Can Aston Villa provide the catalyst for others to follow?

It’s safe to say that loyalty in football is at it’s lowest ebb in the modern day with the division between players and fans continuing to widen at an alarming rate. One major problem is that footballers are opting to live away from the city in which their club is situated residing in secluded mansions in gated communities. Whilst it’s not the most pressing issue in football at the current time it certainly is something that needs to be addressed with footballers now taking on the persona of colourless drones only interested in topping up their vast fortune every week. I remember when Michael Owen signed for Newcastle but refused to move away from Cheshire instead choosing to take a helicopter trip to training every day. How is a player supposed to get a feeling for the club they are playing for or get an idea of it’s history without sampling the town’s atmosphere and mixing it up with the fans? Sadly the connection that once existed between fans and players 20 years ago has long since broken. Thankfully one club is trying to bridge that connection by asking it’s playing staff to move closer to the football club. Aston Villa have introduced ‘the 30-mile rule’ which means all players who have signed a new or extended contract must live within 30-miles of the clubs Bodymoor Health training ground.

I for one think Villa should be widely applauded for taking this step and making it a requirement for their players to move to an area that is full to the brim of fans sporting the famous claret and blue. Last season players like Stephen Ireland and Stephen Warnock were both based in the north-west whilst Robert Pires use to endure a chauffeur driven trip from London every day. Whilst the Frenchman has departed Villa Park both Ireland and Warnock have agreed to move with the constant travelling and lack of community spirit blamed for the bad feeling that existed in the club last season. The motivation for Villa to implement such an ambitious scheme is based upon community building. They want to encourage their players to become part of the local populace, mingle with supporters and generally instigate a broader affiliation not just with the club but the city and beyond. In my opinion there are very few footballers out there who hold a appreciable affinity with a club and it’s fans and go out of their way to embrace the culture and traditions that exist in the city. The financial aspects of the game have certainly caused this partition between the two collective groups with players now able to afford luxury mansions and expensive cars from a very young age whilst fans are struggling to make ends meat in a steadily worsening economy. Whatever happened to young apprentices being sent to live with a local family whilst learning his trade? It offered them an additional education besides the one they were receiving on the training field. Thats something I really miss.

Fortunately Villa seem to have identified that footballers these days are regarded as a separate entity from society and could be declared as being detached from the social circle. One club that has never had difficulty in getting it’s players to mix with it’s fans is Newcastle United. Being a Magpies fan you may think i’m being rather biased but I assure you it’s a common occurrence to see players roaming the city streets and having a brief tête-à-tête with fans. A few years ago I was dining in Nando’s when Charles N’Zogbia and Tim Krul were given the table next to ours. Almost immediately my friend was interrogating the Frenchman over rumours of a move to Fulham which he took in very good spirits and after a few minutes of chatting, interceded with a few laughs, we departed awestruck by the fact these players actually agreed to spark up a conversation with us. A few months later we saw N’Zogbia in Tesco and again he was happy to engage in cordial chat whilst we waited at the checkout. He was really nice guy and a shadow of the stroppy teenager he resembles on the field and in the press. Even Alan Smith and Sol Campbell were happy enough to exchange a few words with fan after fan whilst they sat drinking their coffee outside a cafe in Jesmond. You might think it’s nothing but it allows fans to see that these players are, like them, just human beings and it goes along way to building a rapport that is scarce in todays game.

I’m glad to see Villa are trying to build bridges between their players and fans and making the latter buy into the city and the club. Just a small chat or a photo with a fan can help players build that connection withclub, the city and the people that turn up week in week out and scream their throats raw in support. Interacting with the fans gives players a gauge on how fond the former is of them. Establishing that relationship can be an important factor in players developing ties with supporters and club which could lead an increased feeling of loyalty. Could Villa’s scheme of requiring their players to develop greater links in the community make it harder for them to disappoint fans and lead to them becoming devoted to honouring their contract and giving fans the success they deserve? I’m starting to sound like a stark raving football romanticist. There is no guarantee’s that Villa’s idea will bear fruit and cause a players level of loyalty to shoot through the roof. It’s a wonderful albeit convoluted concept and I hope it works and leads to more clubs adopting the same rule. Whilst the consequences could be dire i’d rather focus on the positives rather than the negatives right now. God knows football certainly needs a whole lot of them these days.
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