Sunday, July 24, 2005

The Independent: Worlds apart: fanpower at work and play

Worlds apart: fanpower at work and play
Breakaway clubs trust in the new democracy
By Steve Tongue
Published: 24 July 2005

Source: The Independent

Jack Goodchild Way in Kingston upon Thames is not Sir Matt Busby Way, and the Kingsmeadow Stadium it leads to is not Old Trafford, but for the dissident Manchester United supporters getting soaked at the uncovered end yesterday in a crowd of 3,301 it was as good as the real thing. Or the increasingly unreal thing, which is how many of them now regard the former love of their lives.

"FC United. The only club in Manchester not in debt" they chorused amid all the old hymns, and did not seem at all concerned that after a goalless draw against Leigh RMI last week, the new team slipped to a 1-0 defeat by AFC Wimbledon in the Supporters Direct Trophy.

The home side, formed when their club decided to move to Milton Keynes, have, after all, been at it for three successful seasons now, losing only 10 games out of 134 and scoring almost 400 goals in reaching the Ryman Premier League - only four levels behind the MK Dons.

James Alston, 52, a genuine Mancunian, was typical of those who have thrown in their lot with the new United. A supporter since 1963, he was considering whether to renew his season-ticket or not when news came in that Rio Ferdinand had declined to sign a new contract for a reported £100,000 per week. "That was the final straw," he said, "but things have been going downhill for 20 years. Anyway, they don't want fans like me now, because I won't spend the money. They want people like my brother-in-law, who lives in Surrey, goes up for every game and spends a fortune in the Megastore. It's like the website said: 'Manchester United Glazer Supporters. Mugs'."

Supporters Direct was the obvious organisation to be associated with such a game, having backed the formation of the two breakaway clubs as fans' trusts, just as it has the setting up of almost 130 such trusts elsewhere in the country. Earlier this month Stockport County joined Brentford, Chesterfield and Rushden & Diamonds as Football League clubs owned or operated by a supporters' trust, while no fewer than 39 now have a supporters' representative on the board. Andy Burnham MP, who has just retired as chairman of Supporters Direct, has boldly predicted that by 2020 clubs owned by their fans will be in the majority.

The movement towards greater democracy in the boardroom began at Northampton Town in the Nineties, transforming a virtually bankrupt club with supporters' money and backing. Burnham was a member of the football task force which persuaded the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to set up Supporters Direct in 1999 as an umbrella organisation, encouraging similar participation by fans and the local community. At smaller clubs, from Stockport to Clydebank, the result can be ownership of the club; at larger ones - Celtic, Rangers, Arsenal and Manchester United all have trusts - the aim is to exert influence on the existing board and owners.

That strategy worked well for United in resisting Rupert Murdoch, less so once the Glazer family began hoovering up shares, proving if nothing else how vulnerable even the biggest clubs are once they become plcs. As record season-ticket sales at Old Trafford illustrate, a majority of fans will continue watching Sir Alex Ferguson's team, some of them attempting to bring economic pressure to bear by boycotting merchandise; others decided they had had enough and formed their own club.

Hence the appearance of FC United of Manchester at Leigh last Saturday and in Surrey yesterday. Pledges of support and finance have been received from some 4,000 fans. Phil French, who left the Premier League last month to become chief executive of Supporters Direct, describes the growth of trusts as "absolutely phenomenal" and says: "There are now clubs like Stockport and Rushden willingly giving their ownership over into trust control, because they see it as a viable and workable model. There are a lot of well-run clubs, but also a lot in need of improvement. And a small group of clubs are just being run into the ground. How many times have people arrived at football clubs and gambled on the finances and then walked away, leaving others to inherit the mess? I really feel we're at the crossroads of football, and if we get this right, we could change the financial landscape of English football for good."

Getting things right, in French's opinion, also involves supporters having a say in the sport's ruling body, which Lord Terry Burns's independent review of the Football Association's structure seems certain to grant when it is belatedly published next month. "If the FA is to be a body that embraces all aspects of the game," French says, "then surely there should be a representative supporters' voice at the very highest level. We've advocated representation for Supporters Direct or the Football Supporters Federation on the FA Council, but really if we are serious about change then nothing short of full board membership is required."

As to yesterday's main event: "This significant game was another piece of football history in the making. AFC Wimbledon are an example of what fans can do collectively, and I am sure FC United can learn a huge amount from their success. They are part of an ever-growing group of clubs that are democratic, not-for-profit and community-focused and we're hugely optimistic that an increasing number of clubs will adopt this model of ownership in the future."