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World Cup Snub can focus the Rams
The RamsTrust Column
Tuesday, January 12 2010

Rams fans started 2009 hoping for great things; Carling and FA Cup runs were progressing and expectations grew of the Rams climbing up the Championship after Nigel Clough replaced Paul Jewell at the start of 2009. Alongside that was a building anticipation of the city of Derby being involved in England’s proposition to FIFA for hosting the 2018 World Cup tournament.

Instead, Derby ultimately fell to Manchester United in both cup competitions and had another scrap against relegation. Season 2009-10 has been disappointing so far - and the city failed to win a place as part of England’s World Cup bid. In December, the FA announced their chosen cities and stadia for 2018.Derby was shocked to learn that it was not included, despite a bid that was ‘fully compliant’ with the FA’s requirements. Bids from Leicester and Hull also missed out.

The FA asserted that they wished to spread the regional representation geographically across the whole nation and the East Midlands will be represented by Nottingham. No doubt they have been chosen as a larger central city - but Nottingham doesn’t have the recent, established international venue and proven capability that Derby already possesses at Pride Park Stadium. Derby has staged several sell-out England Under-21 games, Premier League football and a full England international, as well as the Ladies FA Cup Final, previously monopolised by Nottingham.

Rams’ CEO Tom Glick couldn’t understand the decision, saying that it did not fit the FA’s stated desire for a ‘low-risk’ strategy in terms of financing and appropriate resources. Tom observed that Nottingham doesn’t have an adequate stadium, or confirmed site, or finance and agreements between local authorities and Nottingham Forest. In fact, the cost of building a new stadium in Nottingham will be four times that of expanding Pride Park Stadium to the required capacity.

Rams’ legend Roy McFarland called the FA’s choice of Nottingham over Derby ‘bewildering’. Even more mystifying was their selection of the township of Milton Keynes to host 2018 tournament games. In choosing West Country venues, their inclusion will greatly boost that region even if the area doesn’t host top flight football. Expectations that Plymouth Argyle and the Bristol clubs can sustain 40,000+ capacity stadia or assemble high-flying teams do seem fanciful.

The politics of regeneration, influence of development agencies and the principle of inclusivity all bore upon the FA’s decisions. Clearly, some of the FA’s choices lack the football legacy and facilities already in place at Derby. The stadium and training complex, the region’s fine tourist attractions and accommodation facilities, easy transport links and central location ultimately counted for little in the final scheme of things.

The FA chose five venues where new stadia have yet to be built - but Derby will miss out on the anticipated commercial benefits, tourism, corporate backing and global exposure. The decision was a huge disappointment to Derby City Council and the football club.

The choice of Milton Keynes was exasperating.  The MK Dons are the undesirable endorsement of football franchising within the League structure. It’s apparent that the FA has now condoned such club-pirating by selecting them above Derby and other contenders. The term ‘franchise’ has a quite different and benign meaning (as “business branding”) to Derby’s American-led ownership.

It has a purely commercial definition to the Rams’ board members, but for many English football fans Milton Keynes Dons is a stolen club. MK simply disenfranchised the original Wimbledon FC in May 2002, relocating with permission from the FA but against the wishes of the loyal fans of SW19. MK originally even laid claim to Wimbledon’s football playing record and heritage upon taking the established League club up to Buckinghamshire. The integrity of ‘the beautiful game’ was corrupted at a stroke by transplanting the London club’s heart into a nondescript hockey stadium in Milton Keynes. Now, their inclusion cheapens England’s 2018 bid.

“MK Dons” is a misnomer in itself - they even appropriated Wimbledon FC’s nickname. The borrowed team attracts gates of circa 10,000 in that large catchment area; their FA Cup 3rd Round tie against Premier League Burnley attracted almost 12,000. It is hardly a footballing hotbed.

As one fan wrote of the MK inclusion, “The people who connived to bypass the league system's supposed meritocracy are being rewarded for bucking the rules”. In their preference for Milton Keynes, the authorities have betrayed the very principle upon which football competition was founded - meritocratic progress through the leagues on the field. If the World Cup itself is supposed be the primary embodiment of the ‘beautiful game,’ as a fair and open global sporting competition, MK’s proposed participation in England 2018 clearly contradicts its very principles.

To many UK football fans it’s a cop-out, demonstrating the FA’s acquiescence to commercial opportunism against the interests of the Wimbledon SW19 club and its supporters. Wimbledon AFC was born after the displacement of their team and League status to Milton Keynes, and is progressing through the lower leagues in accordance with the sport’s time-honoured regulations.

Wimbledon fans are distressed and disgusted by the FA’s decision. The Wimbledon Independent Supporters Association (WISA) has complained strongly to the FA. Luton Town’s supporter trust also condemned the decision. In an open letter to FA Chief Executive Ian Watmore, WISA described the decision as ‘misguided’ and ‘shameful’ and demanded the removal of Milton Keynes from the chosen list of 2018 tournament participants. They also reiterated their condemnation of the FA’s action to sanction the transplant of their team to Buckinghamshire; the governing body was said to have abdicated its responsibility to uphold its own rules by allowing the move to MK.

