IT WAS ONLY THE START…OR SO I THOUGHT
Remember, this protest was organised in little more than 24 hours…imagine what we could do with more time to plan, but more of that later.
I was looking forward to speaking to Mr S when he got back from the protest, to get his feedback and eye-witness account for the next step. But a very strange thing happened…
After getting a bite to eat, when I returned to my computer, the instant message box myself and Mr S had been communicating through, had disappeared from my screen.
The admin option for the site had gone, and my fb profile was blocked from contacting him.
Shortly, I noticed a message posted to the board, by Mr S, saying, ‘Sorry about the constant posting, I’ve deleted the admin!’
After putting in so much effort for 48hrs, and putting my day-to-day work on hold for Villa’s cause, you can imagine what I felt about Mr S,
Why did he act like a judas? To someone who had an open channel with the club and West Midlands Police, and was being taken seriously by the powers that be.
I knew from the day before, Mr S had a thing about not filling people’s facebook newsfeeds with too many postings, but in this situation what was that really a problem?
During the course of the actual protest, of course, there’s going to be more posts than usual. It was acting as a newsfeed to the fans, that they could rely on, that helped co-ordinated the protest.
Mr S’s actions seemed naive, to say the least.
I set up a new facebook profile to contact him and politely ask for an explanation, and informed Mr S, there would be no grudge and that we must speak to carry the further work we had to do, as this was only the start and the situation was reaching a vitally important time.
The clock was ticking…
Still no announcement had been made from regarding the management appointment being confirmed. It seemed the club were sleeping on it.
Mr S didn’t reply. Instead, I saw a post on the board that made my heart sink, after the efforts of everybody in the previous three hours: ‘Done and dusted. Now over to you Randy’
What? That was it? A massive mistake.
We had to send out a press release to the media immediately to detail the correct estimates of the number who had attended the protest (around the 1,500+ mark) and detail West Midland Police’s declaration that it had been ‘Completely Peaceful’. This would have cleared up and prevented the next day’s lazy journalism.
And also announce a further protest at the traditional football kick off time of 3 o’clock on the forthcoming Saturday. Which, with a longer period of planning, and it being a weekend, would dwarf the first protest in size.
With the board also on track to have over 20,000+ members, it would have all been food for thought for both the club and McLeish.
None of this happened (as I never heard back from Mr S).
So when the club monitored the media reports about the protest and the facebook board, they must have thought, ‘Is that it?! ‘So that’s that, then’. The fb board has read ‘Done and Dusted’, after all. I had spoken with the club, off the record, about their expectations for the protest and what they thought about the fans. So I had an insight.
And with some media reporting low numbers of around 300-500 protestors and the odd media outlet saying fans had broken the gates; the club must have got the impression that it was a just a small minority of fans that felt negatively towards McLeish’s appointment.
When I first spoke to Club rep, it was very clear that the club were adamant about the choice of McLeish.
Even with our best efforts, it was always going to be very difficult to change the Aston Villa board’s minds or indeed Alex McLeish’s. It’s just frustrating that because of Mr S’s actions right at the end, we couldn’t give it our best shot.
Of course, it’s not entirely Mr S’s fault. I’m sure the scope of this was way beyond what he could have imagined when he first set up the Facebook group, which fans could have a bitch and moan about McLeish. Also, we had only known each other a matter of a couple of days, so it would be difficult to have a full mutual agreement.
In the end, all he could do was turn on his board members:
He posted: ‘If a large majority of the supporters on this page backed up their keyboard talk by going to protests and not renewing season tickets like there were claiming, we may of had a better chance.’
It was a fair point, but he wasn’t exactly blameless.
He then turned on fans, who now in despite of not favouring McLeish wanted to support the team, even if McLeish was manager, and posted:
‘To all the people saying, shut this page down…
Instead of coming on here moaning, just press the unlike button.
The facebook page members must have thought, ‘What happened to this board from the other day? When it was really helping us?’
The club’s PR machine had long kicked into overdrive now. Sir Alex, Ron Atkinson, Dennis Mortimer, Ron Saunders and Gabby have all been called on to back McLeish in the press, in an attempt to rally fans.
This is to be expected. The club have to get the club and it’s supporters united as possible through the pre-season, for the start of the new season.
The facebook board group of almost 18,000 still had a role to play even with McLeish getting the job, but it’s just turned into a forum for fragmented bickering with fans attacking each other.
A 1000+ people have left already (over 2000 later left)
However, personally, and I know many fans who were involved (including Mr S), still feel a great sense of pride to be a Villa fan, in the way we had all united and worked together to respond to this situation.
It’s something that can only make us stronger and hopefully that passion will translate to and re-energise the atmosphere at Villa Park.
To this point in time, nothing has changed my view that McLeish is the wrong choice for Aston Villa (and many months later to the present day!)
It’s an opinion, at the end of the day. The board has theirs, and have taken a gamble in the face of supporter’s feelings, in enforcing it.
When it comes to who will have to eat the humble pie, I hope it’s myself and other supporters who didn’t want McLeish in, because if it isn’t, the ramifications for the board and club could be seriously damaging.
If McLeish is going to be regarded as a great manager for AVFC, it’s time for him to get to work.
Read what happened next – including Mr S’s reply- in part 2.
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