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FC United of Manchester, a club run by the fans and rooted in its community (Rebecca Harvey/Co-operative News)
Most supporters have a picture that comes to mind when people talk about football club owners. For those of a certain age, whose formative years were the 1970s and 1980s, it’s the old-school stereotype that pops into mind: the cigar-chewing, sheepy wearing, local boy made good; a member of the city or town’s glitterati who wants to bring the hard-nosed lessons he learned in the business world to the club supported as a boy. But if that all seems horribly archaic and you’re more of a child of the Premier League-era, then the images that come to mind are probably of the game’s new generation of owners: the Russian oligarch, the Middle Eastern sheik, or the passionless, dead-eyed, American automaton.
It seems that as long as the game has been around, it’s men (and it is largely men) like those above who have been in charge of the clubs fans follow. The relationship between English football and the business world appears to be as old as the game itself. But over the past few decades, this relationship has come under attack. A new model of ownership, one in which the supporters call the shots has started to appear, threatening the long-held dominance of the private owner.
This revolution has surprisingly humble origins. Back in 1992, most of the media was focused on the arrival of Sky and the Premiership, salivating over the influx of money, the promise of glamour and the hairiness of Richard Keys’ arms. Against this background the financial plight engulfing lowly Northampton Town FC never really stood a chance.
The Cobblers were facing liquidation, having been driven to the brink by their chairman, Michael McRitchie and his debt-fuelled attempts to improve the club’s footballing fortunes.
With no new investors on the horizon, the supporters there organised to help the club out of its financial hole. Although fans of all colours had been doing this since the professional game’s inception, they’d always done so on the understanding that the club would give nothing back in return. It was a one-way-street that suited both parties, with each believing that supporters had no role to play in the running of the club.
But on this occasion things would be different. Scarred by the board’s response to a previous effort when the fans had helped out financially, which had been rewarded by the miserly gift of six blazer badges, the supporters at Northampton demanded that this time they would get something better in return.
A democratically structured Industrial and Provident Society (IPS) was created that pooled individual investments from fans to buy a stake in the club. Supporters joined the IPS as shareholders, with their capital entitling them to one share and one vote. This would be used to elect a board and vote on issues relevant to the fans, such as stadium developments, ticket pricing and annual budgets.
Via the creation of the Northampton Town Supporters Trust (NTST) the fans were able to become part of the financial resurrection of the club. Not only did the Trust buy a stake it also gained two positions on the board; bringing to life the concept of supporter ownership for the first time.
For those involved in the NTST, such as its chairman Brian Lomax (the man credited with first dreaming up this model) there was a determination that the club would now be run in a different way.
“Football was beginning to change; you could see that in the early 1990s. Clubs were becoming obsessed with money and gradually divorcing themselves from the fans. Although this trend was most acute in the top-flight, it was infecting the entire league system. We saw Northampton Town as a vital part of the local community and not just a business. Because of this, it was important that the club integrated itself with that community. In practice, this meant that we worked hard for the club to create community programmes, to ensure that local people could afford to get to a game and that no-one would be disenfranchised from our football club.”
Brian and his fellow members in the Trust turned Northampton into one of the most progressive clubs in the Football League and set a precedent that would be followed by the many trusts that have populated the game over the past two decades. And these have been numerous.
Since 1992, with the backing of Supporters Direct (a quango established by the Labour Government in 2000 to promote community ownership in football) organisations similar to the NTST have proliferated across the sport. In English football today there are currently 104 of them, 73 of which are in either the top-flight or the Football League. Although not all own shares, many do. And there are even some that possess a majority shareholding, like the trusts at AFC Wimbledon, Exeter City and Portsmouth.
Where trusts have gained control, a greater effort to engage with the local community has usually followed. It’s an approach best exemplified by FC United of Manchester, the supporter owned club set-up by fans of Manchester United in 2005; a move precipitated by the club’s takeover by the Glazer family via a controversial leveraged buy-out.
FC United is unique at its level of English football, and rare when compared to clubs in the top-four tiers, in having its obligations the local community written into its constitution. The club works with the elderly, the unemployed and the homeless and has garnered widespread acclaim and a fair few awards too for its approach; such as the Cooperative UK’s Cooperative Excellence Award in 2009 for its cutting edge work with local communities.
“For decades, football has appeared to be only about money” argues Andy Walsh, general manager of FC United. “Since the arrival of Sky and the Premier League” he continues “clubs have become increasingly divorced from their supporters and dislocated from their surrounding communities. But for us, a strong connection to the community and the area where we are based is an integral part of what it means to be a football club.”
When professional football first emerged in England, a time before local businessmen ran things, and long before the arrival of the oligarchs and the sheiks, clubs were run and owned by the fans. They were also rooted in the communities from which they emerged, often having a strong relationship with local churches, workplaces and other bastions of working-class life. The supporters trust movement is bringing this model back to life and hoping to create a game where football is no longer just about money and a football club is more than just a business.
Jim Keoghan is author of Punk Football: the rise of fan ownership in English football, which is published by Pitch Publishing.