Putting the Trust into Football: An Examination of Supporter Ownership

All this week Pitch Invasion is looking at the concept of fan ownership. We’ll look at the highs and lows of supporter ownership in English football, and its prospects for the future. In our opening part, Gary Andrews outlines where Trust or fan ownership currently stands.

Newcastle United's Trust campaign

Slowly, a behind-the-scenes footballing revolution is growing. Whether it’s Portsmouth’s ongoing demise, the Glazers burdening Manchester United with hundreds of millions of pounds with of debt, Hicks and Gillett at Liverpool, Ashley at Newcastle or, lower down, the Vaughan family taking Chester City to the wall, the spotlight has well and truly turned on the owners. And with fans becoming more alarmed at the mismanagement of their clubs at boardroom level, supporters are asking whether it’s time that the fans took control of their clubs.

Fan ownership, on the surface, seems sensible and logical. These are people who, unlike, say, the Glazers, have the best interest of their club at heart and care passionately about keeping their team alive and successful. Barcelona are often cited as the ideal for any fan-owned club to aim for, while other Europhiles will point to the Bundesliga’s ownership model, where 51% of the club is owned by supporters.

If only it were that simple. Barcelona’s ownership is a unique mix of football, politics and cultural identity, while the Bundesliga has regulation in place securing the fans’ shareholding, and even then this isn’t as clear cut as it sounds. English football operates on very different lines, where the free market reigns. The conditions are quite distinct.

Then there are the clubs who’ve already been owned by their supporters. Exeter City, the leading light in the Trust movement, is adjusting to a higher level, Brentford have moved towards a hybrid model, while AFC Wimbledon face serious choices should they get promotion to the league. Then there’s Notts County and Stockport County, two teams where Trusts have tried and failed.

But with Manchester United and Liverpool fans, and others, pushing for more fan involvement at boardroom level, it’s time to ask if supporter ownership really is the way forward, or whether English football doomed to stick with the sugar daddy model. Over the course of the week, we’ll be examining the concept of Trusts, fan ownership and looking where the ownership model should go next.

The birth of a movement

Each Trust is different, and each was born in a different way. In Exeter City’s case, it was a group of fans who wanted to club together to raise enough money to buy the striker Gary Alexander. For Brentford, it was due to concern over the possibility of losing their ground, Griffin Park, to developers. Newcastle United’s Trust came from their Supporters Club as they looked to find an organised body to represent the interests of the fans. In AFC Wimbledon’s case, their club had been moved to Milton Keynes and, in many suppporters’ eyes, simply ceased to exist, and so on.

But there’s a fundamental thought behind the Trust movement: that supporter ownership is a good thing, whether this is representation at boardroom level or outright ownership. For Brian Burgess, ex-vice-chairman of Brentford and recent electee to the board of Supporters’ Direct, this is a principle that was picked up at an early age.

Bees United supporters' trust

His involvement was triggered by an incident back in 1967, when Jack Dunnet, the then Brentford owner, attempted to sell the club to QPR and put the Bees out of business. “There was uproar among supporters and public meetings. I was too young to go to these but there was always talk in the newspapers that this was wrong – an individual selling the club – it’s our club and the supporters should own it.

“The club was sold to a consortium of businessmen, who saved it, but I remembered that idea – the idea that supporters should own the club and it shouldn’t be up for sale.”

Nearly 35 years later Burgess joined the newly-formed Brentford Supporters Trust, Bees United, seeing it as an opportunity to realise that dream and in 2006 Bees United took control of Brentford. They are still the majority shareholder, although have entered into a hybrid model with a wealthy supporter as they look to build a new stadium.

Brentford are still a rarity, though, and currently sit in League One, along with Exeter City, a completely Trust run club. After that, you have to look to non-league to find other supporter-owned clubs, such as AFC Wimbledon, Telford United and FC United or Manchester.

Going to the top

But this doesn’t mean that Trusts can’t play a huge part at a higher level. Since the media started turning their attentions to the Glazer buy out of Manchester United and the £716m debt they’ve saddled the club with, the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust (MUST) have emerged as key players in both the spread of the Green and Gold campaign and the movement for fan ownership.

If this seems like a pipe dream, last week the Red Knights, a group of wealthy Manchester United fans, met to discuss a possible takeover of the club from the Glazers. It was no coincidence that a key part of this statement was a call to United supporters worldwide to support them. And this involved working closely with MUST.

