Robin Osterley, chief executive of Supporters Direct, who will be speaking at the annual meeting of the Trust on Thursday, May 21, wrote this article for the Telegraph Total Football supplement which we have produced below.
Last week – I hope it didn’t escape your attention – was Supporter Ownership Week, a UK-wide celebration of the 40 or so clubs – mainly in football but also in rugby league – that are owned by their supporters. At Supporters Direct, our job is, amongst other things, to look after these groups of supporters, encourage them, train them and generally help them fulfil their dream of owning and in many cases running the clubs that they love.
Football, as we know, is not just a business, and supporters are not just consumers. They are the lifeblood of the sport, and this makes it all the sadder that the amount of public interest devoted to supporters seems to be directly proportional to the amount of trouble they cause. If a few drunken yobbos cause mayhem on a train, or a couple of homophobic morons start shouting obscenities, I am quite likely to get a call from a friend saying something along the lines of “see – fans are at it again”! But what of the supporter led consultations, the community projects, and the hours of volunteer time that supporters put in to give clubs a sustainable and bright future that is about far more than just the football?
When it comes to supporter ownership people do get excited; there is often huge interest, especially from the local media, when a club converts to supporter ownership. And no wonder – all of sudden the community has a real and genuine stake in the club, whose roots are suddenly right in the locality rather in the bank account of a wealthy businessman (and they usually are men of course). And this is often reflected in the huge amount of community activity generated by supporter-owned clubs, who have (nearly) as much interest in benefitting local playing facilities and amateur players as they do in moving up the table.
We have in membership a great diversity of supporter-owned clubs. Think, if you will, of FC United of Manchester, just about to open their own stadium in Moston, more than £2 million of which was funded by their supporters, helping other funders back the project – and who only need a point from two matches to be two promotions away from the Football League next season. Or Portsmouth, who quite simply wouldn’t exist without the efforts of supporters to save them from an apparently endless stream of rapacious and possibly insane potential owners. Or Exeter City, whose proud history also nearly came to an abrupt halt until supporters stepped in. Or Wycombe Wanderers, whose recent share offer has been an enormous and resounding success. Or baby Saffron Walden Town, the epitome of a small but community-rooted club. Or Rochdale Hornets, one of the original pioneers of rugby league. Or AFC Wimbledon, or Chester City, or Wrexham….or too many other clubs to mention in this limited space.
So many success stories. And yet there still seems to be some element of fear from many clubs (and indeed in some parts of the football authorities) about letting supporters into the boardroom, never mind allowing them to take overall control or ownership. Our job is to show the sceptics that actually the input and backing of supporters can always, if done properly, be a hugely positive and desirable thing, and that when that leads to full supporter ownership the results are a club rooted in its community, working for a sustainable future, and interacting effectively with the lifeblood that sustains it – the supporters.
And our job is also to convince the politicians that, post-election, this is an agenda they MUST engage with. The Government Expert Working Group on Supporter Ownership and Engagement must be allowed to complete its work. Whichever party is in power must recognise that this stuff isn’t just a fringe item – it’s becoming increasingly centre stage for the huge constituency that is supporters.
At a time when football is at its richest, when so many parts of our beautiful game appear broken, when so much of UK football income stuffs the bank accounts of so few and when the stories emanating from football are so often negative, supporter ownership stands as a beacon celebrating people doing the right thing. Here is where the volunteers gather to devote their time and energy to the club and community they love. Here is where football is still a fun game enjoyed by supporters who have a genuine stake in the club they are devoted to. Here is where the key decision makers are really accountable and can’t escape their role as custodians. Here is where owners are highly unlikely to go off the rails, or sell their club to someone massively unsuitable.