Mark Godfrey

Out of crisis comes opportunity - the role of supporters trusts

Mark Godfrey
Out of crisis comes opportunity - the role of supporters trusts

To celebrate our nomination for 2018 Fanzine of the Year at the Football Supporters Federation awards, we’re publishing an article from each of our three issues from this year. The first, issue 19, was themed ‘Punk football and supporter ownership’. It is from that this first article is taken.

JOE CARROLL looks at how supporters trusts first came into being and the role they play in giving fans a greater say in the way their clubs are owned and run.

As is so often the case when supporters step in to save their own club, the story of the supporters’ trust movement started with a crisis.

Though curiously in this particular tale of fan activism, our hero wore not the colours of the club in need of saving. Brian Lomax grew up following his beloved Altrincham home and away, but it was at his adopted Northampton Town where his support would be most keenly felt. And appreciated.

In January 1992, Northampton were a club about to be steered into the rocks by then chairman Michael McRitchie. Debts amounting to £1.6million left the club with no money to pay players; bankruptcy and extinction looked inevitable. But with the administrators circling and McRitchie ready to abandon ship, it was the club’s loyal supporters who took the helm and led them to calmer waters.

At the forefront of this essential mutiny was Lomax. Together with first-mate Rob Marshall – editor of Northampton fanzine What a Load of Cobblers – they gathered with over 600 other like-minded fans at a public meeting. Here they addressed the issues that had led to their dire situation and the seeds of an idea were sown. That idea was the formation of Northampton Town Supporters’ Trust (NTST): the first of its kind in the UK. Their objective? To raise enough money to save the club from administration and subsequently to have greater representation for supporters in the running of the club.

The support from Northampton fans as well as those of clubs up and down the country was virtually unanimous. With publicity around the trust growing all the time through its public campaigns and fundraising (they raised £3,500 at their first home game after the trust’s formation), the trust soon had two representatives on the Northampton board. Once worried that their club may no longer exist, Northampton Town fans now had a say in how their club was run.

Lomax was one of those nominated to the board of directors and under his influence the club relocated to its new home ground in Sixfields, having narrowly avoided relegation in the previous two campaigns. While it would be a stretch to say the club sailed carefree into the sunset, the picture was certainly looking a lot rosier for Northampton. Most crucially for the trust and the club’s supporters, they now had the influence that most would agree is rightfully theirs. Still, little did they know then that they had just lit the blue touch paper on a movement that would inspire like-minded fans across the UK to form trusts and supporters’ groups of their own.

If the support for NTST from the football community demonstrated anything, it was that fans were capable of taking an active role in the running of their football clubs. Quite clearly there was an appetite for greater involvement. If Northampton Town fans can get it, why can’t we? This seemed to be the attitude of fans faced with a similar fate to that of the Cobblers back in 1992. This want to align football clubs with the needs of their fans did not go unnoticed at government level.

When Tony Blair’s New Labour took the reins in 1997, the fresh optimism of a more equal society stretched into the world of football. The feeling was that football should better serve its communities amid an increasingly commercialised period in the game’s history. As such a government task force was set up with the aim of delivering a “fair deal” for supporters.

One of the recommendations in 1999 was the formation of a public body which would assist in the creation of supporters’ trusts and support them in gaining greater representation at board level. One man who knew all about setting up a trust was Lomax and with the Football Task Force’s conclusion he became the first managing director of Supporters Direct.

In a nutshell, SD exists to ensure supporters trusts exist, helping in their formation and development as a force for good within both club and community. James Mathie, Head of England & Wales, and Club Development at SD explains:

“We do everything from overseeing the running of professional sports clubs, to fighting owners over various misdemeanours.

“We’re lucky to be able to call on a large amount of goodwill from partners and volunteers who supplement a small dedicated staff team. This means we can really support any scenario. We log about 1000 hours of support a year from the staff team alone, not including consultancy on top.”

Despite 45 football clubs across the UK currently able to describe themselves as supporter owned, there’s still more to be done. “The regulatory environment still has a long way to go, both to stop the number of crisis clubs we still see, and to give supporter owned clubs a fairer chance of competing” said Mathie.

“So much time is wasted dealing with the fallout (of a club in crisis) which better prevention and earlier intervention could have stopped. Things have come a long way but there’s still much further to go.”

SD operates its own consultancy service called Supporters Direct Club Development. By bringing together a team of partners and relevant consultants, they can advise and support supporters trusts looking to take on a greater role at their clubs. For those already with representation at board level, support is still available to help take the club forward.

All football clubs need somewhere to call home and for AFC Wimbledon, finding the right site for their stadium was paramount. SDCD worked with supporters to find a workable financial solution that would help them find a home (preferably less than the 65 miles it takes to get from Wimbledon FC’s former home at Plough Lane to Stadium MK). Over 300 supporters took part in consultation work, attending open meetings and directly communicating with the club. More recently the club has been granted permission to build a new stadium back in the London borough of Merton, on the same street as Plough Lane. Since the formation of AFC Wimbledon in 2002, fans of clubs up and down the country have sat up and taken notice: FC United of Manchester, Scarborough Athletic, Clyde and Chester FC are just some examples of fans who felt it was time to take control.

Fan ownership is a term that’s freely kicked about by football fans. While for some this might simply mean increased involvement and participation within their club, SD has done its best to define what it is for a club to be ‘fan owned’. To them, ‘supporter ownership’ means democracy and inclusivity, but most crucially of all for a club to be truly owned by its fans, there must be a voting system in place, of which 50% +1 is controlled collectively by a democratic entity. Such an entity is likely to be made up entirely of season ticket holders and match-going fans, but membership should be open to all.

