Working with Ultras

Kevin Rye, 27/04/2020

Working with Ultras

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Key Insights

  1. Understand the particular motivations of your ultras groups. You might even find that their presence serves to improve the atmosphere
  2. Although many have some form of presence on the web, don’t expect a formalised structure
  3. Try to work with your SLO. In some cases, your supporters’ trust might be worth talking to about how to manage the relationship appropriately

‘Ultras’ are a fairly new form of activist group, although they share plenty of the traditions of other independent activists, but are often organised more informally, often online, more like a gathering of like-minded individuals with a common cause, which in most cases is a desire to sing and support the team, and carry out flag displays (what is often termed ‘Tifo’). Sometimes this can also involve fireworks and smoke bombs, something not permitted in English stadia.

As the name suggests, their origins are from the European mainland, where such groups have become important for generating atmosphere at home matches. Most European countries have them, though they are a late arrival into English football.

It should be acknowledged that unlike some of those in for example Italian or Spanish football, English ultras groups don’t tend to have political affiliations. For more on Ultras across the continent, go to the website of Football Supporters Europe.

It’s arguable that they came about because of the drawbacks of all-seater stadia, and often the complaint that ‘modern football’, and the all-seater stadium of The Premier League as a competition, led to the atmosphere suffering.

Holmesdale Fanatics Ultras (Crystal Palace FC) explain their origins on their website:

“The group was formed in 2005 by third generation local Palace lads who had stood together in Block B since 1999 and growing up had experienced the old school days of terracing.

“With football culture having declined through the Taylor report and a new era of football built for the home-viewing market, the group spent its early years fighting against archaic stadium rules and a repressive mentality.

“Up against Croydon Council who threatened the closure of the Holmesdale for standing and a top-down agenda to crush the group from the police and the regime at the time, this period saw countless bans, court cases, raids and even the front of Block B entirely netted off for several fixtures.”

Spion Kop 1906 (Liverpool FC) are another of the most well known, and came to particular prominence in their role co-organising the infamous #walkouton77 with supporters’ trust Spirit of Shankly, when in excess of ten-thousand Liverpool fans walked out of a home match against Sunderland in protest against rising prices. The protest actually followed a process of engagement over the issue with the club which fans argued had not been undertaken properly.

Former Chair, Jay McKenna, interviewed on, explains:

“We sat with Liverpool, and said ‘let’s have a proper discussion about ticket prices, put all the data on the table’, and we set up a working group, and up to a point they cooperated, sharing information on prices, allocation, and for a period we got to have some very meaningful conversations, and some actual two-way dialogue – and they tabled some proposals – until the owners intervened and decided that their was an arbitrary, overall financial target to be achieved.’ The result was that the discussions ended, and the net result, protest.”

Holmesdale Ultras have themselves had their own disputes with the board of Crystal Palace over having been moved for a season from their previously traditional spot at Selhurst Park.

In terms of working with these groups, as with all fans – organised and individual – it’s sensible first to understand their motivations and aims, and work with them as they are, not as you might wish them to be. We’d advise using a stakeholder mapping tool, and working with your SLO to develop the relationship. Some clubs have supporters’ trusts who have good relationships in this area, or like Portsmouth, an umbrella group with all the major fan groups and websites represented.

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