There was a lot of focus earlier in the season on how supporters’ clubs were being treated by Aston Villa Football Club. Eventually, Aston Villa Independent Supporters’ Club was formed and, until now, most Villa fans didn’t know exactly what went on, apart from idle chit-chat that appeared on social media sites.
I had the opportunity to speak to AVISC chairman, Terry Hassell, who told me about the AVISC and cleared up a few rumours circulating on Villa sites and social media sites.
For those who haven’t read your press release/launch statement, could you tell us what AVISC is and what your group does?
Aston Villa Independent Supporters’ Club (AVISC) is an affiliation of supporters’ clubs that have been forcibly removed from the official Lions’ Club network. We work for the benefit of the members we represent (currently around 2,500).
As a group, we aim to build a working relationship with AVFC for the mutual benefit of both parties and promote all that is good about our football club.
Our mission statement is:
Aston Villa Independent Supporters Clubs (AVISC) has the honour to represent some of the best football fans in the world. As chairpersons of the affiliated branches, we pledge to do this in a democratic, transparent, honest and fair manner;
We will ensure that our members are treated with respect and dignity;
We will offer our members safe, affordable and convenient travel to both home and away matches;
We will continue to grow our membership by being inclusive and giving the friendliest of welcomes to those who wish to join us.
It is early days yet but there are some exciting “irons in the fire” in terms of sponsorship, AVFC related events that we will be hosting for our members and merchandising.
There has been lots of talk about why AVISC came to exist. What actually happened between your members and the club?
I would not accept that anything happened between our members and AVFC, to bring about our formation. A lack of open, two-way communication and transparent consultation between our members and the hierarchy of the official Lions’ Club did, however, have a massive bearing on our decision to become independent.
The perception out there is that it was all about one issue – not signing the “code of conduct” – and nothing could be further from the truth.
Prior to our expulsion, there had been growing unease within our clubs at the way the official Lions’ Club network was treating its members (the paying fans). Over the last three years especially, the way the Lions’ Club network has been run has resulted in it being less transparent, less democratic and more “secretive”.
A prime example of this is was, in fact, the way the code of conduct came about.
The idea of a code of conduct and a steering committee were discussed at a chairmen’s meeting at the end of last season. This meeting was attended by approximately twenty chairmen, who had to apply due to expected numbers and lack of space. If you take the official supporters’ club website figures, at the time there were two hundred Lions clubs. This equates to just ten percent of the Lions’ Club chairmen taking part in this debate. Yet, the idea of a “code” and a steering group being formed was passed. Chairpersons (who were lucky enough to receive the e-mail) then had the opportunity to put their names forward to be on the steering group. They were told a ballot would be drawn of interested parties if more than six applied. This ballot took place behind closed doors and six names representing the various world regions were announced. We at AVISC found this lack of transparency and consultation distasteful and disrespectful.
It is with regret that this expulsion has broken up the Lions’ Club network. However, we at AVISC wish nothing but the very best to those chairmen, chairwomen and Lions’ Club members we leave behind. We are all still part of the same “Villa family” and that will never change.
A lot of fuss was made about the £200,000 made available for away supporters last season and how it didn’t benefit the supporters’ clubs. What is your take on this?
The incentive of giving £200,000 to away supporters was, and still is, a great idea. Our perception is that the money was/is administered very poorly and in an unfair way, not only for our members but all travelling supporters who follow Aston Villa Football Club.
As official Lions’ Club branches (at the time of the initiative), a number of which run their own coaches to away games, we were initially excited at the prospect of getting involved in this initiative for the benefit of cheaper travel for our members. Unfortunately, that did not materialise.
Aston Villa officials, in their infinite wisdom, decided each Lions’ Club branch would have to run five coaches before being rewarded with £300 (after receipts had been received). That equates to £6.00 saved per Lions’ Club member who travelled with his or her branch to those five away games. Those who were not Lions’ Club members and/or those who could make their way to/from Villa Park were rewarded with free travel to those five games on the official Aston Villa travel. That would equate to £100 saved per person who travelled “officially”. There’s quite a big disparity there, as I am sure you will agree. This was another example of how the ordinary Lions’ Club members were being taken for granted. They were not being rewarded for their loyalty to the Lions’ Club network but were in fact penalised.
As official Lions’ Club branches, we would also receive another £300 after another 5 games. It doesn’t take much to do the maths:
- AVFC official travel user: ten away games attended = £200 saved
- Lions’ Club Member: ten away games attended = £12 saved
AVFC tries hard to promote the official Lions’ Club and says what a well run and organised network it is,so we wanted to know why they would treat the Lions’ Clubs’ travelling fans any differently.
It is also worth pointing out that AVFC hire ten or more coaches for these “free” games. That being the case, you would expect AVFC to have negotiated a discount with the coach company in question. A Lions’ Club branch does not have this bargaining power as each chairman only tends to organise one coach.
A few of our (now AVISC) members approached AVFC to speak to Paul Faulkner about this issue and to arrange a meeting. We were initially fighting for parity for our members who did not have the luxury of being able to afford (in cash and time) to travel to/from Villa Park to take advantage of the free coach travel. We were not only pushing for equal benefits for our Lions’ Club members but also offering a fairer alternative to AVFC; money off away match tickets as opposed to travel. We felt this would benefit every away supporter (whether a Lions’ Club member or not)and not just the lucky five hundred supporters on the “official” travel coaches. The meeting was not just set up for Lions’ Club members but also to benefit every travelling supporter of AVFC. As we had contacts within the club, we thought we had a better chance of getting the fans’ points across. The official Lions’ Club liaison officer (who is supposed to be the spokesperson/voice within AVFC for Lions’ Club members) was present at the meeting but we were saddened by his lack of support for us and the ordinary Lions’ Club members we represented in this matter.