Duncan Drasdo, the Chief Executive of MUST, called the Red Knights launch “hugely welcome” and in a joint statement said: “Initially the Red Knight Group has effectively set a challenge to Manchester United supporters to demonstrate they wish to see an alternative ownership proposal developed. In the first instance supporters are being asked to do this simply by joining the free online membership of the Supporters Trust (MUST) and swelling its ranks to an initial target of at least 100,000.” To put this into perspective, Exeter City, currently the most successful Trust-run club, has just over 3,000 members.

Even when there is no apparent urgency for fans to band together for their club, the Trust movement is often working behind the scenes both with the club and as a watchdog on the boardroom. Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur may be bitter rivals on the pitch, yet off it the aims of their Trusts are remarkably similar.

Arsenal Supporters' Trust

For Arsenal, this can be summed up in three words: Ownership, representation and influence. The mission statement may be wordier at Spurs but the ideals are the same – an ongoing positive dialogue between fans and the board, supporter representation at board level, and contributing to the future success of Tottenham.

The Arsenal Supporters’ Trust formed in 2003 and Vic Crescit, a long-time member, thinks recent events at Ashburton Grove have vindicated the decision to form a Trust. “The Trust was proved absolutely right in setting up when it did. In recent years we’ve seen the ownership of the club transformed. Stan Kroenke, the owner of the MLS’s Colorado Rapids,  is now the single biggest shareholder, behind him is the Russian/Uzbek Alisher Usmanov on just over 26%.

“Then comes Danny Fiszman on 16% and Lady Nina Bracewell-Smith on 15.9%. They account for around 88% of the shares between them. Around 11% is in the hands of small shareholders like me. Around 1% of the shares are “orphan” shares where the owners have died before selling them or passing them on or can’t be traced.

“The Trust owns a small number of shares held mutually in trust for its members, plus it groups together all the shares owned personally by members. By combining in this way AST has a far bigger influence in the club than the small shareholders would operating on their own in isolation.”

Although the formation of the Trust was initially viewed with suspicion at Arsenal, after the board came in for criticism over the financing of the Emirates, they opened a dialogue with the Trust and the relationship has been good since, although the Trust continues to keep a close eye on boardroom developments.

The challenges of answering to the fans

Although each Trust has different aims – ranging from outright ownership to simply fostering better links between fans and the club – all have a commitment to an open and democratic relationship with the supporters. There are regular elections for members to hold the Trust board to account. It is, in essence, how any democracy should work.

supporters-direct

Offering help and guidance is Supporters Direct, an organisation that came out of the government’s football taskforce report in 1999. They may be just over ten years old, but SD have done as much to instigate fan ownership as anybody. Committed to a greater level of fan ownership, democracy and general accountability in football, and other sports, they have steadily grown in influence offering advice on everything from governance and ownership to finances. Accreditation from Supporters Direct is a sign a Trust is to be taken seriously.

But more than this, the organisation is putting serious pressure on the authorities for a more sustainable model. As their CEO Dave Boyle says: “In football’s version of the tortoise and the hare, the hare wins the race and its only two years’ later that the hare’s house is repossessed by the bank for the loans taken out to get bionic implants, which is scant consolation for the tortoise who was sacked halfway through the race. Or, as an economist might put it, all the incentives are in the wrong place.”

But while there is still a serious imbalance in football, Boyle sees plenty of progress over the past decade. “Thanks to the work of AFC Wimbledon, AFC Telford, FC United and Scarborough Athletic, the idea that the worse thing that can happen to a club is that it be liquidated isn’t as strong as it was. Fans would be told of this horrible prospect of the club disappearing and then accept whatever sharp practice, ground sale, asset strip was put forward as the least worst option. Even if that didn’t happen, they’d fundraise like crazy trying to keep the club afloat when their money and energy were never going to d the job.

“But thanks to those trusts and those clubs, we know in fact what people always knew in their heart of hearts – that football in a given community isn’t about the limited company formed to play it in an organised football league. If that company were to be liquidated, football would survive in the community.