WISA added that  “...Milton Keynes were handed a team which at that point was in the (then) Division One, without having had to go through the normal process of developing a club that advances on merit by the accepted method of scoring more goals and winning more games than its opponents. “In a word, they cheated. And cheating has no place in football. Yet by this latest decision, the Football Association has condoned an act of thievery which strikes at the very integrity of the game”.

MK supremo Pete Winkleman’s Buckinghamshire train-set somehow caught the FA’s eye, despite its close proximity to London. His ‘work in progress’ has a very long way to go to gain credibility with many football supporters. FA chief Brian Mawhinney said: “...we felt we should have a sprinkling of tomorrow as well”, but this decision in favour of Milton Keynes contradicts the rules of competition and cannot bode well for the future for English football.

The promotion of Derby’s own 2018 hosting bid was ultimately found wanting, and the successful venues certainly enjoyed more media visibility - locally and nationally. Seemingly marginal bids won credibility by engaging more effectively than Derby with their local population and at all levels of the media - and that’s a telling factor in why our city lost out.

The officials driving Derby’s proposition didn’t create sufficient momentum to engage their football public. Their primary consumer target group for the region’s anticipated World Cup events knew something of our bid - but weren’t really part of it. Merely exhorting Derby County’s 30,000 regulars to e-mail the FA’s 2018 website in support of Derby’s proposition seemed a token gesture to fans and little input was engendered.

Derby’s bid for a slice of the 2018 cake was something happening at the City Council offices and the club, instead of projecting the promise of a football festival in which the fans were in partnership with their club. The effort didn’t amount to an inclusive campaign with a bold mission statement that promised meaningful participation for the Derby community to identify with and work towards. Certainly, RamsTrust did not receive any contact from the football club or City Council to enlist their help to promote the bid.

“Team Derby”, the Council-led body driving the city’s 2018 bid was a 16-strong group; it included the CEO of Eurostar and the head of DCFC’s media partners Origination Ltd - but it omitted any representatives of supporters’ groups, locally or nationally. Derby failed to recognise the potential of their team’s own fans and supporter groups as resources or conduits to promote the area’s bid.

Americans are past masters at franchising; they’ve branded and globally marketed everything from Elvis Presley, MacDonald’s fast food and Coca-Cola to the Harlem Globetrotters - and Detroit’s own Tamla Motown soul music legacy. The American-led GSE consortium now controlling Derby County has voraciously recruited a broad inventory of ‘preferred partners’ from their energetic commercial outreach. This portfolio offers everything from mobile phones to car tyres and even labels BBC Radio Derby as their ‘broadcasting partner’ (even though the station has covered Derby County’s progress for decades!). However, Team Derby didn’t sell the “2018 brand” effectively to, or through, their declared biggest asset - the fanbase.

The club’s marketing nous didn’t help to propel Team Derby’s World Cup proposal effectively; the FA panel wasn’t convinced by Derby’s submission but evidently did recognise that chosen hosts had engaged their grass roots fan bases. The Rams missed opportunities to use televised Rams’ games to promote the city’s World Cup bid. For example, the Rams’ recent T-shirt giveaway would have been more successful (and better received) if it had boldly shown Pride Park Stadium in an emphatic advert of Derby’s bid, rather than bearing QPR’s logo and a Championship match date. That kind of promotion would have achieved vivid national impact, because every fan in the stadium - even the Londoners - could have pushed Derby’s profile forward in the bidding race.

Derby County must now forge its own future; in this new decade, Rams fans expect the club’s owners to focus on fulfilling their stated mission - to re-establish the club amongst the football elite. GSE have established a European base at Derby County with an aim to make it a ‘global’ sporting attraction. Will they sustain their appetite for this goal and broker progressive financial backing for the Rams accordingly? As the GSE website says: “we don’t like to do it average”.

The Rams’ current residency as a Championship basement club, surely prolonged by a transfer policy based upon assorted loanees and bargain-bin buys is an extended test of fans’ loyalty. Investment in players of consistent and proven quality will improve Derby’s potential for promotion and ultimately of the restoration of its Premier League status. Looking further, the dream of top-flight consolidation and European contention is surely not beyond a club of our size.

The financial muscle is present among the investment partners within the GSE consortium and they no longer have the distractions, demands and costs of promoting the FA’s tournament bid, or the longer term burden of staging the East Midlands’ role in the 2018 football festival.

In December 2010, FIFA will finally choose which country will stage the 2018 tournament. By that time, Rams fans will hope that our nervous habit of constantly looking up from the bottom end of the Championship table will be just a distant memory. Some genuine progress with the “football product” at Derby County to be reflected in results would compensate for the present disappointment of the city’s exclusion from the FA’s World Cup 2018 plans.

To join RamsTrust, go to www.ramstrust.org.uk or write to RamsTrust, PO Box 6377, Derby DE1 9XP or telephone 0870 4321871 and leave a voicemail message.

 
 
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