Today, the Labour Party has outlined proposals to give fans greater say in the running of their clubs. Regular readers of this site will know (and surprisingly, there’s a fair few of you) that I am puritanical about fan ownership. So I won’t be going through why increased ownership is a good thing. No, I am going to outline why I am against Labour proposals on fan ownership.
Firstly, I expect to be one of the few (if not the only) person who is in favour of fan ownership but is against these proposals. FC United head honcho and propagandist (in a good way) Andy Walsh was at the launch of the plans with FC United supportive. The Cardiff City Supporters Trust has welcomed the plans (here) with Chair Tim Hartley stating: “I welcome Labour’s commitment to ensuring fans have a real role in owning and running their clubs.” Blackpool Supporters Trust has also linked to the plans on Twitter, which I suspect is a sign of support.
Supporters Direct have naturally come out in favour too, which is understandable when it was set up by the Labour Party under Andy Burnham MP. Regardless of my view on the proposals, both Supporters Direct and Andy Burnham deserve respect for having moved the debate this far.
However, I have no problem being a lone wolf on this one and saying I am against it. My main reason for being against these proposals is that they fundamentally take away the responsibility of fans to force change and give it over to the state.
I am going to go through the little criticism before the big one. Firstly, in many cases what would Supporters Trusts be getting 10% of? Would HUST benefit from getting 10% of a now bankrupt club, would there be anything to stop the club being separated from the ground and if that happens the fans would own 10% of bugger all really.
Most of the clubs that become fan owned are ones that died or the fans killed themselves so they could reform. A far greater proposal would be a simple law banning owners from putting debt on football clubs, so if an owner wants to piss his money up a wall then fine but he would have zero legal right to ask for any of it back.
The other quick proposal is that in the proposal is something which would drive a clear wedge between the members of the Trust and those who sit on the board. An example from Labour plans illustrates this: “The right to obtain (under an obligation of confidentiality) financial and commercial information about the business and affairs of a football club”.
The whole point about Trusts is they are open and transparent, this rule would immediately bind the Trust board members hands. We should be getting onto boards to force them to be more transparent, not bind our hands by accepting the status quo.
Secondly, “Supporters would not be able to block takeovers or change corporate strategy.” Now does that mean they cannot use their shareholding to stop proposals or their board members can’t vote on certain issues? If so, due to the fact that they will also have to sign confidentiality agreements, it would lead to the greater involvement of the two fans on the board and nobody else.
Like I suspected, Labour are jumping on a bandwagon which is already growing in strength and is something wonderful. It is a movement which is showing people that you don’t have to wait for others to change our lives, that we can do it ourselves. Crucially, it means anyone can stand for the board and it’s not seen as the preserve of the middle class, plenty of people can bring their skills and be put in a position of leadership.
At a stroke, this will slowly demise. Labour is proposing that the Umbrella body (which I guess would be Supporters Direct) will be “required to offer training to supporters before taking up positions on Boards.”
Knowing the way Labour works I can guess that certain people put up for seats on the board will be vetted for their appropriateness (shortlisted if you will) for their suitability. Basically only nice middle class people will put their hat in the ring due to the way changes are constructed and if any binman or cleaner put their name forward they wouldn’t be deemed suitable. I accept that this is a slippery slope argument but knowing the Labour Party and its middle class tendency, it’s a fair one.
Onto the main criticism then and the main proposal which is that Labour are promising that when a club is sold to a new owner, the fans are automatically offered ten percent. It is perfectly possible at the vast majority of football clubs for fans to raise enough cash to get 10% of their clubs. These proposals seemed designed really for just the biggest clubs in the pyramid: Man Utd, Arsenal etc.
10% of Birmingham City wouldn’t be such a massive amount of money in the current circumstances compared with what fans put into the club now for no return (tickets, shirts, etc). Again, fans are already raising money at much larger clubs such as Rangers to put into a share scheme where they gradually build up their stake over a long period of time and we will return to a great tactic of Rangers fans to force the owners hand later.
It was interesting to note the Head of Cardiff City Supporters Trust mention clubs like Swansea. Merthyr, Wrexham as great examples. I can’t help but note that in all these cases the fans did the hard work themselves, they collectively organised together to save their clubs. Merthyr reformed and now are in a great position with a 3G pitch and look like going up this season to Step 3 of non-league, back where they were before they went bust. Swansea City has now a well-known story which has been made into a film but my favourite, even if I am a Shrewsbury Town Supporters Trust member, is the heroes at Wrexham.