“And, thanks to the success enjoyed by those clubs and the enjoyment their fans have in owning their own team, we see a lot of people being very sanguine indeed about keeping a busted flush of a small town team alive. In a nutshell, the worst that could happen used to be liquidation; now people understand that liquidation can be a cause for rebirth as a new, better type of club.”

There is no better place to illustrate this than the recent goings on at Chester City, but many other clubs have seen that rebirth can be a positive thing, to say nothing of those fans who’ve taken the initiative and have not only saved their club but made a better fist of it than previous owners. As Boyle says: “There were people who aren’t in favour of this approach to the game, who said at the start that it shouldn’t happen, and couldn’t happen.

“But that notion – that fans are too stupid / ignorant / passionate to be involved is a hard one to make in public, so they’d said instead that it was a lovely idea, but ultimately unworkable. Thanks to the work of the trust up and down the country, that’s not an argument borne out by the evidence.”

Owning a club, though, comes with its own issues, not least managing fan expectations. Exeter City are a prime example of this – the club was taken over by the Trust in 2003 after their relegation from the football league following the disastrous reign of convicted fraudster John Russell. Since then they’ve stabilised and have won two promotions over the last two seasons.

The club may now be struggling down the wrong end of League One, but for vice-chairman Julian Tagg, a long-time Trust member who has served on the board since the takeover, the pressure on the board is nothing new.

“There’s always been a pressure,” he says, “and that hasn’t changed. The pressure comes from the Trust ethos of running the club and the demands of our membership, as well as the situation of the club. We’ve got to be creative in our approach – we can’t just employ extra people.

“There’s also the question of can we find a way to become competitive. We’re at a level now where there really is no blueprint for how we do things.”

But it’s not just the challenge of League One that Tagg and the Exeter City board have to deal with – it’s also having over 3,000 members, all of whom have an opinion on how the club should be run.

“The club and Trust rolls into one,” says Tagg. “The Trust directors own the club and they, in turn, are bound to the membership, so we’re always going to be dynamic in how we approach the club and how we want to protect the club.

“What we’re really trying to do is to find a balance between an being an operator and a professional club. How we look after these people [the Trust membership] is so precious. That’s why we started in the first place and now the club isn’t in trouble, we have to make sure of its future.”

Brian Burgess has experienced similar issues with Brentford and says much of it is down to making clear the different responsibilities of the Trust and the club board. Even then, there is still the question of where does the line between the Trust and club come in.

Burgess says: “We had to say: ‘Look, if the performances on the pitch are bad, if the manager needs to be changed, that’s the job of the football club not the Bees United board.’ But, of course, as the majority shareholder, you’re interested in the company being run properly, so you’re going to try and want to influence the football club board to do the right thing. And there’s always been a tension in there and a learning curve about how you manage that relationship. To what extent is it arm’s length, to what extent is it right to exert influence, what’s the best way to assert your influence?

“I think it comes down to individuals. If you’re got good individuals that people trust and they’re open, as far as they can be in terms of confidentiality, then it’s a lot easier. When things are going well, it’s a lot easier. When things go badly then there’s criticism and that’s when it’s really difficult.

“We appoint people and let them get on with the job. If they do a good job, that’s great, if they don’t, ultimately, we sack them. That’s how it is – in any business, although it’s more short term than any other, I guess.”

Where do we go from here?

The whole idea of Trusts and fan ownership is hugely complex. As Tagg says, there is currently no blueprint for a fan run club in League One, let alone the Premier League. And while eyes are cast at Barcelona and the Bundesliga, English football comes with its own unique set of challenges for supporters who want to run their club.

Over the rest of this week, we’ll be looking at the successes and failures of the Trust movement, as well as the challenges that lie ahead, the foreign models and in-depth interviews with some of those closely involved with the movement.

But one thing, above all, that is striking about the Trust movement is the ability of fans to put aside their differences and work together for the good of the club; the idea that clubs should belong in the hands of supporters not money men. It’s an idea that would have been laughed out of town ten, perhaps even five, years ago.

As Andy Walsh from FC United of Manchester said at a recent Beyond The Debt rally, rivalries between supporters of football clubs are an artificial construct which masks. the true enemies of football supporters – the people that run the game itself.

Or, as Crescit puts it somewhat more succinctly: “I don’t ever want my football club to become a rich man’s train set nor get rich quick scam. We’ve all seen what happens when we allow the financial tail to wag the productive dog in the world economy.”


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