JAY FREEMAN brings us the story of how two fans took their idea to Twitter and were responsible for gathering the largest away following in the all-seater era.
Twitter has proliferated fans’ interest in the game in the last few years. Whether it’s providing a public forum to vent on a defeat or a place where poor ‘football funny’ images can be shared, fans seem to have got behind the platform. Some fans, however, have used the site as a place to mobilise a massive following, in a way that’s not been seen before. Following their second successive relegation in May of last year, under-fire Wolves Chairman Steve Morgan released a letter to the fans, detailing his thoughts on the unenviable situation the club found themselves in. He was especially frank, admitting ‘as Chairman of the Club I take my responsibilities very seriously; we have failed our supporters, and the City, and for that I am truly sorry’. After the evasive standards the fans had come to expect at the time from the board, his sudden candour was appreciated. ‘We must restore pride and passion into the team, rebuild our reputation and regain the trust and support of our fans’, Morgan said. Nothing has epitomised this more, and how much has changed nearly a year on, than a campaign run by Wolves fans to bring a record number of away fans to a league match.
Since slipping down to League One, Wolves fans have resolutely backed the team home and away this season. Attendances have broken records and the level of support is the envy of many teams of a higher level. On the pitch, the team have fared well this season too, with some commanding performances and an impressive style of football employed by manager Kenny Jackett. As momentum began to build after Christmas – which included a club record nine game winning run – lifelong fans Richard Ralph and Steve Sloane used Twitter and an unofficial club message board to try and get 10,000 away fans to Wolves’ fixture at MK Dons, using the hashtag ‘#10K2MK’.
‘One fan questioned why we needed a “hashtag” campaign instead of just spreading the word but not so many people go to the pub every night these days, so social media is simply the modern word-of-mouth’, Richard suggests. ‘Maybe football clubs need to use social media more effectively.’ So why Milton Keynes and not another team a short journey from Wolverhampton? ‘Firstly, no other ground in League One could accommodate such a large amount of away fans so the choice of MK Dons was obvious. I heard a TV presenter bigging up Coventry City for taking 6700 to stadium:mk; albeit without mentioning that they were boycotting home games and that was their closest away day. Despite having full respect for Coventry and their situation, we thought we could go one better. We haven’t had a really big away day, like a cup final, a semi-final or even a big away cup tie for a few years because our cup performances in recent years have been woeful, so that just encouraged us more.’
This season, the club has taken a considerable amount of fans to away matches. The season opener away to Preston saw nearly 5,000 fans in the old gold and black; already an enormous amount for the third tier of English football. The MK Dons match was, therefore, seen as a marker of the club’s support and highlights the progress made following the torrid few years the club has had on and off the pitch, something they had in mind when they came up with the idea. ‘Wolves fans have suffered too much heartache over the last few years and the club has taken a lot of criticism from both fans and the media. I think most fans realise we have turned a corner and there seems to be a lot more togetherness now.’
Cooperating with the club was something that they made sure of from the get go. ‘At the start of the campaign I emailed the Wolves ticket office to let them know what we were doing. Steve also met with a club representative to discuss potential issues. The club assured us they would be in regular contact with MK Dons and would press for as many tickets as possible as and when they were sold’. After Wolves were given an initial allocation of 6,500 tickets, the two clubs then discussed the possibility of releasing more. A further 2,300 were eventually released, meaning Wanderers were given around 8,800 tickets for the match. ‘We understood issues about safety and a number of discussions were had between the clubs and the local police.’ Health and safety was cited as the reason why the original figure of 10,000 was not given. MK Dons did, however, realistically face the possibility of having more away fans in the ground than home fans, which might better explain this decision as well as the fact that tickets in home areas were only sold to fans with a local postcode. The club cooperated with the campaign to provide transparency as the campaign built up. ‘They assisted by communicating the numbers of tickets sold via Twitter and Facebook so fans could see the sales figures growing. Thanks to that, interest and excitement grew more and more. Putting tickets on general sale earlier than they would normally also helped quite a lot’.
