It was standing room only in the social club at Gigg Lane, Bury on Saturday lunchtime for the “Beyond The Debt” rally as a crowd of hundreds watched an impressive array of those in the know explain that the time for debate on the ownership of football clubs is coming to an end. We seem now to be entering a different time. A time when action is required. A time in which shrugging your shoulders and muttering that, “well, my club is alright” is no longer enough. When opening speaker and rally chair Andy Walsh from FC United of Manchester spoke, he talked of the rivalries between supporters of football clubs being an artificial construct which masked the true enemies of football supporters – the people that run the game itself.
Malcolm Clarke of the Football Supporters Federation was up next, offering a bleak insight into the world of the Football Association Council, an organisation in which two of the one hundred and fourteen members are women, two are from ethnic minorities and, astonishingly, just seven are under the age of fifty. Clarke spoken of his grandchildren and his desire for them to have football clubs to watch, something that coul have seemed unthinkable several years ago but is now something that is starting to raise its head as a possibility for the future. The fundamental issue that the game has to address is the sustainability of its financial model, which, currently, is practically non-existent.
Walsh had already made reference to a letter in the Guardian from a Portsmouth supporter stating that the spirit of Portsmouth Football Club will survive even if the worst happens to the current incarnation of the company that runs the club. Barry Dewy from Pompey Trust spoke of the madness that has engulfed his club over the last twelve months and of the action that is now required to ensure that, even if the worst happens to the current incarnation. They are still treating the ten per cent offered to them by Sulaiman Al-Fahim with a degree of suspicion, but the high take up rate for membership of the trust indicates that, no matter what happens in the future to Portsmouth FC, football in the city will continue, somehow and somewhere.
One occasional criticism of football supporters used to be that, while they criticised those that ran the game, they couldn’t offer an alternative to the status quo. When they did offer an alternative, it was claimed that this non-profit alternative couldn’t work at bigger clubs. The need to counter every argument that is put in the way of this movement remains, and Stuart Dykes, a fan worker from the German club Schalke 04, makes the argument that anybody that believes that supporter ownership of clubs can’t work should come to Germany to see clear evidence to the contrary. Clubs are owned under the “fifty plus one” rule, which means that fifty per cent of shares plus one vote for the club must always be held by the club itself. The net result of this is that German football is more competitive and with gate prices that would make supporters of Premier League clubs weep. Standing tickets at Schalke, he explains, cost €13 (£12).
Last up is Dave Boyle from Supporters Direct. Boyle makes the point that for as long as people within football continue to underestimate football supporters, the supporters will continue to beat them and that supporters should, in a general election year, put pressure on those standing for election to make a commitment to supporting our cause. We then wrap up with a Q&A session, during which one crowd member – not an FC United supporter – says quite plainly thaat he has been convinced of the potential power of the supporters trust movement. And why shouldn’t he have been? The arguments that have been put forward have been logical yet heartfelt.
The feeling that one comes away from a meeting like this is that it is now time for a tectonic shift in attitude. It is no longer good enough to say that there is a “debate” to be had about the merits of one model of football club ownership over another. The time for action has already come, and the protests at Manchester United and Chester City demonstrate that ordinary supporters, who want no more than to watch a football team that they can be proud of, have, quite simply, had enough. And with that, we head for the warmth of a bar to watch the second half of the match between Chelsea and Manchester City. Millions of people – possibly hundreds of millions of people – have tuned in to see whether Wayne Bridge will shake John Terry’s hand or not. It’s a circus. It flashes by on the screen and it looks like football, but something in the series of images that flash before me doesn’t compute. At the end of the match, it’s time to get out and into Gigg Lane for FC United’s match. There are flags everywhere, and constant singing throughout the entire ninety minutes. It’s time to decide whether you are going to be a part of the problem, or whether you are going to be a part of the solution.