Why Supporters Trusts Are The Future Of English Football

Sick of fake sheikhs and oligarchs out to make a quick buck? Here's why English clubs should follow the example of the Bundesliga and promote supporters trusts.
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Sick of fake sheikhs and oligarchs out to make a quick buck? Here's why English clubs should follow the example of the Bundesliga and promote supporters trusts.

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Fed up with your pesky chairman? Are your odious owners driving your club to financial hell in a handcart? Do you want to break free from the shackles of the latest sheikh using and abusing your team as his latest plaything? Well suffer no more there is a solution. Stand up to the evil vultures currently hovering over the carcass of your once proud club and take control of your own destiny. So far so good but surely this is too actually good to be true and the practicalities of wresting ownership away from the unsavoury collection of toads and weasels who have infested the club’s boardroom is just pie in the sky.

It is certainly not straightforward with a great deal of wailing and gnashing of teeth to come, as well as copious outpourings of blood, sweat and tears but it is possible. Follow the likes of Pompey, AFC Wimbledon and the dozens of clubs which, over the last decade, have all set up their own supporters’ trusts and now enjoy a significant say in the running of their football clubs and, in some cases, have complete control.

The ideal of a group of fans who not only care passionately but also are justifiably concerned enough to take up the reins of their beloved club owes a huge debt of gratitude to a city that is not exactly a hotbed of football. St. James Park is an evocative name but we are not talking about the stadium that briefly and shamefully became the Sports Direct arena under Mike Ashley. Whereas Ashley claims to represent the fans his reign at Newcastle is more to do with self-aggrandisement and promoting his “stack ‘em high, sell it cheap” retail empire.  According to the brutally frank and disarming words of Andy Bratt, one of the Supporters Trust officials, this St. James Park "is no spring chicken. Our away end is one of the worst in the country and embarrasses us when fans have to stand there in the rain." As ramshackle and run down a ground it would be hard to find in the Football League but this shack is host to Exeter City.  Over the last ten years or so the Grecians have developed a template for successful fan ownership, which is the envy of much larger clubs and is not only one of the originals but probably still best in class.

It is worth looking briefly at the story behind Exeter’s remarkable transformation from virtual basket case to being top of the pile. Back in the early 2000s the club looked as though it could end up as the first casualty of the new millennium with financial problems mounting the club’s very existence was under threat. The board had turned into a refuge for an extraordinary collection of celebrities including illusionist/ magician Uri Geller who as co-chairman, attracted fellow magician David Blaine and to top it all, Michael Jackson to an event in June 2002 at the dilapidated St James Park. Jackson addressed the 10,000 who gathered and proceeded to ask them to hold hands in a display of ‘love and unity’. The uniting factors between this motley crew were a disinterest in football and even in the county town of Devon.

Julian Tagg, a leading light in the birth of the trust and a current director summed up the feeling of alienation when interviewed by BBC South West, "I was listening to the radio and someone said that with Uri Geller and co involved, all we needed was Coco the Clown to complete the set." Faced with this ludicrous star-struck galaxy of weirdos that populated the boardroom, the fans grasped the nettle and in 2000 set up the Exeter City Supporters Trust. The main aim of the trust was to give the long-suffering fans a voice in the running of the club.

Within a few years this noble intention had led to full ownership of the club and since 2003 the ECST has been ruling the roost, and generally for the better. Not only do Exeter boast the longest serving manager in the Football League in Paul Tidsdale they also have shown themselves to be the bastions of fan owned clubs by introducing stability and continuity where there was once chaos and confusion. The team are also doing pretty well riding high in League Two having bounced back up from The Blue Square Premier in 2008 after a play-off Final win at Wembley.

Whilst Exeter are the trailblazers in the UK, the idea of fans holding the whip hand is well established in Europe, with Barcelona being the ultimate example, having around 120,000 members or ‘socis’ with the club being run by the members and for the members. Alongside bitter rivals Real Madrid and lesser lights such as Athletic Bilbao and Osasuna, Barca are officially an association whose members are the owners. It is difficult to understand how this works as it is almost anathema to all British clubs. Maybe it is the unique Catalan issue that differentiates Barcelona from English clubs but it is hard to imagine one of the larger English clubs ever being owned by the fans. Mes que un Club is not a motto that would comfortably transfer to Stamford Bridge, Old Trafford or The Emirates.

But the true cradle of the concept of fan ownership is Germany, where it has been established for fifty years and is considered one of the contributory factors in the continuing success at both club and international levels. Unlike the vast majority of British clubs that have fallen into the laps of supporters because they were pretty much the last resort, in the top two German divisions fan ownership is enshrined in the DFL’s constitution. The so-called ’50 + 1’ rule ensures that all clubs have a majority shareholding held by club members (there are two exceptions Bayer Leverkusen and VFL Wolfsburg which are both subsidiaries of industrial groups, Bayer and VW) and is the platform for the consistent high performance achieved by the likes of German club sides in European competition and, of course, the national side, which re-invented itself after failing in Euro 2000.