They raised £100,000 in less than a day to get a bond to stay in the Conference before finally removing asset strippers Geoff Moss and Ian Roberts from the club (here). The previous owner Alex Hamilton ended up with the fans organising a protest right outside his house, guarding the exit and entrance. You can catch this by watching Stand Your Ground, a BBC documentary about the man filmed years ago but available on YouTube (here).
Now you could say they never should’ve had to go through any of this but the crucial point here is that fans of these three clubs, all of them, did fight. They did organise to get money to buy the club or reform it, the fact that it was the fans that did it themselves can only have given them a motivation to continue to improve the club and make it a success. All three clubs have gone on to have real success.
Now the question that comes up here is what to do if the owners won’t sell a stake? I was told this at a Shrews Trust meeting that setting up a share scheme would be pointless as the Chairman won’t sell. Or Blackpool, where many fans appear to want ‘Oyston Out’ and have paid him money to enter the ground to wave a poster, showing just how displeased they are with him.
Well actually, there is something you can do to force change if the owners aren’t listening: You can stop giving them your bloody money. Now I have already shown how much Blackpool fans could hurt seriously hurt Oyston if the Blackpool Supporters Trust organise a boycott and get fans to follow.
What have the majority of Cardiff fans done when the clubs owner changed the colours and the badge? They kept giving him their money. What have Blackpool fans done in protest against the owner? That’s right, they give him money.
The only thing that matters is if you take away their money and to be honest, I don’t see why fans of Chester, Wrexham, AFC Telford, 1874 Northwich, Portsmouth, and Swansea (and on the list goes) who battled and fought should have to watch others get it handed to them on a plate.
There is something fans at all these clubs can do and that’s boycott the clubs, stop giving them your money. Back to a great idea from Rangers fans that had set up a fund for season ticket money which would only be released if certain conditions were met, namely the security of the ground was handed over.
What is to stop Blackpool Supporters Trust, Cardiff Supporters Trust, Leeds fans organising the same thing? Nothing. The criticism that at big clubs like Liverpool or United means tourists would take their seats can be dismissed for the simple fact it has never been tried. Why don’t you put it to the test and find out? If the Kop became packed with Chinese tourists then I think sponsors and TV companies may well have a bit more difficulty selling it.
The last objection to my argument is that fans aren’t prepared to boycott, that it is too difficult to organise the fans of a Blackpool or a Cardiff to take the long term action necessary so it must be done by the state. Well if this argument is correct, and in fact people are not prepared to collectively organise themselves or will only demand that others (in this case the state) take action for them, then they don’t deserve a change.
They can join the champagne socialists who have overrun the Labour Party, the people who say I am against private schools but not for my kids, I’m against tax avoidance schemes but not for me. Now we can add football fans who are against bad owners but give them money anyway.
Really, if the people who say they care the most are those who are the least prepared to make a difference then why do they deserve support? The paradox of my trip around all these fan owned clubs is it has given me less and less sympathy for those who choose to prop up their regimes.
I just don’t understand how working class tradition (and at most of the clubs in football it is still working class support) has gone from a resilient, self-organising groups who didn’t wait for others to change our lives but aggressively did it our bloody selves, to a such a passive, spineless and fatalistic group who see the state as our only saviour.
The only reason to be in favour of these proposals is because of the usual suspects who are against it (not including myself). The Prem, the Football League management and everyone else who are leeching off the game will be against this. Luckily for them this legislation probably won’t get through.
Let’s stop putting our faith in a party led by a man who bunked off an NHS protest (here), to go and get wined and dined by the man who said “fans can die whenever they want.”
This growing movement shouldn’t live or die on who can lobby to get the most favourable laws, it should be led by us on the ground, fighting the good fight with boycotts, share schemes and season ticket money withheld. Yes, this will mean hard work, sacrifice and in some cases defeats but it will be a purer and stronger movement for the fact the fight involves every fan and not just people who can afford to get gigs working for the Labour party or lobbyists.
As the Hold Steady say, “We are our only saviours” so please, I implore us to be our own saviours and not wait for the Labour Party to do it for us.
On Twitter @eddyman00
I must admit, in the interests of full disclosure, an hypocrisy in which although I am in favour of workers on boards via legislation in certain companies, I am for the reasons outlined above against it for fan ownership. I have yet to square that intellectual circle but I’m going to give it a go in the future.