In the wake of their 9-1 destruction by Tottenham on Sunday, Wigan’s players decided to refund the fans who made the long trip to London.
The gesture has received widespread approval and praise, serving as an antidote to those who argued players and clubs were losing touch with the common fan. The whole event throws up an intriguing question – should football fans encourage the cultivation of financially focused apologies from their clubs? If not, why not?
Within 24 hours of the worst defeat in Wigan’s 31-year league history, embarrassed captain Mario Melchiot made an unexpected announcement. Explaining the reasoning behind a pay-out, the right-back said: “We feel that as a group of players we badly let down our supporters. This is a gesture we have to make and pay them back for their tremendous loyalty.’’ The money will come directly out of the players’ pockets. With as little as 400 fans in the away end of White Hart Lane, the pay-out is estimated at just £10 000. Although a sum unlikely to dent a Premier League player’s wage packet, it is hard to be critical of the spirit behind the move. It is not the first example of fan compensation this season either – German side Energie Cottbus refunded 600 fans in April after a 4-0 loss to Schalke.
There is certainly something about the concept that feels intrinsically wrong, even ridiculous. Could there for instance be a time where we soon see football clubs as products and fans nothing more than consumers? Perhaps your manager will promise a trophy within three seasons – should you be given a receipt in case the club fails to ‘do what it said on the tin,’ and thereby become eligible to have your season tickets refunded? Michael Brunskill, a spokesman for the Football Supporters’ Federation, pointed out that such a future remains unimaginable: “It’s not something you could demand from clubs or write into the contracts of players.’’
A Brazilian league game 11 years ago made it equally apparent that football fans have no appetite for the concept either. In September 1998, Flamengo were on a run of eight matches without a win. The Club Presidente, Kleber Leite, had such faith that the tide would turn that he promised the fans a ticket refund if they lost their next match against Portuguesa – a game they went on to lose 3-2. Flamingo’s attendance for the game was a massive 52 000. Yet, upon the final whistle, the vast majority of fans ripped up their tickets, nullifying their claims. This seemingly nonsensical behaviour is an important window into the psyche of football fans and their incompatibility with the concept of refunds. It shows that financial compensation is an initially appealing concept, but however much we praise the noble intentions of the club, a refund is ultimately an empty gesture. Quite simply, it’s not your midfield busting a gut to track back, it’s not the manager making tactical sense, it’s not three priceless points.
Latics supporters have until December 4 to claim a full refund. Discovering how many will happily accept their money back will be intriguing. This writer can’t help but think they will feel very uncomfortable in doing so. Indeed, it wouldn’t be entirely surprising to see a mirror of the Flamengo case – simply because, as a football fan, it feels wrong to be compensated in money for loyalty and faith. It is as nonsensical as patting someone on the back for his ability to breathe. Staying loyal to your team despite diabolical displays is at the core of what it is to be a football fan – it’s woven into the fabric of a supporter’s DNA. Indeed, there is almost something cathartic and pleasurable about returning to the ground a week on from a miserable defeat – that moment upon entering the ground once more, a week of gloomy depression finally giving way to a swell of optimism that this game will be different, a fresh start. No-one can deny that memories of desperate times make experiences of heroic performances all the more sweet. Just ask fans of Hull, a team who have finally reached the top tier of football after over a century spent in lower-league mediocrity.
Every football fan wants to be paid for their patience, their support, their belief in the club and everything it represents. But crucially, they want to be paid back in a currency that football fans truly appreciate – passion, determination, ambition. If Wigan’s players can display all these things in abundance this weekend, Melchiot and his team will have gone much further to balancing their debt of gratitude than £10 000 ever could. As Jeff Wood, a Wigan fan of 30 years so aptly put it in an interview, refunding fans was: “a nice gesture. Winning on Saturday against Sunderland would be a better one.”