As soon as the campaign started, there were some fans who had reservations on the choice of location given MK Dons’ contentious history, something Richard and Steve were aware of. ‘Obviously we are against the way MK Dons FC were formed. This should never have happened and should never happen again. But this was not about them, it was about Wolves and Wolves’ fans. Some AFC Wimbledon fans expressed the disliking of the campaign. This was understandable but I seem to remember AFC Wimbledon taking a pretty decent following to MK, so if it was okay for them to go, then it’s maybe a little hypocritical to expect us not to!’ Some more criticism even came from fellow Wolves fans themselves. ‘We had a little bit of negativity about the choice of the tag “#10K2MK” but this was thought up before we had any idea of ticket numbers. It was a bit of a gamble, but it paid off and caught the fans’ imagination. Some said if we didn’t get 10,000 we would look silly, but we stressed extensively that 10k was just a notional target and that the idea was just to get a massive following. In the end, how could you really consider nearly 9,000 to be a failure?’
Almost as soon as plans for #10K2MK started in late January, support quickly began to grow. Social media sites were awash with excited Wolves fans, who saw the match as an opportunity not only to support the team, but to show everyone that regardless of the recent past, playing at a level that’s lower than they’re accustomed to, they still love their club and want them to do well. Even the club got involved with the excitement. ‘The selling of Wolves shirts with “10K2MK” on the printed on the back was devised by the club, not Steve or myself. I’m sure it was done to show support for the supporters but some thought they were piggybacking on the campaign to sell shirts even though, by then, the club knew 10k was not possible.’ Fortunately the club faithful responded when it came to snapping up tickets and the entire allocation quickly sold out. The amount was that large that when asked to check the current record of travelling support, the Football League could only go back to 2008 when official records began. Also, in a precursory move to profit on the amount of fans travelling, Virgin Trains put the price up of train tickets for the day of the match weeks in advance, meaning the official coaches were so popular that over 30 left Molineux for stadium:mk.
Hours before kick off, in the warm sunshine, Denbigh and its surrounding areas were packed with a mass of Wolves fans, the variety of which was testament to Richard and Steve’s ideas. ‘Another aim of the campaign was to encourage fans to attend who had lost the “bug” of supporting Wolves. I read comments on websites about fans going who had not been for years and many about Dads taking their kids to their first away game. In this respect, the campaign has been brilliant. Encouraging more kids to attend is absolutely vital to the future of football in general with the average age of football fans rising alarmingly.’ Thanks to the record away allocation, the stadium:mk attendance record was broken with a total of 20,516 people watching Liam McAlinden nod home the winner for Wolves.
So now the dust has settled on the campaign, how do Richard and Steve think it went? ‘The figures speak for themselves. I dare say if Kenny Jackett’s team were not top of the league at the time, it wouldn’t have worked as well, but then again it is still League One and we have had two embarrassing seasons, so it has been phenomenal, really. I was surprised with just how little attention the national press have given such a great achievement, but then they seem to shy away from positive stories. Talking to people at the game, they were having a ball. I’ve heard of no serious trouble, quite the opposite in fact and new friendships have been made. Steve and I did not start all this for individual gain or publicity. We just felt someone needed to get the idea out there and as we are both salesmen, who better to sell the idea?’
When a club with a long history falls on hard times, we often hear from commentators, pundits and sets of fans that they’re a ‘big club’ who ‘aren’t where they deserve to be’. Maybe the attitude that Wolves fans have shown this season will show a few people how grown up fans can be. You’d have to look particularly hard to find a sense of entitlement around the club of late. What makes this campaign and the subsequent learning curve of the organisation special is that Steve and Richard knew exactly where to go to gather support. Like they say, people don’t go to the pub, formerly the place where football fans would socialise, in massive numbers anymore. Twitter and message boards are where those fans discuss football and its many issues nowadays, and thanks to two fans who had the foresight to use it wisely, the biggest away following in the all-seater era was born. ‘I hope in time that together we can rebuild and return Wolves to where we all want the Club to be’ ended Steve Morgan’s letter last May. The performances on the pitch show that the club have lived up to this. The vast support shows that the fans have, too.
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