When it was announced that all sports across the UK must come to a standstill back in March of 2020, it all seemed a little weird.
There would be no weekends crammed with football, no going to watch your team on a Saturday afternoon at 3pm, no going to the pub and seeing your mates and having a tipple before and after the game, no shouting from the stands, just… nothing for the foreseeable future.
Football finally returned on June 17th, with Aston Villa hosting Sheffield Utd, which saw a dramatic ordeal with, yes… you guessed it, VAR. Well, it was mainly about goal-line technology but VAR still played a part.
That was an early sign that some things hadn’t changed from pre-lockdown. But it just didn’t seem right, no fans, empty stadiums, hearing the shouts of players, managers roaring instructions from the touchline and robotic sounding crowd noise that sounded nothing near to the real fan experience. Not to forget sometimes hearing crowd cheering when a player had put the ball miles wide, and the commentators having to apologise every 5 minutes for foul language.
Preston North End finally resumed their season on the 20th June with an away trip to Kenilworth Road as we faced Luton Town, a game which ended in a one-all draw. We were high flying having been inside the top 6 near enough all season but succumbed to a 9th place finish after only managing to win 2 of the 9 remaining games of the season.
It was no secret that life after lockdown really hindered North End, and many other teams no doubt. The players looked to have really felt it with no fans being able to get Deepdale rocking or no fans in a packed away end belting out the usual North End chants.
But, the fans…
Since lockdown, and still, to this day, fans have had to resort to viewing iFollow, a streaming service provided by the EFL, to watch their teams play unless they are on Sky Sports. I want to venture down a rabbit hole to really explore how clubs, but more specifically, North End, have managed to keep fans engaged with the club.
Many have felt more engaged than ever since lockdown, and some have felt a little more distanced.
I really like the idea of what Preston did in the first few weeks of lockdown. League 2 side Leyton Orient decided to organise a FIFA knockout tournament, which was, in my opinion, a brilliant idea.
? Gooooooooooood ebening and welcome to everyone tuning in for this, a Twitter based commentary on a draw for FIFA.— Leyton Orient (@leytonorientfc) March 17, 2020
I'm the Leyton Orient Admin, and I'll be taking you through all 64 ties tonight – with teams from all over the world competing.
Who's ready?#UltimateQuaranTeam pic.twitter.com/6TuQsQwUW8
Clubs picked fans, players, etc to represent their club in the tournament. Preston opted to enter the tournament, picking a fan to represent them. It was a great start to lockdown by the media team at the club.
I understand that the media team are limited by a lack of staff, and it probably wasn’t easy to come up with new, fresh ideas on how to keep a fanbase actively engaged with the club during a lockdown, but even before lockdown, I have often thought about how the club could come up with ideas about getting the most out of their social media accounts.
Whether that be Twitter, a platform I think a majority of North End fans use, YouTube, Instagram or Facebook, I’ve often thought about different ways that might bring fans and the club closer together.
A Deeper Insight
Over the years, many football clubs have taken advantage of social media, which is a great idea as it gives the club more exposure and can allow the club to grow its followers which is important for future endeavours.
I have always liked the idea of giving fans a better insight into the day-to-day running of the club, one club that really pulled it off is Manchester City, way back in 2012 they introduced a series called ‘Inside City’. A weekly series that ventures inside the club’s day-to-day life, whether that be snippets of training, events you wouldn’t normally see inside the club, or interviews with players.
Even if this was a 5-10 minute weekly video uploaded to YouTube, I think fans would really benefit from this, as it would give us a different view of the club, especially from inside.
“Oh, I do love playing away…”
Another idea that has been sitting in the back of my mind is how North End could go behind the scenes on an away day. Now, I know that might come across a little confusing as it’s nothing major, but I’ve seen many clubs also use this as a feature.
Ben Foster recently started his own YouTube channel named the Cycling GK, where he brings an all-access view inside Watford. He uploads once after every game, showcasing what goes on inside the club in the lead up to games, having a laugh with his teammates, and should they be playing away, he’ll show the fans what goes on prior to the game.
His video from when North End went down to Vicarage Road earlier in the season is below.
If Ben’s playing, which he normally is, he’ll place his GoPro camera at the back of the net, which I find fascinating. It gives you the view of what it’s like to be on the pitch with the players. It’s been a breath of fresh air for the younger fans as it’s given them an opportunity to see what it’s like inside a football club.
However, many fans, more of them being fans of the club that Ben plays for, have criticised the former Man United, Birmingham and West Brom keeper, accusing him of caring more about his YouTube channel than his performances. This comes after Watford sacked Vladimir Ivić after just four months in charge.
There’s No Place Like Home
Another idea that could be good for North End’s socials, and also something the fans might want to see make a return, is a behind the scenes video or social snippets from home games. If you can remember, PNE used to upload ‘tunnel cams’, a short video which, yes, you guessed it, would show what goes on in the tunnel before, during and after games.
Below is the one from when we knocked Norwich City out of the FA Cup. A game that led to Norwich boss Neil Adams getting the sack and Alex Neil getting the job.
Clubs such as Norwich City and Sunderland still do these types of things to this day. I think PNE could take a leaf out of Sunderland’s book in particular. The North East side, in my opinion, really make use of all their social media platforms by uploading short videos, around 5 minutes long of every home game and what goes on before, during and after.
As for Norwich City, they do it differently to Sunderland, but their concept is just as good. They pick and choose which games to do it, normally picking the games that are live on national TV to show what goes on, and if they have a game with local rivals Ipswich Town they also do it in order to give the fans a better insight as to what goes on during derby day.
However, doing this can also come at a price, something Sunderland will have hopefully learned from. In Sunderland’s first season in the Championship after being relegated from the Premier League at the end of the 2016/17 season, they signed a deal with international streaming platform Netflix.
This allowed their camera crews access throughout the season, hoping to capture the goings-on in what many hoped would be the season they achieved promotion back to the Premier League. As we all know, it didn’t go according to plan, in fact, it couldn’t have gone any worse. Former PNE manager Simon Grayson was sacked in October in his first season with the black cats, and in came ex-Wales manager Chris Coleman.
By the end of the season, Netflix had captured the moment Sunderland were relegated to League One after Burton Albion scored a 92nd-minute winner coming from 1-0 down to doom the Black Cats. Chris Coleman was caught on camera arguing with a what seemed to be a drunk fan after the game, then having to be restrained after an altercation with the fan.
So yeah. Let’s hope Netflix doesn’t come knocking on Preston’s door anytime soon…
To round off this piece, I, as a fan, feel as if the club has come on leaps and bounds during the lockdown in terms of fan engagement. Albeit they may be short-staffed in the media department, I think overall the fans can say they’ve been satisfied with how Preston North End have dealt with “keeping up appearances” during the lockdown.
A special mention to the community trust for all that they did during the lockdown, to Peter Ridsdale, who during the lockdown helped deliver hampers to elderly fans, and to some of the players for visiting fans who have been affected by Coronavirus.
It was great to see some smiling faces during such a hard and challenging time.
A few years ago, it seemed like PNE weren’t really open to talk about what went on, whether that be the financial side of things or how the club was being managed etc. But I have to give credit to Peter, and PNE in general for recently opening up.
Listening to his recent interview with From the Finney gave me, and no doubt many others, some comfort in knowing what PNE are aiming to do in the future and how they will continue to try and achieve it.
If you haven’t yet listened to the interview with Peter, you can find that below.
If you want to listen to the latest episode of the podcast, Oli’s penultimate episode with the lads as a co-host, that’s also below.