The talking cure (or one manager’s attempt to win over angry fans)

One of the more interesting relationships in football is the dynamic between a manager and the fans of a club. Some managers become almost universally popular with the fanbase, which is usually due to winning on a consistent basis. Some are made to feel unwelcome from the beginning, such as Roy Hodgson at Liverpool, Steve Kean at Blackburn and Rafa Benitez at Chelsea; which makes the job of winning the fans around extremely difficult. Most managers exist somewhere in between these two states, generally enjoying that the affections of the fans, but at the same time knowing those affections are a bit like the Sword of Damocles, hanging by a single thread that could snap at any second.

In an age where the divide between fans of a club and those who run it is growing wider all the time, one of the very few things that fans still control, or at least retain the illusion of controlling, is who manages their club. Fans know that if they boo the manager loud enough and long enough, eventually either the manager or the chairman of a club will get the message and will act upon it. Sadly, there’s a growing moronic element amongst football fans that can’t separate a person’s job performance from the person, and think it is okay to threaten and abuse that person and their family.

When the fans vocally start calling for a manager to go, there’s very little a manager can do about it. They can’t really criticise the fans who are booing; because that’s a line that no manager would want to cross, so they usually have to take the criticism on the chin and hope they can change the opinion of those disgruntled fans.

Recently, one manager was on the receiving end of the ire of his club’s fans and instead of sitting back and taking it, decided to try a different, more direct approach.

John Coleman (the guy in the centre of the picture) is the manager of League Two side Rochdale, a team from a town on the outskirts of Manchester. Rochdale are known for having a pretty unremarkable history, having spent the overwhelming majority of their history in the bottom division of English football. In fact, Rochdale once went 36 seasons without leaving the bottom tier before they earned their first promotion in 41 years in 2010.

Under Keith Hill, the manager who had finally taken Rochdale out of the bottom tier, Rochdale defied the odds and managed to equal the club’s highest-ever finish in League One. Then things started to go wrong. Hill left to manage Championship side Barnsley, and under his replacement, Steve Eyre, Rochdale struggled badly as their tiny budget caught up to them.

Eyre was sacked and Rochdale turned to John Coleman, who had worked wonders in bringing Accrington Stanley through the non-leagues and into the football league. However, Coleman couldn’t save Rochdale from relegation into League Two.

Rochdale had started this season reasonably well, but a few poor results saw them fall away from being in the hunt for promotion. On December 8th, Rochdale were playing Exeter City at home. Rochdale found themselves 0-3 down at half-time, but managed to pull two goals back to make the scoreline a bit more respectable. As John Coleman was walking off, he was confronted by an angry fan. Coleman said

A fan was screaming at me … he was properly screaming, totally irate. I stopped and said, ‘Do you want to come and see me? If you do, make an appointment and we’ll talk about the game.’”

Coleman thought nothing more about the incident until a few days later someone told him that it had been reported on a message board that instead of calmly offering to speak to the fan, Coleman had offered to fight him.

At this point, some managers would have come out and railed against the fan in question for spreading lies and disinformation. Coleman took a different approach. When he told the fan to come and speak to him, it wasn’t just a way to shut him up. He meant it. But then Coleman had a thought; he reasoned that that fan probably wasn’t the only one who was disgruntled, so instead of speaking to that one fan, he’d speak to anyone who wanted to speak to him.

Coleman put out an invitation on the club website for any supporter, or groups of supporters, who wanted to speak to him, to come to his office and they can have a discussion. Several fans took him up on his offer and Coleman spent about five hours a couple of weeks ago talking to fans either individually, or in groups.

“I’m glad I did it as it gave a lot of people a chance to air their views and frustrations, while at the same time let people hear my side of the story and let them know what we’re trying to achieve here.

“There were some good points made and I answered all the questions as honestly as I could. It is always good to hear the points of view from supporters, and for them to hear first-hand from myself instead of speculation, so from that point of view it was good to put things straight.

“I believe that the fans are the life blood of any club; they’re the ones who keep us ticking over. These fans give up their hard earned money and time on a weekly basis and yesterday was about getting across to them that we are trying our best. We are not infallible and we do make mistakes, but we try to learn from them and I think they appreciated that.

“It is easy to speak to people when you’re winning but I have never been one to hide away from things. I have never been one to shy away from hard work or go into my shell when times are tough, I always come out fighting. I’ve been through a lot of adversity in my managerial career so far and I have always come through it; I believe the same thing will happen now. At the end of the day we’ve lost four games, but the first of those four games was to go third in the league, so it’s not all doom and gloom. I think everybody knows where we need to improve and once we do that I think we can certainly climb the table.

“One thing that came across yesterday was how passionate I am about football. I will talk to anyone for as long as they want about football”

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