Loyalty in football

Loyalty is an often-discussed topic amongst football fans. Be it the perceived loyalty of long-serving players such as Brighton’s former striker Gary Hart or the perceived lack of it from the currently loaned out Brighton striker Florin Andone. Many of Hart’s former managers regularly praised him for his commitment, dedication and work-rate, but despite his evident talent Andone’s behaviour at the club was so divisive that journalist Paul Hayward joked he’d be holding his leaving party in a phone box before his departure to join Turkish giants Galatasaray on loan this summer.

But loyalty isn’t just about being liked by interested parties. The Oxford Dictionary definition of loyalty is “the quality of being faithful in your support of someone or something.”

Whilst it’s easy to see that Hart fits this definition far better than Andone, based on his recent interview with the Athletic the later clearly felt that the club didn’t deserve a faithful dedication to the cause based on how he had been treated. In contrast Gary Hart regularly stated that he expected little and was just happy to be a professional footballer, and his determination was almost undying despite the relatively limited renumeration and training facilities he had at the club during his time. The loyalty of those within a club relies heavily on the environment that exists and modern football has many recent examples like Andone’s that suggest the environment is far from ideal.

Loyalty isn’t just about players though. Whilst fans demand it from their club’s players, many supporters fail to act in a similar fashion.

At Arsenal, led by the YouTube channel Arsenal Fans TV there is a culture of regular and at times ferocious criticism of players and management. And at its heart is the fans YouTube channel which has encouraged the hounding of key figures at the club, no more so than the regular and viscous protests that were held against former manager Arsenal Wenger. A trend continued after his departure with the latest figure of the fans ire Granit Xhaka who’s perceived lack of dedication and loyalty has made him a scapegoat for Arsenal’s recent poor form.

All of these are examples of how the changes in the funding structure of the football industry in recent decades has altered the power of the different stakeholders. The investors and the loyalty of their key revenue source; the TV corporations, are of the upmost importance. In contrast supporters are becoming a marginalised interest group in the sport and an ignored voice. And as such the players are now far more motivated by the loyalty they are shown from the owners of their club and their image in the media as presented by the TV corporations, than their reputation amongst supporters of their club.

When it comes to owners, some clubs are luckier than others and as Brighton fans we are incredibly lucky to have Tony Bloom as Chairman. He’s not just a fan of the club from a young age, but someone whose family has been involved at the club for decades and a person that was on the board at the club long before becoming Chairman. As such the history and identity of the club is ingrained within him and we are unlikely to get the types of missteps that some modern football club investors who have been attracted to English football primarily by the financial possibilities have become notorious for. You only have to compare his reign as chairman to other clubs such as Cardiff, Bury, Sunderland or Hull to appreciate that. Clubs where owners have come in and even if their actions were well intentioned, they have destroyed the harmony amongst supporters and left the club in a mess.

However even with the best possible owner of the club, they don’t always act with the highest levels of loyalty. Take the sacking of former manager Chris Hughton for example. Hughton was the man that led the club to achieve Bloom’s ultimate goal of top flight status, and kept the club there for two seasons. However the perceived lack of entertainment and worrying loss of form meant he lost his job regardless, mainly because the club’s topflight status and the club’s reputation within it are far more important than loyalty to past achievements. The club didn’t want to risk the loss of tens of millions of pounds in TV revenue and slowly getting the reputation as the new Stoke City that neutrals don’t wants to watch, and so sacked Hughton in favour of a more attack-minded and exciting appointment in Graham Potter.

In an industry with a culture where results are expected quickly and progress is expected almost indefinitely, it could easily be argued that the loyalty of people like Chris Hughton should be praised. Instead they have are often roundly criticised by supporters as soon as things go wrong, supporters who perceive themselves as the truly loyal party at the club.

But then again supporters’ voices aren’t listened to much in the modern Premier League era where clubs are driven by the TV corporations who almost entirely fund their organisations. So it’s no wonder that criticism of others arises from a feeling of bitterness and frustration.

Another example of these changes is the FA Cup. A competition steeped in history and tradition, much of which has been undermined in favour of the increased commercial success of the competition in order to keep it relevant to the clubs and so losing those traditions that are important to supporters.

All this is a sign of those whose loyalty in football really matters. The TV corporations are the club’s key stakeholder and so lead those club’s decision-making processes. As such the loyalty in English football is no longer prioritised towards reciprocating supporters’ loyalty towards their clubs but the financial support provided by the TV revenue.

In an industry where TV revenue and success are king, loyalty feels like a forgotten skill and the loyalty of the likes of Gary Hart’s and Chris Hughton’s is no longer as valuable to clubs. And so supporters will have to accept their clubs having less of their like and more talented but unpredictable players and managers of the likes of Florin Andone.