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It is worth trotting out some of the more salient financial facts to illustrate the contrast between British and German football. Firstly the 18 Bundesliga clubs consistently generate a collective profit, indeed the German top division is the only European league to have done so in the last decade. Although German clubs’ television revenue is dwarfed by Premier League’s current astronomical deal estimated at £5 billion courtesy of the deep pockets of Sky and BT plus ever-increasing international rights, our poorer Anglo-Saxon cousins spend the money much more wisely. The Bundesliga clubs spent less than 50% on players’ salaries, Premier League average for 2012/13 was over 70% with the average weekly wage now at an eye-popping £30,000.  Since 2000 all Bundesliga clubs have been obligated to set up youth academies and the rise in the proportion of under-23 year olds playing in the top two divisions has risen accordingly, more than doubling in just over ten years, from 6% in 2000 to over 15% at present.

Probably the most telling statistic is that no Bundesliga club has experienced insolvency over the 50 years of the league’s existence. Over the same period close to a hundred English clubs have reached the point of no (financial) return. Additionally, Bundesliga clubs spent £85 million on their academies. In contrast one wonders how much of £85 million Tottenham received for Bale will be reinvested in the development of youth players, their summer transfer expenditure of £110.5 million suggests not a great deal. Spurs are not the only club trying to buy their way into the European elite. One would have hoped that the penny might have dropped when in the year the FA were celebrating their 150th anniversary and were playing host to the Champions League Final at Wembley it was contested by Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.

However, despite the overwhelming evidence that fan ownership is good for you there are still relatively few in the UK and, as pointed out previously, the vast majority of them like ECST are born out of a crisis rather than a cunning plan. Of the twenty-odd British football clubs owned and controlled by their supporters’ trust, only four are in the English Football League, as Kevin Rye Spokesman for Supporters Direct points out “supporter ownership has been shown to work at the likes of Portsmouth, Wimbledon, Exeter City and Wycombe. Furthermore Swansea City have shown that supporter involvement in ownership is possible – and can be successful – at Premier League level, so much so that even Richard Scudamore advocates it”.

Fr away from the untold riches of the Premier League and in amongst the hundreds of semi-professional leagues, lies an interesting blend of all different shapes and sizes of fan-owned clubs. These include those spawned by dissatisfaction at the running of a large club e.g. F.C. United of Manchester and A.F.C. Liverpool, who rub shoulders with some clubs who tumbled out of the Football League and reformed as new entities, such as Chester FC and Darlington 1883.

Then there are also a handful of well-established non-league clubs who have made the transition to this new form of ownership. Take Hendon F.C. as an example, a club established in 1908 and one of the stalwarts of the non-league game, a club that can boast of having played in front of 100,000 at Wembley in Amateur Cup Final against the might of Bishop Auckland. The Dons were also the first team to play a game under floodlights at Wembley. Add to this the fact that in the 1990s their shirts carried the famous Fender guitar logo, which must surely rank as the coolest sponsor of a football club ever. The unlikely connection between Jimi Hendrix and HFC was forged through the man who owned Fender, Ivor Arbiter, who became chairman of the club in 1994.

Hendon also hold a unique record in English football in that for the last 50 years they have stayed in the same division, under different guises and currently known as the Isthmian League Premier Division, the seventh tier of English league football. Since 1963 they have neither been relegated nor promoted and surely there is no other club in the country that has so skilfully steered a path between going up or down. But despite this remarkable testament to stability, the club was left hanging by a thread when Arbiter died in 2005 and the club plummeted into a financial crisis, which looked terminal.

However, in 2006 a supporters trust was set up to safeguard the future of the club and by 2010 the trust took control of Hendon FC with long time fan Simon Lawrence as chairman and former middle distance runner David Bedford as one of the directors. The club was saved although they had to vacate their spiritual home of Claremont Road to raise finance and ironically, considering their historical links with the National Stadium, ended up in a ground share with Wembley FC.  As of late October 2013 Hendon sit thirteenth in the division, handily placed for their 51st season at the same level.

So throughout every echelon of the League system there are heart-warming stories of fans being at the forefront of clubs’ revivals. From the likes of Hendon all the way up to Pompey, former champions of England in 1949 and 1950 and a club which won the FA Cup as recently as 2008 but now ply their trade in League Two after a ruinous string of shady owners sent them into financial meltdown, including going into administration twice within the space of two years. The supporters trust finally took over after a long and tense battle in April 2013 and despite being relegated to the lowest tier of the Football League for the first time in 25 years the average gate at Fratton Park this season is an extraordinary 16,000. If there was ever the need for unequivocal evidence of the value and strength of the fan ownership model then Portsmouth surely provide that in having restored pride and financial equilibrium to a previously beleaguered club. So as Exeter visited Fratton Park on Saturday 2nd November, all genuine football fans should raise a glass to acknowledge two paragons of the modern game.