The roar from outside Stamford Bridge reverberated around a corner of southwest London, but it was felt throughout the footballing world. Chelsea’s team bus was marooned outside their home ground, just a couple of hours before kickoff against Brighton & Hove Albion on Tuesday night. It led to Chelsea legend and the club’s technical advisor, Petr Cech, coming out onto Fulham Road, pleading with Chelsea’s fans to move on, promising to “sort it out” and reminding them “you have a team.”
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The anger against the proposed Super League — announced late Sunday night — was there in blue and white, a physical manifestation of the outpouring of fury from around the United Kingdom at the plans of the 12 clubs to form the breakaway league. “You greedy bastards, you’re ruining our club,” was one chant. Another was: “It’s not football anymore.” Some more-colourful chants were directed solely at Real Madrid president Florentino Perez.
Minutes later, the house of cards began to fall. Reports emerged Chelsea were preparing to pull out. The news filtered through the crowd. A cheer went up as if they’d won the league. Blue smoke filled the air. Manchester City’s withdrawal followed; then came the apologies, resignations and widespread backpedalling.
But out of this, in a year when fans have been unable to attend matches due to the coronavirus pandemic and the sport has reverberated around empty stadiums, the club owners can be under no illusion as to how important supporters are to football. Even Tottenham Hotspur sacking Jose Mourinho was relegated in the news agenda by this seismic event in football. Here’s the story of how supporters forced the six clubs’ owners into an embarrassing U-turn within 48 hours of the Super League’s controversial unveiling.
The reports of the Super League first broke on Sunday afternoon, around the time Arsenal equalised against Fulham. Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta was the first to be asked about it in his post-match news conference; later, Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was questioned about it after they beat Burnley. Both looked slightly bewildered by the news breaking, while social media was starting to whip itself into a frenzy.
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The proposed outline of this new competition — later confirmed that evening — suggested 12 clubs (Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Real Madrid, AC Milan, Internazionale and Juventus) had signed an agreement to form a new Super League, which would see 15 spots guaranteed for its “founder members.” The Premier League issued a quick condemnation, and its sentiments were later followed by the FA, UEFA and other stakeholders. It had seemingly broadsided the other 14 Premier League clubs; sources told ESPN that at least two of the clubs’ players and managers found out about the Super League via social media.
Three hours after the reports emerged in The Times, the Football Supporters’ Association (the representative body for supporters in England and Wales) posted its statement: “The FSA is totally opposed to the proposals which seek to create a breakaway ‘European Super League.’ The motivation behind this so-called Super League is not furthering sporting merit or nurturing the world’s game — it is motivated by nothing but cynical greed. This competition is being created behind our backs by billionaire club owners who have zero regard for the game’s traditions and continue to treat football as their personal fiefdom. The FSA, and no doubt supporters across the continent, will continue to fight against its creation.”
Statements from the six clubs’ supporters’ groups followed. As the news broke, the Chelsea Supporters’ Trust (CST) Slack group was frenetic, according to board member Dan Silver. They regrouped, decided on their tone, and called it “the ultimate betrayal” and a decision that had been made “with no consideration for the loyal supporters, our history, our future or the future of football in this country.”
The Arsenal Supporters’ Trust (AST) called it the “death of everything football should be about” while the Liverpool Supporters Union — the Spirit of Shankly — said they were “appalled” and said owners Fenway Sports Group (FSG) had “ignored fans in their relentless and greedy pursuit of money.” Manchester City’s 1894 atmosphere group said “[the] plans could devastate domestic football.” Tottenham Hotspur Supporters’ Trust (THST) said the club’s owners was risking “it all” for “avarice and self-aggrandisement.”
The level of anger prompted the UK’s government into action. Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, posted on Twitter: “Football supporters are the heartbeat of our national sport and any major decisions made should have their backing” and said the clubs involved “must answer to their fans and the wider footballing community before taking any further steps.”
By Sunday evening, the top trending topics on Twitter in the UK were: Disgraceful, Money, #FSGOut, RIP Football, Greedy. Ex-Manchester United defender Gary Neville’s diatribe against the plans on Sky Sports had gone viral, where he called it “pure greed” and said lovers of the game “have to wrestle back the power in this country from the clubs at the top of this league, and that includes my club (Man United).” He added: “It’s an absolute joke and the time has come now for an independent regulator to stop these clubs having a power base. Enough is enough.”
Despite the growing furore, the clubs all published their statements of intent to join the breakaway league. The first landed at 11:15 p.m. BST on Sunday, with others dropping through to the early hours of Monday morning. AST responded to Arsenal’s statement, describing it as: “The death of Arsenal as a sporting institution.” THST secretary Pete Haine remembers waking up Monday morning and seeing the thousands of unread emails in his inbox with supporters up in arms at what had happened.
“There had been a complete disregard for our feelings and concerns on the issues, with this running roughshod over the domestic pyramid,” he told ESPN.
