The Sweeper: Fan Ownership and Pillock-Run Clubs

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The backlash to the recent media buzz about increasing supporter-ownership in English football has begun in British newspapers. The excellent Must Read Soccer compendium has linked to two pieces in the past few days that rip into the idea of increasing supporters’ say in how their (yes) clubs are run; intriguingly, one comes from the right-wing Martin Samuel in the reactionary Daily Mail, and one from the left-leaning Andrew Martin in the at-times progressive Guardian.

Let’s start with Samuel’s piece today, and we’ll address Martin’s tomorrow.

Samuel opens with the old anti-democratic chestnut:

Next time you are at a football match, look at the bloke next to you and ask yourself a simple question: would I want him speaking on my behalf?

Well no, I wouldn’t want the random person sitting next to me speaking on my behalf. Just as I don’t want the random person sitting next to me on the bus running my local government. I’d like to hear their platform and vote on them and other candidates in a fair election on a one-person, one-vote basis, please. That’s how supporter-run clubs work, through the election of a board by the members of a supporters’ trust, open to all fans.

Representative democracy is always a difficult  concept for the likes of the Daily Mail to grasp, but the idea of how a Supporters’ Trust or fan-owned club is run isn’t about picking a random Dave from the crowd and putting him in charge of the club. Nor is it about mob-rule, especially as Trusts have extensive constitutions that clearly delineate what role the elected board must play in running the club.

We don’t have to deal with this in theory. Let’s look at fan-owned club AFC Wimbledon, run by the supporters through the Dons Trust, who describe their mission as follows:

An organisation that represents a large interest such as AFC Wimbledon must have governance and accountability to all both financially and morally. That’s where the Dons Trust does its job. The Dons Trust is a not-for-profit organisation that owns AFC Wimbledon and is guardian of all principles and aims by which it operates. It is committed to strengthening the voice of supporters in the decision making processes at the football club, and strengthening the links between the club and the community of Wimbledon and the surrounding areas. . .In AFC Wimbledon the Dons Trust now operates and nurtures a wholly supporter-owned community football club that is run by democratically elected officers.

Of course, for Samuel, there is no such thing as “community”, or any shared interest among fans whatsoever. There is only the lonely, individual fan.

It is a myth, this idea that supporters are a breed. In reality, there is no group called The Fans.

There are individuals with different ideals and beliefs, who congregate around the sport for vastly differing reasons, and take from it wildly different pleasures.

The decaying bones of Margaret Thatcher pulsate with joy at these words!

And so:

Your little circle may be discerning, insightful and wise, but two rows in front could be a band of complete morons, wearing the same colours as you, but singing a song about gassing the Yids.

Suppose this little lot are the ones that end up in the boardroom?

Where is the fit and proper person test for supporters groups?

It lies in the same place as it does for the elected governance of any democratic society, in the people’s hands. If I’m part of a club with a membership that democratically elects a bunch of morons who sing songs about gassing the Yids, that club isn’t part of a community I want to be involved in anyway; and should such folks stand to run for election in the first place, I’d fight against them with all the energy I could muster.

There are over 100 elected supporters’ trusts in England; many aren’t perfect, like in all applications of democracy. But most have been run successfully, saving numerous clubs from bankruptcy and acting as a reasonable voice for fans who do share one common interest that may or may not be shared by a random private owner: an interest in the long-term stability and success of their football club.

Right now, of course, outside of fan-owned clubs like AFC Wimbledon anyone can come in and buy a club regardless of their views without the fans having any say in it at all. Portsmouth, Manchester United, Liverpool, Chester City. . .these clubs have not been run for the long-term good of the club since their various takeovers, but for short-term private gain that has damaged each, perhaps irreparably.

Let us turn back to AFC Wimbledon’s organisation under the control of the Dons Trust Board (DTB), which I think demonstrates that all of this how to run a football club business has actually been thought through by the fans and their democratic organisation. Its aims encompass open, clearly stated goals such as financial prudence, supporting women’s football, a stadium near the club’s geographic home, communication and openness, working with the local community, encouraging equality and diversity, and promoting the active involvement of members in running the club.

But this doesn’t mean fans picking the team. Careful review and rules determine the role of the elected Trust board and how it oversees the operation of the club:

  • At its first meeting in 2007, the Board decided to adopt the general approach and working patterns piloted in the second half of 2006 under the Strategic Review and Oversight Board (SROB). In practical terms, what this means is that throughout 2007 and since the Boards of the DTB and AFCW PLC have worked together very closely in order to give the Trust and Club unified, strategic leadership and direction, with a clear line of accountability running from the three Club Directors up to the full elected DTB which is, in turn, accountable to the membership as a whole.
  • The DTB has deliberately kept itself at arms length from the day-to-day operations and management of the Club which have been left in the hands of the three Directors of AFC Wimbledon Ltd – Erik Samuelson (Chief Executive), Ivor Heller (Commercial Director) and Nigel Higgs (Youth and Community Director). The three Directors (all of whom are simultaneously elected members of the DTB) are accountable to the Board as a whole and they come to it for approval of strategic policy developments (eg response to developments at the Greyhound Stadium and Morden Park) and/or major financial commitments (eg maintaining the Kingsmeadow planning permissions, agreeing our negotiating position on the perimeter lease and drawing down sums from the £600k Barclays Bank credit facility).
  • Typically, the agenda of the monthly DTB meeting comprises major issues of the kind just itemised as well as issues that are of continuing strategic importance to the Trust (eg membership levels, fundraising, and member participation) and the Club (eg the stadium, training facilities, the youth and ladies teams) and receiving, discussing and questioning the regular reports and accounts from Erik, Ivor and Nigel.
  • Where does football fit into this? In their formal sessions, the fans who make up the Board stick to a self-denying ordinance that all footballing matters are channelled through the Chief Executive so that the first team Manager has a clear and uncluttered line of communication with the Club management.
  • Rather than indulge in general footballing discussion, the Board confines itself to strategic matters, key ones in 2007 being the size and availability of the playing budget and the endorsement of the process adopted for selecting and appointing a new first team manager.

None of this careful separation of responsibilities between the elected fans’ board and the directors charged with running the club is of interest to Samuel, who is instead worried that power might end up in the hands of “a bloke behind us at West Ham who thought Bobby Moore couldn’t pass.”

In the end, Samuel is simply denying that fans are capable of democratically settling on a general interest for their club through the electoral process (which is in fact much easier to do in the context of a football club than for democracy in society in general. Perhaps we should return to aristocratic political rule in England as well, then).

He concludes:

Aside from being a crass electioneering ploy which presumes we are all stupid, the flaw here is that government plans for empowerment presume a homogenous body, The Fans, with a single thought between them.

The fact is there is still a chance your club will be run by a complete pillock; except at least the last complete pillock might have been able to afford to buy a striker.

The point, though, is that yes, a complete pillock could be elected to to the board of a fan-run club. The beautiful part is that the fans also get to elect them out on a one-person, one-vote basis, and if they so wish, to stand for election themselves.

If the fans don’t have a say in the club, they’re stuck with it being run by a pillock for as long as the pillock wants it.

Mike Ashley, or, a pillock

Quick Hits

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  • Tim Vickery, on Messi as the devastating decoy.

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

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