Fan Ownership: The Future for Lower League Football

wrexham

Mark Guterman was the scourge of lower league football clubs. Described by one fan as a ‘chubby football nut swanning around in a club financed car,’ Guterman is just one in a long line of owners who purchase football clubs, pillage them for all they can and then depart, leaving the club in tatters and the fans to pick up the pieces. His first investment was Chester City, a club now defunct because of his interference, before he moved onto Wrexham, where a £300,000 hole was left in the club’s finances whilst he was in charge. There are of course other examples. Portsmouth’s troubles are well documented (the club were £138 million in debt in 2010 and have faced several winding up orders), and Exeter City’s fraudulent ex-owner was described by the Crown Prosecution as being ‘broke. He had no assets, no money and no bank account and certainly had no money to invest in Exeter City.’ From these stories, it’s clear that the FA’s fit and proper person test, which requires a potential owner to not be at risk of going bankrupt, or to have had no previous involvement in a football club becoming insolvent, is not working in the slightest. So how do we guard against these kinds of abuses?

Peter Jones, Chairman of Wrexham Supporters Trust, believes that fan ownership is the solution to many clubs financial woes, having been part of the consortium that saved Wrexham.

Jones says that when Wrexham Supporters Trust started in 2002 they were more of a protest group. Fan owned clubs were rare back then, having only been recently established in this country. With the club having entered administration twice in the following five years, Jones and the trust felt it was time for firmer action. ‘Everyone came together and we started delving into the past and found out people with dodgy dealings were in the club. These people kept on coming in and we kept on chasing them off until we felt as a supporters trust, if these type of people can do it then why can’t we?’ The ‘dodgy dealings’ Jones talks of was the handling of the Racecourse Ground, of which Guterman had transferred the ownership to one of Alex Hamilton’s (a close friend of Guterman) companies. It was later revealed the two had concocted a plan to turn the stadium into a B&Q store.

With the club stripped of its ground, and spiralling into financial oblivion the fans raised over £800,000 to save it. The club was reborn, with the fans at the helm. This was done by the formation of The Trust Board, which consists of twelve elected members and three co-opted members, who are brought in for the skills they have and the club require. There is also the football club board, which must have a majority of trust members, currently four. The football club board acts as a subsidiary to the trust board, ensuring fans remain in complete control of the club. As the board will always have more trust members on it than not, it should theoretically always act in the best interests of the club.

It’s a trend that has been repeated all over the country, from Exeter in the south to Darlington in the north. Laurence Overend is the Chairman of the Exeter City Supporters Trust, and believes that fan ownership is the only way of ensuring a transparent and democratically run football club. With fan owned clubs, the fans are always put first, and crucially, are listened to. This may seem the norm, but in this day and age when money rules the game, it is not. You only have to look at Hull City owner Assem Allam’s recent comments towards the club’s fans: ‘they can die as soon as they want’ if they opposed his plans to change the name of the club.

Allam’s treatment of supporters is a complete contrast to the way fan owned clubs treat their own. As fans have a larger input, local community based schemes are often at the forefront. Jones says that since the takeover, Wrexham have been more closely connected to the community than ever before. ‘There’s a lot of involvement with different projects. We have a disabled football team, we have a women’s football team. The Junior Dragons have been relaunched.’ All three of these were projects marginalised or completely disbanded under Guterman’s spell in charge, and their revival allows the club the chance to grow their own players. It also means women and disabled people have the chance to play football, which is not the case at all clubs.

It is not just local football teams the Wrexham Supporters Trust have restored. The club has helped local disability charities, and improved facilities for disabled fans. These schemes include Memories FC, where Jones says ‘football is used to help revive Alzheimer’s sufferer’s memories’, and Autism Day, the first scheme of its kind to be run by a football club. Jones says this took a lot work, with the people who suffer being brought in the week before the game and shown where they would be sitting, as well as where the exits were. Stewards were also taught how to react if there was a problem. This day gave people with autism the chance to enjoy a football game in comfort, as well as raising awareness of the matter.

This isn’t exclusive to Wrexham either, with Exeter Chairman Overend saying that ‘we see our role as wider than producing a football team. We support a large number of community projects and organisations such as “football in the community” and “one game one community.”’ It’s clear to see then that fan owned clubs takes care of their own, but what financial cost does running these schemes come at?

The thing most fans desire – cheaper tickets – are the one thing fan owned clubs can’t provide. Jones says he understands ‘that fans want cheap prices, but we also need a competitive price to give the manager the finances to build a team that can play at as high a level as possible.’ It appears to be catch twenty-two situation, give the fans cheap prices and the team would most likely flounder, up the prices, and the fans would complain.

The main source of income for a fan owned club is the gate receipts, so deciding upon ticket prices is difficult. At Portsmouth however, it appears a compromise has been reached. Ticket prices are reasonable, £20, which seems to be the typical price in League Two. But more importantly, under tens are allowed in for free. Cheap tickets for children is something of a theme among fan owned clubs, with Exeter allowing their younger fans in for just £3 a head, and Wrexham making use of the quid a kid scheme. This allows for a solid income from adult tickets as well as maintaining the fan base, which is something that some fan owned clubs have struggled with.

