A Matter Of Trust: Some Supporter-Owned Highlights From 2011
It is the end, then, of another long, hard season, and perhaps now is an appropriate time to be looking at how those clubs that are owned and run by their supporters trusts this season managed to fair. As AFC Wimbledon paraded the trophy that confirmed their accession into the Football League nine years after their formation, the words of the FA’s committee, that a new club in the borough would be, “not in the wider interests of football”, have never sounded more hollow. Wimbledon, however, are just one of nineteen clubs in England, Scotland and Wales that are owned by supporters trusts, and they are not the only one of these to have had some degree of success this season. It is worth, then, taking a moment to reflect upon some of the other Supporters Trust-owned clubs that have had cause for celebration this season.
Gretna FC 2008: Gretna FC were a prime example of how the sugar daddy model of football club ownership can fail. Funded by Brooks Mileson, the club rose swiftly through the ranks of Scottish football, played in the UEFA Cup and competed in the 2006 Scottish Cup final, where they only lost on penalties to Heart of Midlothian. However, promotion to the Scottish Premier League meant that the club had to abandon its home, Raydale Park, and play its home matches at Motherwell. When Mileson fell seriously ill, the club was left with debts of almost £4m and folded in August of 2008. The club was re-formed under the ownership of a supporters trust, and managed to secure a short-term lease on Raydale Park which subsequently became a firm agreement to buy it back. This season, Gretna FC 2008 won Division One of the East of Scotland League with nineteen wins and one draw from their twenty-two league matches.
Merthyr Town: After several years of financial difficulties, Merthyr Tydfil FC were liquidated during the summer of 2010. A new club was formed to play in the First Division of the Western Football League, although issues over securing a lease on the council-owned Penydarren Park meant that they had to play their home matches at twenty miles away at Taffs Well. This season saw a double success for the club. They will return to Penydarren Park for the start of next season after securing a lease on the ground, and they will go back as champions of Division One after finishing their first season by winning the league at a canter. They scored one hundred and eighteen goals in thirty-six matches and finished fourteen points clear of second placed Oldland Abbotonians.
Chester FC: Founded from the ashes of Chester FC, which folded in February of last year, City Fans United, the supporters trust which had worked so hard to extricate the club’s previous owners from The Deva Stadium, were awarded the lease on the club’s old ground and started their life as a new club in Division One North of the Evostik League in August. They won the league title on the last day of the season and will begin next season just two divisions below the Blue Square Premier – the division that Chester City had been set to be relegated from at the time that it was expelled from the Football Conference and folded.
AFC Telford United: The ashes of Telford United were picked up by their supporters trust in 2004 after the business of their owner and sole share-holder, Andrew Shaw, collapsed, leaving the club £4m in debt. They were liquidated that summer. It has taken seven years (and a fair amount of heart-ache in the play-offs along the way), but Telford finally won their way back into the Blue Square Premier at the end of this season with a 3-2 win against Guiseley AFC at New Bucks Head, a match watched by a crowd of almost five and a half thousand people.
FC United of Manchester: Despite the disappointment of their proposed move to a ground of their own Ten Acres Lane falling through, FC United of Manchester still had a season to remember. In the FA Cup, they beat Barrow of the Blue Square Premier in the Fourth Qualifying round of the competition and then won a Friday night match at Rochdale in the First Round of the competition. It might have been expected that a trip to League One leaders Brighton & Hove Albion would be step too far, but even then they managed a 1-1 draw at The Withdean Stadium (in a match during which their goalkeeper Sam Ashton saved a late penalty to keep them in the game) before eventually losing the replay at Gigg Lane. On top of this, they managed to get to the final of the Evostik League Premier Division play-offs, before losing narrowly to Colwyn Bay. Meanwhile, the battle for a new ground goes on.
Clydebank: In an oft-forgotten act of football franchising in Scotland, Clydebank FC was bought out by a consortium seeking to reintroduce football to the town of Airdrie after the collapse of Airdrieonians in 2002. A new club was formed by the supporters trust after Airdrie United took Clydebank’s league place, and the new club now plays in the Scottish Junior Football Association West Region Division One, which it won last season by three points. Their final match of the season, played last Saturday against Ashfield, was watched by a crowd of 720, an attendance that holds up very well in comparison with some clubs in the lower divisions of the Scottish Football League.
Cambridge City: In another act of pillage carried out on a non-league football club, Cambridge City lost its ground after a dispute with its landlords, although a court appeal subsequently ruled that the club had been fraudulently misrepresented, and allowed it to remain at their Milton Road ground until at least 2010 and receive 50% of the development profits on the site. On the pitch, trust-owned City finished in a highly creditable fourth place in the Premier Division of the Zamaretto League. Although they lost in the end of season play-offs to Salisbury City, there was a silver lining to their season with the news that they had managed to extend their stay at Milton Road until the end of the 2012/13 season.
Success, though, isn’t always measured with silverware. Exeter City deserve an honourable mention for an excellent eight place finish in League One, which, for a little perspective, was just two points (if we take goal difference into account) off a play-off place, five places above Charlton Athletic and seven places above Sheffield Wednesday. The oft-forgotten Enfield Town (the first protest break-away club to be owned by a supporters trust), meanwhile, celebrate their tenth anniversary next month and will be moving to the QE2 Stadium next season, when work is completed on it. Runcorn Linnets, on the other hand, have just completed their first season back at their new ground back in their home town after several years of playing in Witton, and, while Lewes were unable to prevent relegation from the Blue Square South into the Ryman League Premier Division, they have made significant strides towards becoming a community-owned club this season. Their long-term future will surely be more secure as a result of this.
Perhaps the Lewes story is the most significant of all of these tales from the 2010/11 season. Trophies and championships are transient glories. The icing on the cake, if you like. But if we may Moulinex our food metaphors for a moment, the bread and butter of clubs – in particular those inhabiting the financially treacherous waters of non-league football – is to continue to exist. That should be the most important aspect of their ambition, and the clubs that are owned by their supporters are perhaps the best place to do exactly this. In the case of a number of the clubs listed above, a corpse of a club has been revived by the supporters. It is playing at a lower level than perhaps those supporters are used to, but it is there and those supporters will control its destiny. They may just sneak a glance at AFC Wimbledon, who have risen from the Combined Counties League to the Football League in just nine years, and wonder if that may one day be possible for them. And for as long as that bread and butter is being taken care of, it’s no bad thing to dream of the cake.
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