Guest Post by Jim Keoghan
Last season, the closing stages of the Champions League represented a victory for supporter ownership. The four clubs that competed in the semi-finals, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich were each either totally or majority owned by their fans. In an age when our own domestic top-flight is awash with billionaire owners from across the globe, it’s often forgotten that supporter ownership and success at the very highest level of European football are more than compatible.
Despite this, in the Premier League, and in English football in general, we appear to be light years away from establishing some kind of supporters’ utopia, one in which it’s the fans and not some cigar-chewing plutocrat calling the shots.
Although punk football, the sobriquet adopted by the supporter ownership movement, has been knocking around as a concept in this country for around twenty years, the reality is that it remains a marginal force in our domestic game.
Since the foundation of the first trust at Northampton Town back in 1992, similar organisations have spread across football and today there are 104 them, 73 of which are in either the top-flight or the Football League. But very few of these have achieved their primary goal of taking control at a club. In the top four tiers, examples of majority ownership are confined to League Two, and even here it’s only evident at a minority of clubs, such as AFC Wimbledon, Exeter City and Portsmouth.
Part of our collective hesitancy in embracing punk football can be attributed to a degree of cultural catch-up. For much of our game’s history, the idea of the fans having any say in how the club was run has been alien to both those in charge and amongst supporters too. The board has traditionally been left to run things pretty much as they see fit. In other European countries, such as Germany, Sweden and also in parts of Spain, such a relationship between fan and club is viewed with a sense of horror. Over there, supporters have long seen themselves as being a vital element within the community of the club, one that has a voice which deserves to be heard.
Thankfully, the English perspective has begun to change over the past few decades. Rising ticket prices, a growing sense of disenfranchisement amongst fans and concerns about the way our clubs are run financially have led more and more supporters to challenge the parental relationship that once existed between the fans and the board (and in the process question whether they themselves could do a better job).
But although more of us have come around to the idea of supporter ownership, a stubborn degree of hesitancy persists. And two big reasons for this are the costs involved in takeovers and also the absence of a level playing field once the fans have taken control.
When it comes to costs, let’s take West Ham as an example. Back at the time of the 2010 takeover, the club was valued at £105 million. If a Hammers trust of some description was to have attempted a buyout at the time, even if everyone sitting in the stadium opted to invest, this would still mean an individual share price of around £3000, which would be a big-ask. Taking into account the fact that the overwhelming majority of English supporters trusts don’t have membership level that come close to 35,000, it’s likely that those that who had opted to get involved at the time would have faced a significantly higher cost of investment.
But even if the fans had beaten the odds and managed to raise £105m, what then? One of the main problems facing trusts once they have taken control has been the financial inequality inherent within our game. In short, English football is not a level playing field, and supporter owned clubs often find it hard to compete against peers backed by deep-pocketed owners. This is why several trusts, such as those at Brentford, Notts County and York City have been forced to abandon their dreams of a supporters utopia and sell-up or dramatically reduce their holdings.
There is hope amongst those who would like to see more examples of supporter-ownership that the range of financial regulations recently introduced from the Premier League down to the Conference to control costs, losses and debt could be the key to solving this problem. Although the various pieces of regulation differ from division to division, the overall aim is create greater financial equality, removing both the temptation to go into debt and the destabilising impact that deep-pocketed owners have on a league. While few people involved in the game believe that these moves will produce a sporting utopia, where all teams are financially equal, there is a hope that if they work then something approaching a more level playing field could be created.
Should this happen, the ability of a club with an element of fan-control to compete might increase. This could then make the prospect of trust ownership, whether partial or total, more palatable to fans previously put off by the possibility of stagnation or decline.
But without membership numbers, even this potentially more benign environment wouldn’t be enough to either establish supporter-ownership at somewhere like West Ham or ensure its long term sustainability.
At the moment, trusts at other Premier League clubs, such as United, Liverpool and Newcastle are putting their efforts into building a mass membership and exploring ways in which supporter ownership could one day become a reality at Old Trafford, St James Park and Anfield. For those amongst the West Ham faithful who share this dream, membership of a trust has to be a must.
As big clubs elsewhere in Europe have proven, supporter ownership is compatible with success at the highest level. In the Premier League at the moment, the idea of establishing clubs owned and run along similar lines seems a long way off. But that’s not to say it can’t happen. At worst, the trust model offers the best medium for fans to unite together to express their views and attempt to hold the club to account. At best though, it could be the medium that one day ushers in a new age where it’s the supporters that call the shots.
Jim Keoghan is author of Punk Football: the rise of fan ownership in English football, which is published by Pitch Publishing
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