As Haine went through his inbox on Monday, other European giants — Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund in the German Bundesliga, Paris Saint-Germain in France’s Ligue 1, and 29-time Portuguese champions FC Porto — started distancing themselves from the project. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it “wasn’t good news for fans” and they were looking at their options to prevent it from happening. CST member Silver told ESPN that he felt the way the plans had been unveiled were “the most misguided, misjudged, abysmal delivery of anything I’ve seen.”
Banners started appearing at the various grounds, such as “Created by the Poor; Stolen by the Rich” at Old Trafford and “Shame on you AFC” at Emirates Stadium, as did isolated protestors holding banners and placards (those close to the supporters’ clubs said the protests would have been into their thousands on Monday had it not been for government restrictions due to COVID-19). A group called Spion Kop 1906 organise some of the flags and banners at Anfield, and on Twitter, posted their statement: “We, along with other groups involved in flags, will be removing our flags from The Kop. We feel we can no longer give our support to a club which puts financial greed above the integrity of the game.”
Max Stevens, from Spion Kop 1906, said discussions began on Sunday evening as reports emerged, and by Monday the 20 or so people in the group decided to take action. “We’ve obviously done stuff in the past [but] it’s very difficult at the moment with the situation of not being in the ground to actually do anything in terms of protests,” Stevens tells ESPN. He pointed to how supporters had caused the club to change their mind over using the government’s furlough scheme in April 2020, and organised their protest walkout in 2016 at a plan to increase the most expensive ticket at Anfield to £77.
“We said the power that we have got is that at the moment our flags are on the left-hand side of The Kop and we can take them away. That’s something that the club use for marketing,” Stevens continues. “Ultimately the only way you are going to get John Henry, whoever in Boston, to listen is to do something that affects their margins. They use Anfield and the atmosphere, and we believe that the flags are a part of that, they use that as a part of their marketing scheme.
“So, we said on Monday morning that we were going to take our flags, and we spoke to the two other big groups that organise the flags on The Kop and we said that this is what we are going to do, are you doing it as well? They both came back to us and said, ‘Yeah we are taking ours off, too.;’” They also produced two black banners and hung them on the railings at Anfield. They read: “Shame on You. R.I.P. LFC 1892-2021” and “LFC fans against European Super League.” Chris Carline, the grandson of Liverpool’s great manager Bill Shankly, called for his grandfather’s statue to be removed from outside Anfield, saying he would be “spinning in his grave.”
Around this time, the other 14 of the Premier League’s clubs agreed to meet on Tuesday to discuss further action. Sources told ESPN that nothing was off the table, with options ranging from strike action, to boycotting matches, to points deductions, to attempting to kick the other six out of the top flight. The 14 clubs’ supporters’ groups also backed the action being taken by the FSA, and the six breakaway teams’ fans. Elsewhere in Europe the protests weren’t as visible, but teams were distancing themselves the proposals. RB Leipzig, PSG and Ajax were some to commit to UEFA’s revamped Champions League rather than the breakaway.
Fans continued to make their voices heard: Sources told ESPN numerous Chelsea fans had told the club they were not going to renew their season tickets unless the club withdrew from the competition. The AST were keeping “all options on the table,” but were looking at how they could peacefully protest (and in line with government regulations) ahead of their match against Everton on Friday. The THST met Monday to look at their options, and were planning to make their feelings clear at Sunday’s Carabao Cup final with banners outside Wembley.
By mid-afternoon, the supporter groups from the six clubs and the FSA and Football Supporters Europe issued a joint statement saying they were working together to “do all [they] can to collectively stop these plans.”
Against this backdrop of growing anger, Liverpool were preparing to face Leeds United that evening, a key match in their charge to the league’s top four, Champions League-qualifying places. Fans were starting to congregate outside Anfield; a saxophonist played ABBA’s “Money, Money, Money” as the Liverpool team boarded their bus, and travelled to Elland Road to play it on repeat as the game took place.
Fans met outside Elland Road, Leeds and Liverpool supporters joining forces to demonstrate their anger, with one fan standing directly in front of the Liverpool bus attempting to block it from getting into the ground. Banners read: “Fans say no to Fenway’s Super Greed” and “Love for the working-class game, ruined by gr££d and corruption, RIP LFC.” Leeds mocked Liverpool on their Twitter account, calling them “Super League side Merseyside Reds” — a nod to the name given to Liverpool in Pro Evolution Soccer when they didn’t have the Premier League licence.
A YouGov poll published that evening had shown a mere 14% of the fans they’d asked supported the Super League. By Tuesday morning, reports started to emerge of two Premier League clubs getting cold feet, stunned by the backlash from supporters, and amid suggestions sponsors would start looking at their commercial agreements.
Prime Minister Johnson held a call on Tuesday morning with the Premier League and FA in attendance, alongside supporter representatives from Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United. Johnson talked through the Super League, how fans can get a greater say in the governance of football, and the various ownership options elsewhere in Europe. The Prime Minister said the government would conduct a root-and-branch review of the ownership of football clubs in the UK and promised to drop a “legislative bomb” on the project. Reports from the BBC said some stakeholders in the Super League had described traditional supporters of clubs “legacy fans,” and they were keen to focus on recruiting new “fans of the future.” This was met with further furore.
