Monday, September 12, 2011

Football's future is in fan-owned clubs

 Source: Morning Star

 Supporters' groups around the country are proving that there is an alternative way to run the beautiful game, writes Nick Matthews

FOOTBALL COMMENT: There has been much debate about the Star's sports coverage.

As someone who believes in the cultural importance of sport, I see this section of the newspaper as important.

I confess that I love county cricket.

Indeed, the more meaningless the fixture the more I like it!

I am also an ecumenical rugby fan, enjoying League as much as Union.

I have, however, fallen out of love with modern football.

This is a complex issue and is perhaps something to do with the way football culture has become ubiquitous, elevating players into celebrities.

I suspect it is because I don't much like the people who play the game - people who despite their working-class origins have become in the immortal words of Jonathan Meades "a bespoke cast of gladiatorial yob-gods, Wag-roasting Croesus kids, who once a week descend from their Parnassian blingsteads to run around for 90 golden minutes of bravura vanity."

As the great CLR James pointed out when he said: "What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?"

The social, political and economic context of sport is crucial to its understanding.

My belief is that the role that football plays in our society has not changed as much as Sky television would like us to think.

After all, in English Journey - an account of a tour of the country in 1933 - JB Priestley describes a game between Notts County and Notts Forest: "Nearly everything possible has been done to spoil this game," he writes, citing "the heavy financial interests," and "the absurd publicity given to every feature of it by the press."

However, he notes: "the fact remains that it is not yet spoilt and it has gone out to conquer the world."

It has most certainly conquered the world, but what I believe has changed since 1933 is not the game itself but the role of the spectator.

Are we just to sit in our armchairs as a Sky subscriber as if watching a soap opera?

Is the spectator to be a mere consumer or is the role of the fan to be more than just cheerleader?

This is the key question being tackled by Supporters Direct, an organisation that seeks to promote sustainable spectator sports clubs based on supporters' involvement and community ownership.

Since they were formed in 2000, they have changed the nature of the debate about who owns our sports clubs.

One of the shortlisted candidates for Co-operative of the Year at this year's Co-op Congress was to give it its full title the Exeter City AFC Supporters' Society Limited, which as an industrial and provident society (IPS) is a bonafide co-op and is the owner of Exeter City.

I have to say when I saw how much they were able to do in their community from the base of the football club, I was bowled over.

FC United of Manchester have shown what can be done from a standing start, raising over £1 million in their community share issue towards the new ground planned to be at Moston.

Fan-owned clubs are on a roll.

Many will be watching AFC Wimbledon back in the Football League after their club was kidnapped and taken to Milton Keynes.

I will be watching Telford United back in the Conference Premier after being rescued by their supporters trust.

Indeed, Telford is a hotbed of co-operation with the local ice hockey team, the Telford Tigers, being the only co-operative owned team in the national ice hockey league.

Supporters Direct have a proud record with 150 trusts at clubs up and down the country bringing £25m of new finance into football alone, with 26 clubs now in Trust ownership and 110 having shareholdings in their clubs.

This trend I believe can only go one way.

With the greatest club in the world, Barcelona, being in fan ownership, what better advertisement for this model could there be?

But it is not just football.

In Rugby League there are now supporter-owned clubs, such as Rochdale Hornets and Hunslett.

Many cricket clubs too are in co-operative ownership, including Surrey, Lancashire and Glamorgan which all feature in Britain's top 100 co-ops.

Modern fans can be more than just passive supporters and fan ownership has to be the way forward.

After all, who is more committed to a club and more hungry for success than its fans?

Who are the only people who can be trusted to stick with a club through thick and thin when the sugar daddies who see clubs as trophy assets bringing them status lose interest or, worse still, the clubs go bust?

I hope our sports coverage can cover more of the political economy of sport.

Ownership really does matter.

Who is profiting from the business of sport?

And to those who think this is OK for the minor league clubs but not for the Premier League giants - remember when the banks were too big to fail?

Monday 12 September 2011
by Nick Matthews