When NTST took the reins at the County Ground (shortly before their move to Sixfields) their main goal was to save the club from administration. That they achieved this and more is testament to the power of supporters and the benefits of valuing the club’s community. It brought about football in the community schemes and helped break down barriers for the vulnerable members of its community: an affordable ticket pricing structure, better facilities for disabled people and anti-racism policies made the club more accessible to every member of the community.

Removing barriers to participation with regards the running of the football club is vital in SD’s work. The idea of community is central to empowering supporters’ groups and this starts by ensuring membership is open and transparent.

“Community means everything to SD and our members”, said Mathie.

“From a technical standpoint almost every supporters group we work with is set up legally as a community benefit society. That means that it exists for the benefit of the community not the individual.”

Sadly, it is precisely when a football club is being run in the interest of the individual that we see things turn sour. McRitchie’s regime at the County Ground united Northampton fans in their opposition. Enfield FC supporters stood up to chairman Tony Lazarou when they found themselves without a home in 1999, forming their own club in Enfield Town FC. When chairman Darren Brown ran out on Chesterfield amid claims of fraud (he would later be charged with false accounting), it was Chesterfield Football Supporters Society that took the reins to try and stabilise the club.

More often than not, it’s the phone sat on Mathie’s desk that rings when clubs fall on hard times, but SD are only too happy to answer the call. With the help of various partners and volunteers ranging from financial support to club-supporter relations, it seems there really is no job too big, no club too small.

When asked what barriers to participation often frustrate supporters in their quest for greater involvement, Mathie replies: “A whole host of things. At one end [clubs] work very effectively in partnership, helping the club and community to develop thanks to healthy trust and dialogue.

“Then in the middle you have clubs that want to do better with engagement but don’t know how, and are either a bit nervous or just need some help. Then there are those where the club-supporter relationship has broken down completely. This can simply be down to personalities and egos not matching up, but unfortunately it can be for more sinister reasons, where an owner is running the club for their own interest”.

It’s why the interests of the community are at the heart of everything SD do; it runs through the very bones of the organisation. The same principles of participation expected of supporters’ trusts are applied to their own setup. As a community benefit society, SD is owned by its members who put forward nominees to serve on its board, along with councils who support and hold the executive to account. And who are their members? The very same supporters trusts and supporter owned clubs they help establish.

“We know how much clubs mean to people, as well as how important clubs can be to their community”, says Jamie. “From the identity they bring to the social and economic benefits. Is there anything else in a community that can move its residents en masse like a big game?”

Lomax may have made great strides in taking the supporters movement forward into the 21st century, but he did not do it alone. Organisations like the Football Supporters Association and the National Federation of Supporters’ Clubs merged in 2002 to found the Football Supporters Federation (FSF). While its political make up as a democratically elected organisation sees it stand shoulder to shoulder with SD in its campaign for giving fans a greater voice in their clubs (FSF meets regularly with the Department for Culture, Media & Sport), the two bodies offer slightly different levels of support.

While SD works at group level, FSF is on the frontline, tackling issues that range from safe standing and the ‘Twenty’s Plenty’ away ticket campaigns as well as drives that offer advice and support to the match-going fan. Like its ‘Watching Football Is Not A Crime’ campaign.

‘Bubble matches’ force away fans to travel on designated transport, to and from set locations perhaps a few miles from the ground. The Chester vs Wrexham derby is a fixture usually policed in this way, such is their history of violence. But in 2014 Northumbria Police took notice of FSF’s campaign lobbying against similar treatment ahead of that season’s Tyne-Wear derby.

Not only can fans find refuge in instances where they feel they’ve been mistreated by police, but in FSF fans have a representative at a political level, working with authorities to ensure that the average fan can go to the match without being treated like a criminal.

Supporters congregate at the altars of their footballing churches for a common purpose: to worship their fleet-footed idols. But of course, the relationship towards their clubs and their participation will vary from fan-to-fan, and from club-to-club. Some enjoy the ritual of a pint in their favourite boozer, the half-time pie and deconstruction, followed by heated post-match analysis on the walk home. Others might not be happy with the direction of the club and feel they can make a difference. Whoever you are, there’s an organisation offering support and what’s most important is that they’re fans just like you.

Since its formation SD has been at the heart of the supporter ownership cause and has been instrumental in the trust movement which has given rise to 45 community owned football clubs. Across multiple sports, SD has helped 75 trusts gain a director representing fans at board level and 107 supporters’ trusts acquire shareholding in their club.

It’s hard to imagine that such an established organisation owes its existence to a group of dissatisfied Northampton Town fans. Lomax – the man who kicked the first ball in the supporters’ trust movement – would go on to hold the position of managing director of SD for 15 years before he sadly passed away in 2015. For those within the movement, Lomax is a figure held in the highest possible esteem and it’s not difficult to see why.

As the founder of NTST, he led a gathering of just 600 disgruntled Northampton Town fans to start a movement which has now helped hundreds of fan groups enjoy greater representation and involvement in their football clubs. One-time chairman of Supporters Direct and secretary of Labour’s Football Task Force in 1998, Andy Burnham, described Lomax as a “pioneer” but his work in championing the increased role of fans is not as well-known as it should be. And while those working at SD will acknowledge that there is still some way to go, so much has already been achieved. Ahead of its inception, Burnham said:

“How will we know if Supporters Direct has been a success? If it helps just a handful of clubs forge a better relationship with their fans – and as a result achieve a sounder financial footing – then it will have been worthwhile.” - (Andy Burnham in The Changing Face of the Football Business: Supporters Direct (2000) p48)

JOE CARROLL - @Joe3Carroll

https://joecarrollwrites.co.uk/

 Cover art by Matt Lewis

Cover art by Matt Lewis