Source: The Guardian (David Conn)
Football economics make running a club via a supporters' trust a tough proposition but the ideal is being championed at a conference this week
AFC Wimbledon supporters founded the club from scratch following a relocation to Milton Keynes, and the Conference Premier club is now a leading example of trust ownership. Photograph: Oliver Greenwood/Action Images
This has not, on the face of it, been the best 12 months for the enlightened idea that football clubs should belong to their supporters, rather than be prizes in a global tombola for millionaires. True, Barcelona, the most inspirational of member-owned clubs, won the Champions League in Rome with Unicef on their shirts, beating the Glazer family's AIG-sponsored, debt-leveraged Manchester United. But closer to home there have been sundry struggles.
Supporters' trusts, some of them newly formed, became the saviours of last resort for several stricken clubs around the 2002 collapse of ITV Digital, but the battle to compete financially, against clubs subsidised by wealthy backers, has seen several cede ownership back to single businessmen.
Notts County's supporters' trust voted by 93% in July to give away its majority stake in the world's oldest professional club to the Qadbak investment fund, whose backers have still not been identified. Stockport County, supporter-owned since 2005, overspent either side of their 2008 promotion to League One and went into administration in April. Brentford, whose trust took over a club owing around £2m in loans to the previous owner, old-school Ron Noades, did a deal with Matthew Benham, a Bees fan and professional gambler, which will see Benham invest £5m over five years then have the right to own the club outright.
Chesterfield and York City were also previously owned by supporters' trusts, which saved their clubs from extinction in hideous crises, but then found they lacked the wherewithal to enable the clubs to flourish, and passed them on to local businessmen.
Brentford aside, just one supporter-owned Football League club now remains: the defiantly cheerful Exeter City. Six years and two promotions since financial convulsions led to the club entering administration and being relegated to the Conference, and to the conviction of two former directors for fraudulent trading, the current period is close to the best the Grecians have ever had, according to the trust board member David Treharne. "There is a real feeling among our fans that as the club was nearly driven to the wall before, they are not willing to let that happen again," he affirms.
In the Premier League, where even a club such as Birmingham City has just been bought for £81.5m, owning the clubs has been beyond the reach of fans' mutuals; yet with eyes cast enviously on the Camp Nou, and the Bundesliga, where most clubs are more than 50% owned by fans, the idea has taken stubborn root among a corps of supporters. ShareLiverpoolfc registered nearly 10,000 members prepared to subscribe for a scheme to buy a stake of the Anfield club from the debt-laden Tom Hicks and George Gillett.
The Manchester United Supporters' Trust, fierce opponents of the Glazers' leveraged buyout which has saddled the club with £700m of debt, has amassed a staggering 36,500 members, committed to what MUST describes as: "The added affinity between the supporter and the club that only comes with supporter ownership."
The Arsenal Supporters' Trust, smaller, with 900 members, has accepted that owning the club is realistically beyond its potential, and like many trusts seeks to be a conduit for fans' views. Arsenal's trust lobbied influentially throughout their club's boardroom turmoil, for "custodianship" at Arsenal and against ownership by a single person, whether Stan Kroenke or Alisher Usmanov.
Supporters Direct, the initiative set up in 2000 by the government to promote fan involvement in clubs, is not trudging sheepishly to its annual conference on Friday, but pledging to learn the lessons of a difficult period. Despite recent difficulties, the organisation can point to trusts having formed at more than 150 clubs at all levels in England, Wales and Scotland, with 120,000 members in total, and £20m raised and invested across the clubs. That stands as a remarkable record of progress for an idea which, 10 years ago, was still obscure, the brainchild of Brian Lomax, founder member of a supporters' trust at Northampton Town, who steps down this year as Supporters Direct's chairman.
"We are not reacting to recent events at Notts County or Stockport believing they have delivered a blow to the trust idea," Dave Boyle, the organisation's chief executive, emphasises. "We believe very firmly that football clubs are community, sporting institutions, not private businesses, and that principle has gained tremendous support over the last decade."
It has also been backed by Uefa, which has enshrined in its strategic documents the conviction that supporter ownership is the ideal model for football clubs, and funded Supporters Direct to extend its work to fans in other countries. "Uefa recognises the growth of supporters' trusts in Great Britain as very progressive," says Gianni Infantino, Uefa's new general secretary. "It is a good model for football clubs – membership clubs which exist for their supporters – and we believe they can also help achieve the objective of financial fair play, where clubs do not make repeated losses every year."
That has been the difficulty in practice here for the mutual model, that whatever the money accumulated by the fundraising commitment of fans, it is swamped by the millions made available from wealthy backers, at all levels.
"The supporters' trust is a great model for a football club because its members are committed to the club being there for the long term, and they attract volunteers prepared to give their time for free," explains David Merritt, chairman of the Bees United supporters' trust and a Brentford director. "However, they cannot change the fundamental economics of football, in which so many clubs operate at an unsustainable level, increasing their levels of debt every year. That has to be reformed, to protect all clubs."
It is significant that three standard bearers of the trust "movement" which have flourished, FC United of Manchester, and AFCs Wimbledon and Telford, were started as collective endeavours by the supporters from scratch, not, like most of the league clubs, saddled with the debts of a failed previous regime.
Telford, previously in the Conference, were one of the few financially stricken clubs to go into liquidation, and fans set up their own to take its place. AFC Wimbledon, promoted to the Conference Premier last season, were founded at the base of football's pyramid by the vast majority of dons who refused to go to Milton Keynes with the husk of the old Wimbledon. FC United of Manchester, the do-it-yourself club formed by fans finally alienated from Old Trafford by the Glazer takeover, are regularly attracting around 2,000 supporters, huge in the UniBond Premier League.
"We look at what those clubs have achieved, and Exeter, and it shows what trust-owned clubs can do," Boyle says. "The last six months have reminded us how difficult it is for supporter-owned clubs financially in the Football League, so while we keep pressing for wider reforms to football, we need to consider the further help we can give to trusts, which are all run by volunteers."
From small beginnings, supporter involvement in clubs has struck a major chord, and been endorsed at the highest level of European football. It has just been fiendishly difficult for mutual ownership to work in professional football's mucky reality and murderous economics.
Supporters Direct's annual conference takes place at the NEC, Birmingham, this Friday. www.supporters-direct.org
British professional football clubs mostly began as mutual, membership clubs, then converted to limited companies, with shares to buy and sell, in the late 19th century. Supporters Direct was launched to promote democratic representation of supporters in clubs in January 2000, backed by the government, with cross-party support.
German Bundesliga clubs have to be more than 50% owned by their supporters, with the exceptions of Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen, which are companies. Fans of German clubs have campaigned hard to keep that rule, to prevent the over-commercialisation of their clubs, against some club directors who want it abolished.
In Spain, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Athletic Bilbao and Osasuna are owned by fans and hold elections for their president and board.