The phrase “things are going to get worse before they get better” springs to mind when thinking of the put-upon supporters of Conference club Ebbsfleet United. During the summer, they suffered the indignity having their name of over fifty years changed from Gravesend & Northfleet to that of a soon-to-open international railway terminal, and this morning it was confirmed that 20,000 people, the vast majority of whom almost certainly know nothing whatsoever about their club, are going to be taking over as their managers. Yes, indeed. An informal agreement has been made between the website MyFootballClub and the owners of Ebbsfleet United and, subject to due diligence (which is a fancy way of saying “making no-one has been cooking the books there for the last few years to make it look like its worth more than it is”), they will shortly be taking over at the club, which is based on the south side of the Thames Estuary.
The volume of interest in this is such that the club’s official website has collapsed, but a quick journey to their independent website features an interesting look at the reactions of various parties to the announcement. Unsurprisingly, the Fleet chairman, Jason Botley (presumably interviewed in the driver’s seat of his new, diamond-encrusted Bentley) is “delighted” with the new partnership – conveniently overlooking that, although they only purchased a 51% share in the club, the website are now the majority owners and what they say now goes. His official press release on the subject went as follows:
“We are united in believing this is a great opportunity, this extra finance and support will enable our club to progress. This extra finance and support will enable our club to progress up the leagues, and the club will get significantly increased media coverage”.
Whilst there is an element of truth in this (the short term interest will almost certainly mean more money being put into the club), it is difficult to see how this can end well for the football club. One might expect that reaction from the man that has brokered the deal. More surprising, however, is the reaction of Jessica McQueen of the Fleet Trust: Consider the immediate response attributed to her this morning, as per the FleetNet independent website this morning:
“Being a Trust, our members understand the MyFootballClub concept immediately. We very much look forward to working with the MyFootballClub members for the benefit of Ebbsfleet United”.
One of the major stated goals of a Supporters Trust is to promote community involvement and seek to stake a claim in the running of the clubs themselves. By not opposing this, the Trust would seem to be completely undermining its own opposition. The organisation that will take control of the club is a Trust, though the one that owns the club is a different organistation to the company that owns MyFootballClub – this is a private company, and is acting exactly as a private company would in taking £7.50 from each membership to cover “administration costs”. I have seen it put forward that Fleet Trust may be seeking to stay “onside” with the new owners if a small membership means that their influence is currently limited, but I fail to see how they, as a trust, could not see their numbers swell as opposition amongst their support grows. It is the natural place for people concerned by this development to go, and they would be acting highly irresponsibly if they are seen to be acting as patsies to what is, ultimately, a private company that has acquired their club. The Fleet Trust web site hasn’t been updated today yet, but a press release from Kevin Rye of Supporters Direct stated the following:
“Fundamentally, playing fantasy manager is not about responsible democratic supporter representation or community ownership, which are the core values of the trust movement. Indeed we are one of the most vigorous exponents of reform of the ownership structures in football, but our interests are in long-term sustainability and governance of clubs. This might be seen as a one off gimmick, and harmless enough by many, however this is a real football club, these are real finances, and real fans. The question needs to be asked what happens to the club finances and its supporters if the novelty starts to wear off?”
Interestingly, Fleet Trust appears to taken a somewhat more ambivalent viewpoint than the initial report on the Independent Ebbsfleet site might have indicated (though, curiously, the initial statement hasn’t been taken down yet). In a statement released this afternoon, they said:
“The Fleet Trust wish to respond to the press reports this morning about the imminent takeover of Ebbsfleet United Football Club by the ‘myfootballclub.co.uk’ consortium, to ensure there is no misunderstanding as to the position of the Trust in respect of the deal.
We were informed of this deal less than 48 hours ago by the current owners and have not yet met with any person representing ‘myfootballclub.co.uk’.
We have not seen any business plan from my ‘myfootballclub.co.uk’ outlining their plans for the club.
Until we have met as a board, we will not be issuing any further comment.”
A period of contract signing will now begin which, it seems likely, will result in the club being taken over by company funded by people with very little at stake personally in the long term well-being of Ebbsfleet United FC. Whether that organisation has 2 members of 20,000 strikes me as being utterly irrelevant. Ultimately, this club has been sold to be the plaything of a few thousand would-be Alex Fergusons. There is a reasonable chance that, in the short term, it will be successful. The media coverage promises to be massive, and a number of people that have paid their £35 subscription may well make a few visits to Stonebridge Road to see how their investment is coming along (though how welcome they’ll be made to feel is open to question). However, football is not about the short term. More important than any short term success is the long term security of that football club – the knowledge that the club will still be there in five or ten years time. With all of this in the back of my mind, I would be interested in knowing what the answers are to the following questions:
– No-one has ever made any money out of non-league football through being successful on the pitch. What is MyFootballClub’s exit strategy if the financial going gets tough?
– What will be the future involvement of Fleet Trust in the day-to-day running of Ebbsfleet United FC? Will they be offered a position at board level, and what viewpoint will MyFootballClub take if the Trust decides to oppose this take-over?
– On the MyFootballClub website, much is made of the protection offered to members should the football club run into financial difficulties. Will the same protection be offered to the football club itself?
– What, exactly, is there to stop MyFootballClub from spending wildly on players, and then pulling out? Are they aware of the Blue Square Premier wage cap, and how it works?
– How is budgeting for next year working? Does MyFootballClub already have any sort of estimate of how many people will renew their membership next summer? If the number of members falls off dramatically, where will liability for what could be a huge financial shortfall lay?
Ultimately, I would put this question to everybody reading this: Would you want this happen to your club if MyFootballClub’s offer had been made to them?
Post Script: There is still much to be said on this subject, and I will be spending most of my spare time today poring over various documents relating to this agreement. I would also suggest, to anyone reading the comments section, that you note that the most important question that I asked of MyFC members, just above this, still hasn’t been answered. I’d also suggest to anyone looking for further reading on the subject to type “fans focus ebbsfleet” into Google and have a look at the chaos going on at their messageboard right now. It’s entertaining, if nothing else.