In early afternoon on Tuesday, supporters started to congregate outside Stamford Bridge. Chelsea had a key match against Brighton that evening, a match they needed to win to keep up their top-four hopes, and with it a place in next season’s Champions League. What started with a few banners and signs (one reading: “We want our cold nights in Stoke!”) grew to a protest involving hundreds of fans. As the tension grew outside Stamford Bridge, and the Chelsea bus lay halted outside the ground, it was down to Cech to try to calm the growing crowd. It seemed to work. Minutes later news broke on social media that Chelsea were looking to pull out of the Super League. The cheers went up, the team bus allowed through, their match against Brighton back relevant again in the chase for a top-four spot.
“The first domino fell in London,” Liverpool fan Stevens says. After those reports broke came Manchester City’s official withdrawal, statements from Jordan Henderson and Luke Shaw on why the Super League was a dismal idea, and other clubs followed. All six of the Premier League clubs gradually withdrew from the Super League and Manchester United vice-president Ed Woodward had announced his resignation. But it was not enough. The mere withdrawal was affirmation of the work supporters had done, but this was a problem of the clubs’ own making.
By Wednesday morning, Liverpool owner John W. Henry had issued a video statement to the club, apologising to manager Jurgen Klopp, the players, the staff and fans. “I’m sorry, and I alone am responsible for the unnecessary negativity brought forward over the past couple of days. It’s something I won’t forget. And shows the power the fans have today and will rightly continue to have,” he said.
Arsenal had also issued a grovelling statement, but it fell short. “We welcome the apology, although Stan Kroenke personally should apologise and put his name to the statement,” an AST spokesperson told ESPN.
Manchester United co-owner Joel Glazer also offered his apology, 18 hours after the original statement of their withdrawal was issued, and Woodward’s resignation announced. “Over the past few days, we have all witnessed the great passion which football generates, and the deep loyalty our fans have for this great club,” said Glazer, who was going to be the Super League’s vice-chairman. “You made very clear your opposition to the European Super League, and we have listened. We got it wrong, and we want to show that we can put things right. Although the wounds are raw and I understand that it will take time for the scars to heal, I am personally committed to rebuilding trust with our fans and learning from the message you delivered with such conviction.”
Manchester City CEO Ferran Soriano also apologised, saying the club “failed to remind ourselves of the unbreakable link between the passion of our fans and the right to have the opportunity to earn success.”
But from talking to supporters from the big six, these wounds will take time to heal. The battle over the ever-commercialising nature of football, and distanced owners, is far from over.
Tottenham Hotspur fans protested outside their stadium on Wednesday, with one banner reading: “ENIC out — sold a soul you did not own.” The THST met on Wednesday evening to discuss their position and what possible further action they’d seek from the club.
For those at Arsenal, #KroenkeOut trended on Wednesday. “This reinforces our view that Stan Kroenke is not fit to own Arsenal football club,” an AST spokesperson told ESPN. “Stan Kroenke should own the situation. He made a promise when he took over the club he would meet with fans and he’s not done it once.”
On Thursday a group of Manchester United supporters broke into the club’s Carrington training base in protest at the failed plans for a European Super League before leaving after a conversation with manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The banners read “Glazers out” and “We decide when you play.”
“I think we have momentum here and we’ve got different fan groups involved from different clubs and we’ve proven again that fans do hold the power,” Stevens from Spion Kop 1906 says. “We don’t have to go back to what we had before, because that wasn’t very good either and nor where the reforms that UEFA passed through on Monday, which is effectively a watered-down version of the Super League.
“But I don’t think any of this gets resolved until we have fans on club boards. Are they making these mistakes because they’re out of touch, not in the city, and don’t know the feeling of the city?” His hopes are echoed by those at the other clubs.
Although Haine would love the Tottenham Hotspur supporters to be able to purchase a controlling stake of the club, it’s an expensive dream. “I think there’s much more of a drive for a fan representative on the board. I think that is much more likely and much more realistic.” But trust also has to be re-earned.
At Chelsea, the CST are contemplating their next course of action, saying they have “little or no confidence” in chairman Bruce Buck and CEO Guy Laurence, saying both of their positions were, in their view, “untenable.” “Chelsea didn’t do the right thing,” CST’s Silver says. “They stopped doing the wrong thing.”
But in a fragmented and turbulent time for football supporters, they are united. “Without all of the clubs working together, we wouldn’t have this result,” was Stevens’ take. “I don’t think they can ever underestimate our power. In the future, if something’s going to happen or need to happen, hopefully they’ll now sit down with the fans,” Silver says. And at Spurs, Haine is proud of how supporters from all clubs have challenged the owners and halted the Super League plan in its tracks.
“We’ve shown firm pressure can bring change [but] I really do believe that there’s a lot of damage done to the reputation of [Tottenham],” he says. “And not just our club, you know, and you’re seeing similar sort of comments from Manchester United, Manchester City and from Liverpool. And from Arsenal, and from Chelsea. So yeah, there’s a lot of damage to be repaired by those owners.”