Words: Ellen Mannens
What on earth is a delegation of 50 Feyenoord supporters doing in a rather inconspicuous suburb of London? Looking enviously at the way the supporters and board of Luton Town FC live together in harmony. It is pie in the sky for the Feyenoord supporters who are greatly disappointed to see that their club may end up in financial dire straits again should the new stadium plans go ahead. Is it possible that Luton Town FC with their approach may have the answers they so desperately need?
“Did you see that?” A Feyenoord supporter is surprised about Luton Town FC’s supporters’ home. He is traveling with the official Feyenoord Supporters’ Club, “De Feyenoorder”, to Luton, a town with 200,000 people, to the north-west of London. The first stop of the coach and the supporters is the local pub in Luton. After that, they travel on to the stadium. This stadium is literally wedged into a typical British estate: the back of the stands border directly to the back gardens of the houses. The reason for the big smile of the Feyenoord supporter is the drinks offering in the bar: whiskey, vodka, rum, a selection of beers, cider. In short, everything an average Brit would drink on a match day can be bought immediately underneath the stands. In the Kuip (Feyenoord Stadium) you have to make do with watered down events lager.
It is only one of the differences between the two clubs. The greatest contrast is the way in which the clubs are managed and the result of this management for both the supporters and the club. A large banner that has been put up in Luton’s stadium reads: ‘Praise the board’, a novel play on words of the familiar ‘Praise the Lord’. This is the way Luton supporters express their happiness with the club’s board, which consists of supporters. In 2003, these supporters had to stand by and watch for the third time in quick succession the detrimental results of the policy of a new manager. Luton Town was back on the brink of collapse. Businessman John Gurney bought the club for only four pounds. He unveiled the greatest ever plans for a new stadium with a capacity of no less than 70,000 spectators. This stadium could be shared with American football and basketball. And another very ambitious plan was to build a Formula 1 circuit that would run around the stadium. In order to attract more people, Luton Town FC had to change its name to London-Luton Football Club. Gurney also saw potential in a collaboration with Wimbledon FC, a club with its home 40 miles from Luton.
The supporters had had enough. They decided collectively not to buy another season ticket which gave the club a financial blow. When the broadcasting rights threatened to dry up as well due to the unrest in the club, the chips were really down for John Gurney. As a final blow, a group of supporters decided to buy shares in a holding company that had provided a large loan to Luton Town FC. Gurney decided to take the easy way out, and left. Ever since, a group of supporters has made up the board of Luton Town FC. The other supporters have a large say in the club through the Supporters’ Trust. This trust even has a veto right. This is a level of influence that Feyenoord supporters can only dream of.
The trip of FSV De Feijenoorder to Luton is intended as a break. But at the same time supporters are looking for similarities between the clubs. Or rather: for differences. “Due to long-term bad management by directors, supporters of Luton Town FC could create a momentum to take over the club”, is the conclusion of Remco Ravenhorst, chairman of FSV De Feijenoorder. “Although the Feyenoord supporters complain a lot and always have complained a lot about the club’s policies, we are fortunate that our circumstances are not as bad as they were at Luton at the time. We, as the supporters, would not be able to take over power at Feyenoord. In that respect, it is difficult to compare the two clubs. However, the reality is that Luton and its supporters have a wonderful relationship, and that would be great to have at Feyenoord as well. Supporters and club basically need each other. Where you notice that the current stadium proposals at Feyenoord create a division in every part of the Feyenoord family, the stadium plans at Luton have a reuniting effect.
Glorified garage doors
The way in which the clubs want to build a new stadium is another great difference between them. “I am looking forward to a new stadium”, says Luton supporter Spencer. Well ahead of the game, he and his wife have come to the stadium so they could get one of the few seats with leg room, as legroom comes at a premium at Luton Town FC. So, the supporters do realise that a new stadium would be useful. At the moment, access to the away area is through a couple of glorified garage doors in the middle of a row of houses. And when a ball is kicked out of play, it often ends up in a neighbour’s garden.
Spencer: “Everyone at Luton Town FC understands that there is no room for an extension of the ground here. This is why supporters, club and Luton council are discussing the new plans together. The greatest pain felt by Feyenoord supporters who are upset about the stadium plans is that nobody is looking at a possibility to renovate De Kuip and that new built seems to be the only option right from the start.”
In the meantime, the English club is doing really well. Since 2008, it is fighting its way out of the amateur competition after having been penalised 30 penalty points by the English Football Board due to financial irregularities. In the last season, Luton Town FC was promoted to the League One and it looks like the club is ending this season with promotion to the League Championship, one level below the highest achievable Premier League. Despite the current success of Luton Town FC, Remco Ravenhorst, and the other supporters, would not be able to cope with a Luton-like scenario for Rotterdam.
Promotion during two seasons in a row: it seems like a miracle for a club that sank so low. “This is certainly not a fairy tale”, emphasises Paul Ballantyne, shareholder and great supporter of the club. “This is the result of working really hard and having a clear vision. Being loyal to your football vision and loyal to your supporters. I saw several times how my club almost went under due to bad managers who were only in it for a quick win. We are going for the long-term vision. We want to build something that is here to stay. A club that will be enjoyed by my children and my children’s children. When you make that clear, people understand. You have to keep on explaining why you’re doing what you’re doing. Why you are not getting Messi, but prefer to work with young players. The same goes for the new stadium: we need each other as a community in Luton and as supporters to ultimately make it a success.”
Remco Ravenhorst is conscious that he should not glorify English football too much; “In all honesty, we would soon find it very dull, the way they are working here. The fact is that, at Feyenoord, we are a bit more wayward than the average Luton supporter. We want more atmosphere, action, and yes, in the case of some supporters, also torches. This causes clashes between club and supporters. But a little bit of friction is also part of Feyenoord. The moment that Feyenoord supporters stop being involved is the moment you have to start worrying."
*This article has been translated from Dutch, having first appeared in the May 1st edition of de Nieuwspeper Rotterdam. The views expressed are those of the author and not those of Luton Town FC.