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Supporter Ownership Week Interviews – East Stirlingshire

East Stirlingshire

As part of Supporter Ownership Week, Supporters Direct Scotland (SDS) have conducted a series of interviews with those involved at Scottish football clubs who are either owned by their fans or who’s fans have a considerable influence in the governance of. Over the course of the week, Supporters Direct Scotland will post these interviews on ScottishFans.org, so that fans across the country, of any club can learn more about the growing supporter movement of which SDS is at the very heart of.

East Stirlingshire is a prime example of how supporters can facilitate change in their clubs and ensure that they are run in a sustainable manner, putting the interests of the fans at the forefront of the decision making process. The club’s biggest single shareholder, which holds a controlling interest in the club, is Shiretrust, the club’s own supporters trust, an organisation of like-minded Shire fans who formed the trust in 2004 as a co-op aimed at furthering the interests of East Stirlingshire FC. The trust took over the effective administration of the club in 2011 following the departure of previous major shareholder Spencer Fern

SDS spoke to Tadek Kopszywa, who is the Secretary at East Stirlingshire on his views on the current governance structure at the club and what the future holds for not only The Shire, but all of Scottish football. Despite the significant positives that greater fan involvement in the running of football clubs provides, it is not guarantee of success and cautious optimism would appear to the prevailing attitude at the League Two club.

“Regime change has brought stability and focused attention on running the club sustainably and sensibly. We were another ‘crisis club’ before this happened, but now we are slowly on the road to something called ‘normality’, whatever that is.

The ‘crisis club’ typically is run for motives beyond just winning football matches, notably the personal enrichment of those in charge; moving away from that model means becoming more football-orientated, focusing on the primary aims and objectives of the organisation rather than power struggles. In that regard we have been a moderate success although there are still challenges ahead.”

The scenario of clubs turning to supporters as a last resort in a crisis is not unique and at present, arguably provides fans with the best possible opportunity to take control of their club, despite how painful the circumstances can be. It is a situation that other clubs have found themselves in, such as Stirling Albion in 2010. Despite supporters invariably having the best interests of the club at heart, Tadek doesn’t necessarily believe that this model is the future for sustainable football clubs in Scotland.

“There is a fundamental flaw in the idea of fans of small, part-time Scottish clubs buying shares and becoming the owner of the club. The flaw is in the nature of the institution itself. Most clubs in Scotland of our size are private limited companies.

The only real ‘fan ownership model’ that does all the things it’s supposed to is a private members club or perhaps some kind of third sector entity. But turning small, part-time football club ownership structures away from market capitalism and more towards the kind of thing seen at golf and rugby clubs across Scotland would considerably benefit ‘fan ownership’.”

One of the key benefits that SDS believes comes from increased supporter engagement and involvement with their clubs is stronger links to the community, something that is increasingly important for smaller clubs throughout the country. At East Stirlingshire, there is a belief that the change in structure has helped mend bridges within the local community.

“It has helped replace lost trust and raised interest levels from the community, most of whom were well-disposed towards the club as an institution but not towards individuals in leadership roles or the constant power struggles which for them were as arcane as the Schleswig Holstein question.”

“Those in leadership roles are now respected and trusted to do the right thing. However, that is also its most fundamental drawback in that where such trust exists it can lead to a lack of scrutiny, and also a sense of complacency from people who feel that those now in leadership positions can be left to get on with the business of running the club without any need for them to become involved in the process.”

As for what the future holds for East Stirlingshire, clear aims are in place in terms of what can be achieved, though whether this unique model of ownership lends itself to those aims being met is still somewhat of an uncertainty.

“Objectives change all the time. And there are some objectives we had on day one that, four years later, still have not been achieved. On the field, we want to be as successful as we can considering the limitations of our position. Off the field, we would like to move to new facilities – which requires money! – establish ourselves as something valuable to our community and to give our fans a meaningful way in which to become active agents in the club’s everyday life.

Others at the club may disagree, or see drawbacks in the idea, but I think to achieve what we want to achieve and to travel down the road we want to travel, it will be necessary to create an alternative to the current limited company status.”

For many clubs in the lower leagues of Scottish football, creating a sustainable ownership model that can help the club grow is of paramount importance to East Stirlingshire. Whether this can be achieved under the current structure is still uncertain, but they are in a stronger position than most to ensure that whatever lies ahead for the League Two club, the supporters will be the driving force.

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