One of the most important developments within British football over the last ten years or so has been the growth of the understanding that football supporters can be empowered to control their own destinies. The notion that football clubs could only be run as the personal fiefdoms of the self-appointed “great and the good” has become more and more discredited as the first decade of the new century wore on and, and the relative success and stability of clubs that are run by supporters trusts has been obvious to anybody that takes the time to stop and examine them.
Most of this occurs in the lower divisions and non-league football. Even in the Premier League, though, there have been signs that supporters are not satisfied to be ridden roughshod over. At Manchester United, the Green and Gold protest may not have been the success that its organisers may have dislodged the Glazer family from their position of power at Old Trafford, but the horrific reality of the debt within their club raised consciousness of their situation worldwide and brought the growing madness of financial state of English British football to an audience that may yet lead to meaningful change.
On the whole, though, democracy for football supporters remains elusive. For all of the posturing on the subject, the sale of Liverpool Football Club was not brought about because of the wishes of the supporters, but because the club’s bankers had grown overly wary of the financial plans of the owners and had the power to force its sale. In the case of the appointment of Kenny Dalglish, we should perhaps be more surprised at the directors of the club acceding to the wishes of the most vocal of Liverpool supporters rather than at those supporters themselves. In the case of the fall – only one division, and with an FA Trophy win on the way – of Ebbsfleet United, a veneer of democracy (with fanciful talk of picking the team) shrouded what always felt like a publicity stunt for its creator, Will Brooks. Disagreement followed as My Football Club (MyFC) was unable to deliver on its initial promises but, ironically, the club has now found its level and the “project” could now be considered, in some respects, to be more of a success than it was during its haywire first eighteen months or so.
To confuse the latter two examples with what those of us that advocate democracy within the running of football clubs, however, is misleading, and this was very much the case with regard to this extaordinary article that appeared on the Guardian’s website this morning. In it, Louise Taylor ask us to, “imagine the chaos if a green and gold coup d’etat transformed Manchester United into a democratic republic and fans voted on Sir Alex Ferguson’s starting XI before vetoing new signings”, and states that, “offering the football public a sniff of power can be dangerous”. Well, perhaps it would be if the green and gold campaign had ever made mention of such an idea, but it didn’t.
In order to prove her point on the supporter ownership of football clubs, Taylor picks up on the example of Ebbsfleet, which is unusual, since the MyFC was exception rather than the rule in terms of the supporters’ ownership of football clubs. Indeed, if she wished to use examples of football clubs that are democratically owned and run by their supporters, Taylor could have used Exeter City (promoted from the BSP to League One and stabilised there under supporter ownership), AFC Wimbledon (promoted from the Combined Counties League to the top of the BSP in less than a decade) or FC United of Manchester (obtained planning permission for a new ground of their own and started a near-unique Community Share initiative to fund it), but there is no reference to them.
Taylor’s opening question is “Benevolent dictatorship or democracy?” (as if these are the only two options), and she closes by talking of the “fuelling daft, disingenuous fantasies” of supporters. When Chester City were bled to extinction by a succession of owners, was it a “daft, disingenuous fantasy” for the supporters trust there to pick up the ashes of the club and start it over again, on a promise that this should never happen to them again? The fact that they had to drop three divisions with the folding of Chester City but have still managed to double home crowds would suggest not. Is it “daft, disingenuous fantasy” for Wrexham supporters to hope amongst hope that the future of their club ends with The Racecourse Ground reunited with their club and ownership of a democratically-run group that will actually treat the guardianship of almost 140 years of football in their town with the respect that it deserves?
For all of the talk of “disingenuity”, Taylor is being disingenuous herself by picking an exception to a rule in order to prove what she considers to be a rule herself. Moreover, to imply that the green and gold campaign had anything to do with “voting on Sir Alex Ferguson’s starting XI before vetoing new signings” is just plain fallacy. Taylor’s alternative seems to be to put up and shut up. Manchester City supporters may become the first to see their club qualify for the Champions League yet not be allowed to play in it on account of failing UEFA’s Financial Fair Play initiative, but according to Taylor, Gary Cook is on the right track there because:
City Square, a continental-type cafe complex created around a stage on which new bands play live, forms the centrepiece of Eastlands’s welcoming hinterland. A family stand features child-size toilet facilities and, among assorted food options, offers juniors healthy, trendy, fruit smoothies. Pre kick-off, youngsters play with interactive chalkboards, enter virtual dressing rooms, have their faces painted and measure themselves against life-size models of City stars.
Taylor has previous, too – consider this spittle-flecked passage of bile from last year, or this powder-puff piece on the Qatar World Cup bid, in which she didn’t disclose that her trip had been paid for by the bidding team itself. There is certainly a place for a mature, reasonable debate over the merits and possible pitfalls of the supporters’ ownership of football clubs, but this confused, mish-mash of quarter-thought-out ideas isn’t it. It certainly is a “daft, disingenuous fantasy” to imagine that every football club is run and managed by a “benevolent dictatorship”, and it is especially surprising and disappointing that an article with such gaping holes at the centre of its logic appears in the sport section of the Guardian, which is otherwise a relative treasure-trove of diversity in a frequently bland football landscape in the mainstream media. As one poster in the comments section on the Guardian put it:
This entire article is an example of forelock tugging intellectual cowardice that can not see beyond begging the carpetbaggers, egotists and chancer’s that run football for a slightly better deal.
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Ian began writing Twohundredpercent in May 2006. He lives in Brighton. He has also written for, amongst others, Pitch Invasion, FC Business Magazine, The Score, When Saturday Comes, Stand Against Modern Football and The Football Supporter. Ian was the first winner of the Socrates Award For Not Being Dead Yet at the 2010 NOPA awards for football bloggers.
I suppose at least the Guardian offers pluralistic views in its sport section. 90% of the other newspapers are filled with nothing much better than Taylor’s drivel, which hasn’t helped anyone except Murdoch et al.
Taylor’s piece reminded me a little of the FA panel that stated that it wouldn’t be in the wider interests of football for a new Wimbledon to be created if the club moved to Milton Keynes.
Of course, there are examples of Trusts not working if she’d bothered to look, but given the wealth of examples and the growing feeling in the Premier League that supporters have got too disconnected from their clubs, it’s an extraordinarily poorly researched article.
I don’t have a problem with criticisms of the Trust model, as it’s not without issues and it never hurts to ask tough questions, with the best intentions, but this misses the point spectacularly.
I remember the Guardian as being an intelligent, left-of-centre newspaper. Obviously it’s journalistic standards have fallen a long way in recent years.
Louise Taylor fails to point out that maybe the “interactive chalkboards” (eh?) were paid for by the rise in season tickets at Manchester City this season, an omission you might attribute to her dreaming of running naked through cornfields with football her hero Gary Cooke within a few lines of writing this drivel. Even if they weren’t then you can hardly hold up that club as a shining light given that the rest of the sickly marketing gimmicks at Eastlands (“Be part of it.” Blue ketchup anyone?) are funded with oil dollars. What she ought to have been asking is ‘how low have football fans stooped if they have put aside any regard for where money comes from so long as it gives them their moment of knicker-wetting on Sky Sports?’. The issue that people like Taylor have with the Trust model is that it will be the adopted model of most football clubs over the next 20-30 years, which means that the people taking charge of football clubs will be the very people who won’t give her the time of day, let alone an all-expenses paid trip to Qatar. She might want to keep a look out for David Conn in the Guardian canteen if she wants some pointers on how really to cover the issue of supporter ownership in football.