Though none of us at AVISC are trained accountants, our perception is that AVFC officials have been “creative” at least in the way they account for the £200,000 for improving the away supporters’ experiences. We believe AVFC officials have now gone on record to say that the scheme cost £202,000 last season. However, that amount includes any “lost revenue stream” to AVFC.
Again, we’ll let the reader decide if that is the fairest way and if it benefits supporters’ clubs.
Moving forward, what do you hope to achieve as a group?
We will start by continuing to do what we have done for many years – and what we do best. This includes;
- Provide coaches/transport to home and away games that is affordable and locally accessible to our members (meaning that they do not have to travel to/from Villa Park to get to an away game);
- Hold AVFC related events for our members to raise money for the charities of our choice. Over £25,000 has been raised for charity by the nine AVISC clubs in the last three years.
Most importantly, we will follow and support Aston Villa Football Club through thick and thin without prejudice, as we have always done.
Our aim at AVISC is to get a robust working relationship with AVFC, building on the great work that our clubs and members gave via the official Lions’ Club network but for the mutual benefit of both parties.
Have you had any negative feelings from other clubs because you have gone your own way?
We would say quite the opposite. In fact, the level of support and encouragement we have received via social media and face to face, from a number of official Lions’ Clubs and other independent organisations, has been very humbling indeed.
There are close bonds between a number of AVISC branches and other supporters’ clubs, including official Lions Clubs. This extends to such things as shared transport to away games for the benefit of all AVFC supporters, whether AVISC affiliated or not.
The hierarchy within the official Lions’ Club network may want to ignore us but the bond of the AVFC “family” is strong. Longstanding friendships, some that were built even before there was such a thing as an official Lions’ Club network, cannot be broken easily.
Since your formation, has the club made any attempts to build bridges?
Sadly, but not surprisingly, there has been no contact at all from the AVFC supporters’ club liaison officer or the official Lions’ Club steering committee, not even to let us know that we have officially been removed from the Lions’ Club network, which is forgetful at best or maybe just plain rude; we’ll let the reader decide. In fact, we are led to believe the achievements and contributions our supporters’ clubs and their members made to the official Lions’ Club network over the years have now been “removed from the walls of the Lions Club Lounge” and history! Such achievements include:
- 2 x Clubmen of the year;
- 2 x Supporters’ Club of the year;
- 2 x Most Improved Supporters’ Club of the year;
- 1 x Outstanding Contribution Award.
As you can see, AVISC has at its disposal some really dedicated personnel and strong, active, club branches. We feel we have a lot to offer AVFC as an affiliation and we intend to lead the way in doing so.
We have very recently written to the new CEO introducing ourselves and inviting him to a meeting. We are currently awaiting his response, which we hope will be positive.
If approached, would you consider closing AVISC and re-joining the official supporters’ clubs?
AVISC feel that whilst the current hierarchy are incumbent at the helm of that organisation, there will continue to be a lack of democracy, transparency and honesty. Their one and only aim now appears to be seeing the ordinary Lions’ Club member as nothing more than a cash cow to be milked. The benefits for the ordinary member have eroded year upon year.
The steering group (which has no mandate in our opinion) gave itself powers through the code of conduct that its members wrote. This included the power to discipline fellow Lions’ Club members if they do not support the club in a certain way. Villa fans disciplining fellow Villa fans for not supporting their club in the way the steering group sees fit is quite abhorrent in our eyes. This is not the type of organisation we wish to be associated with currently.
However, we never say never. If there was a seismic shift in personnel, administration and policy within the official Lions’ Club network that led to real benefits for all our members, not just the chairpersons, we would then be prepared to listen to what they had to say. We feel that this will not happen in the near future. Maybe AVFC’s staff could re-think the way they interact with their supporters and look at an affiliation with independent supporters’ clubs rather than one official Supporters’ Club.
If supporters’ clubs wanted to join AVISC, what would they have to do?
It’s really simple: just contact one of the members of the executive board or AVISC directly through the Facebook page.
We will always welcome contact from any other supporters’ clubs that wish to join us, whether they be official Lion’s Club branches whose members feel disenfranchised with the current official Supporters’ Club network, its administration and the erosion of benefits that it once offered its members or other independent/new clubs that want to tap into the years of experience that our executive board and its members have. All we ask in return is that any new club supports the principles of the AVISC mission statement.
Any new club that joins AVISC will be automatically given a place on the executive board and have full voting rights. There is no favouritism, just equality, as members of AVISC.
Do you have any final words?
The events of this last summer are now behind us and, to use some well known quotes, we will “pick ourselves up” and “we go again”. The affiliation of supporters’ clubs that is now AVISC will draw on its experience and “proud history” for the benefit of all its members. There are exciting times ahead (hopefully including some on the pitch) and the good wishes and support that we have received amongst the Villa supporting family leads us to believe that there is indeed a “bright future” for AVISC.
The executive board (AVISC)
I would like to thank Terry and everyone involved with AVISC for taking the time to talk to us and I would like to wish them all the best in the future. The most important thing to come out of all this is that the fans are still together as one, regardless of what might be going on inside our football club.