Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Hull City AFC - A Club Not A Brand

This piece originally appeared on my Beyond the Ninety column on the Voom Football website. 

What's in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet”. So wrote Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet. It’s a shame that there was no professional football in the time of the Bard. If there had been he would have learned that in some love affairs names matter an awful lot.

Take for instance the continuing trials and tribulations at Hull City AFC. For a year fans have been fighting proposals put forward by the club’s owner, Assem Allam, to change the team’s name. The plan was that they would be known nationally as the Hull City Tigers and internationally as Hull Tigers. Allam’s reasoning was simple to the point of foolhardy: rebranding the club would mean greater appeal in the potentially lucrative, Premier League-loving markets of the Far East. If that little piece of marketing genius meant sacrificing 110 years of history in the process, then so be it.

Whether Allam realised or not this was a decision destined to draw the ire of Hull fans. And it did. Big time. Supporters moved quickly, forming the campaigning group City til we Die. Banners were dropped, petitions were signed, a full page ad appeared in the Hull Daily Mail, and protests were staged with placards proclaiming: “Hull City AFC: A Club Not A Brand”. The group put out a statement saying: “We, as representatives of a wide spectrum of Hull City AFC supporters across the UK and beyond, call on the Allams to put a stop to this. We are Hull City AFC, there is nothing wrong with that name and it should stay put.” In a wonderful display football fans and supporters groups across the country offered their solidarity.

The fans views were, however, dismissed out of hand. “Nobody,” said Allam, “questions my decisions in my business.” Thankfully the Football Association disagreed and in April rejected the bid to change the name of the club. This decision prompted the mother of all millionaire hissy-fits from Allam, the sort of tantrum you might expect to see from a toddler having just been told to get in their bath or from MPs who had been informed they wouldn’t be getting a pay rise.

Allam said: "We stated earlier this year that the club would be for sale if our attempt to globally promote Hull Tigers as a brand name and playing name be blocked," he said in a prepared statement. As a consequence of the FA's decision on April 9 I announced on April 10 that Hull City is for sale. This announcement is in accordance with my decision 10 months ago that I would walk away within 24 hours (if the rebrand was unsuccessful). In actual fact it was 22 hours. I don't call bluffs.”

Despite the relative success of last season’s campaign, some excellent summer signings and the obligatory request from manager Steve Bruce for fans to “get behind the team”, disquiet still persists on the terraces of the KC Stadium. Not only has Allam taken the name change case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, he has also altered the club badge, thereby reneging on a promise to consult with supporters before any such change was made.

The fight of the Hull City AFC fans is a microcosm of the wider argument about football in general. Is it a game of pride, passion and entertainment for fans everywhere? Or is it the plaything of the rich, a way of massaging their egos and boosting their profits? Of course formally, legally, a football club is the property of its owner, but most fans feel a sense of ownership over their club more profound than can be typed on a set of legal documents.

Every supporter talks about the club they support in terms of the collective. All of us speak of how “we” won at the weekend, or how good “our” form has been, or tell our friends that “their” team is awful. Why? Because players, managers, board members and owners come and go – but we fans are here for life. Cheering on eleven guys kicking a ball around may seem silly to some people – but for so many of us it is part of our identity. We invest our time, our emotions and our money into these clubs. We care. And it matters to us more than they can ever possibly understand.

It is for these reasons that the supporters of Hull AFC continue their protests. And why all true football fans wish them well.