Previously, I’ve written about examples of inept ownership in both Scottish and English football and how the sport south of the border isn’t as different as people may think to Scotland when it comes to cases of clubs being run into the ground. That sense of betrayal and abuse of trust from those in charge would appear to be just as prevalent this side of Hadrian’s Wall. This time, however, I am looking at instances where fans have come together to take control of their club, something which is increasing all over the UK.
In England, there are a number of clubs in the Football League and non-league football which are fan owned: Portsmouth, Wrexham, AFC Wimbledon and Wycombe Wanderers, as well as FC United of Manchester, who were formed by the fans almost 10 years ago as a breakaway, originally in protest at the Glazers’ ownership of Manchester United.
FC United of Manchester – along with AFC Wimbledon – is arguably the most high profile case of supporters breaking away from a club to form their own. Within the first few months FC United being officially founded, they had over £100,000 in the bank which was raised by the fans to be used by the club. In just nine years, the club have prospered, securing several promotions and now find themselves in the Northern Premier League Premier Division, one rung below the Conference North. The club are now even looking to build their own stadium with the help of their ever-increasing fan base.
We now move on to Portsmouth. Pompey won the FA Cup as recently as 2008 and were playing in the UEFA Cup the following year, but now find themselves lingering at the bottom of League Two following successive relegations. The fans have had a long standing battle to gain control of the club, and April 2013 saw them seize control of the Fratton Park club. After two battles with administration in the last five years, the fans had finally seen enough of wealthy investors lacking control in spending and costing the club, so took action. To add further salt to the supporters’ wounds, the entire first team squad left the club in the wake of their relegation to League One. However, they remained strong and in the same season, formulated a bid for the club, before taking over around this time last year.
Wrexham, owned by the Wrexham Supporters Trust since 2011, have had a steady few years since the fans took over the club. Since taking over, they have seen the Welsh side reach Wembley on two occasions – winning one final and losing the other. Sitting fifth in the Conference Premier, the club still play their home games at Racecourse Ground, where international matches are occasionally held; making it the oldest stadium in the world to do so. With The Dragons needing a bailout from the fans with the news of an unpaid £200,000 tax bill, the fans were able to raise the money needed and subsequently take over the club, saving it from administration.
The final club to mention south of the border is Wycombe Wanderers. Another club who have recently made the transition to fan ownership, with the Wycombe Wanderers Supporters Trust taking over the club, providing the club with financial stability; subsequently lifting a transfer embargo placed upon them.
All of the clubs mentioned above have one thing in common – ownership. Not only does each fan group own their respective club, but they have been let down by previous owners, who have almost driven them out of business completely, or in some cases have compromised the heritage of their team.
English football faces the same challenges as Scottish Football when it comes to ownership. Just like Stirling Albion, Clyde, East Stirlingshire, Heart of Midlothian, Dunfermline Athletic and Rangers, fans have suffered under questionable ownership and an irresponsible approach to spending in the often forlorn pursuit of success. Looking ahead to next season, Scottish football could have around seven or eight clubs in the hands of the supporters. Other league clubs such as Annan Athletic, Motherwell and Ayr United are looking to give supporters control of their club because it is the right thing to do. The supporters know their club, they trust in themselves and most importantly, care about the club. The supporters don’t want to see their club disappear like what has happened at Rangers and Portsmouth. Stirling Albion are another side who have plummeted down the divisions, but in the last season or so have begun to emerge as promotion contenders, looking to re-establish themselves in Scottish League Two. The club are in fact the only club to be 100% owned by their fans trust.
These examples of supporters coming together are being seen as the best way for clubs to survive. Over Europe, some of the most successful clubs are majority owned by fans – the vast majority of the German Bundesliga have a ‘50+1’ rule for supporters to retain ownership, as is the same in Sweden. Both FC Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain also allow fans a certain degree of influence in the running of their respective institutions.
Fan ownership is and should be the way forward for football club governance. There has been a great amount of success over Europe – Bayern Munich’s dominance and the emergence of Borussia Dortmund from Germany, as well as the existing contingent from Spain. Fan ownership is not only working in these countries, it is thriving. With time and effort from the fans and some patience, such an approach can work in both Scotland and England. Global clubs such as Celtic and Rangers in Scotland, and a host of clubs in England will be able to survive and given time, prosper on the money which fans can raise themselves. It may mean that the gap widens between the Old Firm and the rest of Scotland’s teams, but who knows. With fans in control of the club, anything can happen and will at least be for the good of the club
words: Blair Condie
You can follow Blair on Twitter at @bcondie92