A unique relationship: The emotional bond between fans and players

Arsenal Women's Super League crowd
General view as fans look on during the Barclays FA Women's Super League match between Arsenal Women and Chelsea Women at Emirates Stadium on September 05, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

At the end of another footballing season there’s one thing you can be certain of, many players will start to move on from their respective clubs.

But when a player leaves, how do the fans really feel? And is this feeling reciprocal?

When a player signs for a club, fans typically build a rapport with that player. The more a player interacts with the fans, the stronger that connection becomes. This emotional bond between fans and the players they adore is unique and not found in other walks of life.

The level of interaction between players and fans is such a significant factor on how strong this bond becomes.

Furthermore, the longer a player stays, the more likely they become a significantplayer for their team. So, when a player does eventually leave, there is inevitably a feeling of loss experienced by the fans. But the question must be asked, is this feeling mutual?

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A contrast within modern day football

When ex-Birmingham City captain Kerys Harrop left the club in 2020, she recorded a video to say goodbye. In the nine-minute video, she spoke with such passion, at times her voice shaking as she was clearly upset.

Birmingham is a club she had spent 20 years at and obviously adored, but she also had a genuine love for the fans too.

I’m sure many other players must sometimes feel the same when they leave one club for another or they retire from the game. However, this is not always true and perhaps it’s a reflection of the modern game.

By contrast, most dedicated fans do genuinely feel the pain because they are emotionally invested. Not just with their club but with the players who play for that club.

Football without fans is nothing

If nobody bothered to watch the beautiful game then it would simply die. Ultimately, fans bring in money — they generate an income for the clubs. This income may come directly through the turnstiles or it maybe indirectly through TV companies and sponsors.

Sponsors, advertisers and TV companies will not invest if there are no fans. If a football club doesn’t have any fans, then it won’t have any income. If it doesn’t have any money, then it simply no longer exists as a football club. Without fans, football is nothing.

Many long-term fans of the women’s game talk about it being different to men’s. So what makes fans attend games and come back for more?

Obviously, first and foremost, the actual game has got to be entertaining. Teams have got to put on a performance which excites the fans. But what keeps them loyal through the good times and bad?

Many fans have cited it as the connection and feeling part of a mutual community. Not just with their club, but with other fans and perhaps more than any other factor, their connection with the players.

This bond, or connection, is created through actions and interactions off the field as much as on the field. There are three main ways that supporters can interact with the players.

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Player interaction 1: Matchday at the ground

The first one is talking and interacting on a matchday. Usually it is after a game has finished, although it can sometimes be when a player arrives as well.

The most common place for the interaction to take place is by the side of the pitch when the match has finished. Most players tend to go over to the fans who are waiting for autographs and selfies. But often it is simply to talk. Some players are quite happy to talk to fans for as long as they like. However, it must be said and it quite often depends on the day’s result, some players don’t feel like interacting at all.

The clubhouse or bar is also a popular place for fans and players to interact. Or rather, it was a popular place until some clubs started taking the stance that women’s football should be more like men’s. However some women’s clubs are now making the effort to encourage interaction between fans and players in the clubhouse again. They recognise just how valuable this is, which counteracts any downsides.

However, the interaction at a ground on matchday will always be time-restricted, especially by the side of the pitch. This brings us on to the next type of interaction.

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Player interaction 2: Outside of a matchday

Outside of a matchday there is so much choice and variety. It could be a club organised event such as ‘Meet and Greet’ with the players. Other popular events organised by clubs include ‘Open training’, where fans come along and watch the players train. This is then succeeded by a session where fans can interact with the players, to have photos and get merchandise signed.

The range of organised events is as varied as the General Manager’s imagination. Charity quizzes involving the players, fans and food are always popular. The end-of-season “Player Awards” have proven very popular with women’s football fans over the years. A chance for fans to mingle with the players and club staff in a relaxed, social environment.

Other organised events include business networking events where players attend and integrate with the attendees. For example, there have been Chinese cooking demonstrations from the players taking place in a local restaurant. Afterwards the players and fans can interact whilst dining on some tasty dishes.

The events which work best are the ones where the players feel comfortable in a relaxed, social environment away from the pressures of a matchday.

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Not all clubs organise events for a variety of reasons, which can be very disappointing from the fans perspective. Football is a business and all good businesses need to keep their customer-base happy for fear of alienating them. Word-of-mouth marketing is widely recognised as the most effective form, and happy customers will always tell their friends and colleagues.

Of course, naturally, some supporters will organise their own interactions with players directly. After all, a supporter is simply another human being living within the same community. And naturally, all humans are social beings. Therefore, when you get a player and a supporter making their own arrangements, it’s exactly the same as a player interacting with another member of the community who may happen to or may not watch any matches.

Popular interactions range from simply meeting in a coffee shop after training to going out socially in a group.

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Player interaction 3: Online social media

Interacting online could simply mean liking or commenting on someone’s posts to a more private form of interaction via direct messaging. Naturally, different players will interact in different ways. That’s their choice as it is their account. However, clubs often set recommended guidelines and policies for their players to follow.

It’s all about getting the balance right. Of course clubs want to see interaction between players and fans as it’s all good for keeping the fans happy and growing the game. However, this has got to be balanced with advising their players on being careful on what is said online so there are no repercussions if something is deemed as inappropriate.

As long as each of these interactions are done in the right way, they are all a tremendous way to build the relationships between fans and players.

Emotional rollercoaster

Many fans stand by the motto: “Players may come and go but the badge remains the same.”

This may be mostly true in the vast majority of cases but is by no means universal.

When speaking to a few fans about how they feel when certain players leave their club, they’ve been very poignant with their replies: Gutted. Heart-broken. Sadness. Gut-wrenching.

Some fans counteract this loss by continuing to watch ex-players play at their new clubs. Admitedly, this may not be everyone’s cup of tea but if your club is playing on a Saturday and one of your favourite ex-players is playing for their new club on a Sunday, then why not watch both games? Fans have commented it helps to soften the blow and it maintains the connection.

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Birmingham City fans have had more than their fair share of losing players they’ve built a bond with. The mass exodus started in May 2019, ironically after a very successful season where they finished fourth in the WSL.

Ten players left that summer for various reasons but this was just the beginning. By August 2021, just two-and-a-quarter years later, no fewer than 38 first team players had left Blues over this short period. Blues fans have had it very tough indeed.

The 2021/22 season has literally just ended. The avalanche of announcements of players leaving their clubs is about to commence once again. Brace yourselves for a long rollercoaster of ups and downs and shrieks and cries ahead.

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