Though Portsmouth have the highest average attendance in League 2, this has slipped by almost 3000 fans since the first day of the season. Then the media was still full of stories about the club’s demise, and interest was riding high after the takeover by the fans. Kimbell makes a valid point when he says ‘the club needs to continue to evolve, and we need to make sure that fans continue to take an interest. Self-funded money still needs to come into the club.’ Despite saving the club, hard work remains. All three fan owned clubs I spoke to stress the importance of keeping the fans interested, and the gates as high as possible. That is the price you pay for running a club sustainably. The majority of clubs are run privately, with cash injections from the owner when the financial side is struggling. Fan owned clubs have nothing of the sort to fall back on, relying on solely gate receipts and fan donations. This means they can’t go out and constantly buy new players, so have to look at other ways to succeed on the pitch.

In an effort to make Exeter competitive, Chairman Overend has chosen to invest in the club’s football academy. He says that central to the club’s philosophy is ‘a belief in the Youth Academy set up at the club. We see this as part of being part of a sustainable club and the best way of ensuring long term success.’ Investing in youth is common for fan owned clubs. Naturally, fans like to see local talent on the pitch, and Exeter actually had six products of the youth team in their match day squad last Saturday, against Burton Albion. If these players continue to be successful with Exeter, it’s likely they will be sold on at a huge profit, as Dean Moxey was to Derby County for £300,000. That money kept the club going for months.

A younger first team squad equates to a lower wage bill, and other fan owned clubs are following in Exeter’s footsteps by encouraging this. Wrexham also had six youth graduates in the match day squad last weekend, with Portsmouth having four.

Having four youth graduates in the first team squad is a far cry from five or six years ago, when Portsmouth was flooded with foreign imports and young players were not given a chance. Now that the club has rid itself of these high earners and begun to focus on youth, only 30% of income is needed for wages. Pompey Chairman Ashley Brown says this means that the club ‘can now sell t-shirts and tea at a far cheaper price for the fans,’ which ensures a low-cost and cheerful day out – just what the working class football fan wants. It’s clear that if fan owned clubs wish to operate within their budget, then a strong youth academy and a belief in young talent is vital.

What Portsmouth have done in lowering the prices of merchandise and match day food is listen to the fan’s needs. This is what fan ownership is about. At Wrexham, the fans wanted improved disabled facilities – they got it. At Exeter, the fans wanted transparency in ownership, and to be in the know of what is going on at the club – they got it. Fan owned clubs are governed by a group of supporters, rather than being a whim of a multi-millionaire owner, and they are all the better for it. Fan ownership is football stripped down to the basics, as Kimbell says; ‘it’s for the fans by the fans.’

fratton park

It’s clear then that fan ownership has been a saviour for lower league clubs. There are currently four fan owned clubs in the fourth tier of the league, with another two in the league below, the Conference National. Five of these six teams have come under fan ownership in the last five years. It goes to show that unhappy supporters really can make a difference to their club.

It doesn’t end there, with the Tranmere Rovers Trust currently attempting a takeover at Tranmere. Mark Randles, Secretary of the Trust, says the club will work closely with the fans, with ‘one supporter being invited to the board for a year, and regular meetings taking place where ideas would be aired and taken on board.’ He also says the club will work within their means, their motto being ‘if we haven’t got it we won’t spend it.’

But have any of these fan owned clubs enjoyed a sustained period of success? Exeter enjoyed two promotions in a row from 2008 onwards, recording their highest League finish in seventy years. Exeter also happens to be the club that has been under fan ownership longest out of the three I have discussed, which highlights one thing; fan owned clubs must be allowed to grow naturally and sustainably. Finances and performances on the pitch may be tough at the beginning – Portsmouth can vouch for that – but over time and with good management fan owned clubs can compete for honours – just look at Bayern Munich.

The lower leagues have come around to the idea of fan ownership quickly, but what of the Premier League? You have Swansea, but they are only 20% fan owned, rather than 50% which means the fans are in total control. It’s certain that if they were fan owned and working within their means, they would not have been able to spend a club record £12 million on Wilfried Bony last summer. A fan owned team in the Premiership looks a long way away. Overend believes that ‘the cost of running a Premiership club is astronomical and until the government give us financial incentives, I can’t see it being achieved.’ With the recent megabucks television deal the Premier League has signed, a fan owned club in the top division still looks a long way away. Clubs in the top division work with huge debts, debts a fan owned club just couldn’t cope with. Overend and the Exeter Supporters Trust took over Exeter when they were mired in debt, and he sends out a warning to the Premier League; ‘the current finances of the Premiership are not sustainable. I foresee a collapse similar to the banking crisis.’

So fan ownership may not be sustainable in the top flight in the current climate, but in the lower leagues it is making a difference. It has allowed fans to be a part of their club again, rather than just a consumer, as well as allowing them to voice their opinions on the club to the board, instead of moaning on internet message boards. Clubs have also listened to their fans, with community schemes being of far greater importance to fan owned clubs. Finally, clubs are run with transparency and sustainability, instead of private owners such as Guterman fleecing them financially, sadly a fate that has befell many lower league clubs. Jones could not have put it better when saying ‘a club is for life, not just for Christmas.’

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