For all the differences of opinion, the Arsenal game brought about a new-found sense of collective determination. When we are able to focus ourselves on a single, agreeable message, we are stronger. Right?
The night appears to have encouraged a wave of thinking and ambition to manipulate the situation back into one which we can influence. Columnist Tom Furnival-Adams was also gripped by this desire and in particular the value we can garner from the art of protest.
By Tom Furnival-Adams
In 1978, Johansson et al embarked on a study that was intended to determine the impact of working in a repetitive, high-pressure job on the stress levels of a sample of Swedish saw mill workers.
Comparing these workers to those in jobs that weren’t dictated by the pace of a factory conveyor belt (or equivalent), such as cleaners, the study’s results showed that the conveyor belt workers displayed significantly higher stress levels than their counterparts.
Johannsson et al concluded that the boring, repetitive nature of the work, combined with a lack of control over the pace or method in which they carried out their duties led to significantly higher levels of stress.
To apply the findings more generally: situations that we cannot influence cause anxiety and stress. Physiologically, we respond negatively to impotence.
In the context of how supporters respond to the ongoing stadium dispute, this is pertinent. As the situation has evolved since the decision to leave the Ricoh Arena in March 2013, so too has the perspective of fans. The announcement that the club would be playing home games at Sixfields for the foreseeable future brought division and disagreement.
There emerged those who felt strongly that Sisu alone were to blame, and the solution must be to drive them out of the club by depriving them of revenue entirely. On the other hand, others believed that they were obliged to support the players and financially maintain the club through hard times by attending Sixfields.
The majority, perhaps, lay somewhere in the middle: morally opposed to going to Sixfields, angry at the way Sisu have run the club, but also aware that Coventry City Council and ACL are culpable in engineering this mess.
The passage of time, though, has arguably shown that neither extreme is having a major impact on the situation. While the mass boycott of Sixfields may be putting pressure on Sisu to resolve things quickly, it’s now widely believed that the future of the club rests on the outcome of the impending judicial review, which will determine the legality of the council’s £14m loan to ACL. If this is the case, it’s difficult to see how fans can influence the situation at all in the meantime.
And this is where Johansson et al’s study is relevant. It seems barely conceivable that supporters amounting to tens of thousands can have zero influence on their football club leaving its home. The helplessness is frustrating, and it makes it almost impossible for willing fans to know how to make an impact. In-fighting and division are simply a natural consequence of the frustration arising from not being able to influence anything.
A common aim has been to ‘raise awareness of our plight’. While this seems, instinctively, to be worthwhile, it’s worth questioning why. Is there, for example, anyone who isn’t already aware of the situation whose awareness would be advantageous?
It is heartwarming to be the recipients of solidarity from fans of other teams, but there is a limit to how much this actually achieves. Although I support the No to Hull Tigers campaign, I would dispute what my backing accomplishes in terms of tangible influence.
Sisu and ACL doubtless take note of major protests at matches, but the fact that neither seems to acknowledge responsibility means they can both laugh off them off on the basis that they are not the ones to blame.
Some of the Coventry protests have fed into national media and informed stories that have been digested by huge audiences across the UK. But again, of whom do these audiences comprise? Seemingly, the only parties able to influence the dispute are Sisu, Coventry City Council, The Edward Alan Higgs Charitable Trust, The Football League, and the Football Association. Anyone else is peripheral: including our own supporters.
So why bother trying to raise awareness? The Why? When? protest during Friday’s game at the Emirates was brilliantly organised, flawlessly executed, and achieved its desired effect by receiving a strong level of media attention. Being part of it felt overwhelmingly positive. It worked because it centred around a message that everyone could agree on – a frustration at the club’s absence from Coventry – without it being tainted by attempts to establish blame, or to determine with which side we should sympathise (as though we should support Sisu or ACL, not Coventry City Football Club).
For these protests to work, it is vital that they resonate with as many supporters as possible. At the moment, the common cause is a shared sense of injustice and anger at being taken away from Coventry, and a desire for the club to return. To be effective, the message must be simple, and must represent a view shared by as many of our supporters as possible.
The value of that feeling of togetherness that we felt at the Emirates shouldn’t be underestimated. While we continue to stay away from Sixfields, the occasions on which we assemble en masse are a rarity. The minute’s applause at Stadium:MK to acknowledge Steven Pressley and the team’s achievements was similarly effective, largely because of the sheer number of people involved.
Standing alongside thousands of fellow supporters who share your passion, or anger, or frustration makes you feel justified. It injects a sense of hope that sometimes seems far-fetched when you’re alone, watching fans bickering and abusing each other on forums, wondering if it’s worth all this.
In terms of the value in ‘raising awareness’ as a general aim, perhaps it is as simple as playing the numbers game. The more publicity we achieve, the more people there are who are aware, the bigger probability there is that even a single influential figure might be triggered into altering their opinion and doing something positive.
Supporters cannot change anything directly, but continuing to air our discontent shows the few who can that this is unacceptable, and reminds them to keep thinking about it. In this case, protest has the potential to influence indirectly.
Protest also gives the dispute a human angle; highlighting the thousands of living and breathing individuals who are affected. While I appreciate that ACL and Sisu are concerned solely with the club and the stadium as financial concerns, they need to understand that this is not just a financial dispute. We are the collateral damage.
Being a football supporter is a lifestyle choice. It takes a major level of investment and dedication. It involves friendships, relationships, family, travel, community, identity, and history. In taking the club away from Coventry, between them, Sisu and ACL have adjusted the everyday lives of thousands of people by disrupting a whole way of life. Ownership of financial assets gives them no right to do that.
There is an argument that the process of organising demonstrations and sharing in the moment is cathartic. Taking the results of Johansson et al’s study into stress, protest serves as an antidote to feeling impotent and powerless. When we participate collectively in a stunt to raise awareness at a game, we’re taking ownership of the situation; we are reminded that we are the club. Aside from potentially influencing the thinking of key individuals, it is worthwhile for morale alone. If the club loses the judicial review and proceeds with building a new stadium, this will become even more crucial.
You can find Tom on Twitter @tom_fa