Supporters Trusts have become so embedded in the culture of football in this country that it can sometimes feel difficult to remember at time when they didn’t exist. They have, over the last couple of decades, become the go to organisation for supporters to rally around when a club is in financial difficulty, and otherwise they provide an authoritative voice on all matters relating to the political – with a small “p” – aspect of the running of their clubs. It’s difficult to imagine how our football landscape would, in this particularly idiosyncratic way, look without them. Supporters Trusts and the movement that envelops them, however, aren’t a force of nature. They weren’t a concept that suddenly appeared before us as if by magic. The supporters trust movement has come about thanks to the tireless work and creative ingenuity of some brilliant people. And we lost one of them today.
It was in January 1992, in his adopted home town of Northampton, that Brian Lomax made his mark. Northampton Town Football Club was close to bankruptcy, and Lomax founded the Northampton Town Supporters Trust at a public meeting of 600 people with two aims – to raise money and to seek representation for supporters in running the club. The club was saved and two supporters – him included – ended up on its board of directors. A couple of years later, the club moved into its new home at Sixfields, and it is a sadness upon sadness that Brian didn’t live to see future of a club that is itself staring down the barrel of a gun again due to mismanagement secured. As things stand at Northampton, his legacy is the oldest Supporters Trust, one that is as well placed as any in its position might be to dealing with what is clearly an extremely serious situation.
Were this the sum total of Brian Lomax’s legacy, we might consider him to have had a life well lived, having left a mark on the game of which his nearest and dearest could be thoroughly proud. The story of his involvement in the Supporters Trust movement doesn’t, however, in stadium built on an industrial estate on the outskirts of Northampton a little over two decades ago. As this story closed, another began. At a meeting just prior to the opening of Sixfields, Phil French from the Football Trust spoke to Lomax at length about the Supporters Trust concept, and four years later, following the election of a new government, French was working with the Labour MP Andy Burnham on the new Football Task Force, and the upshot of this was the formation of Supporters Direct, a body to assist with the formation of Trusts, offer practical advice and lobby on the part of supporters and supporters groups everywhere.
The first years of Supporters Direct coincided with a tumultuous period in the history of many of England’s smaller football clubs. The ITV Digital collapse of 2001 left many Football League clubs groaning under the burden of financial commitments agreed on the basis of future financial revenues that would no longer be coming. In the same year, a smaller revolution started in suburban North London when the supporters of Enfield FC voted to break away from their homeless club and start a new club, Enfield Town FC. A year later, when the Football Association inexplicably permitted the owners of Wimbledon FC to move to Milton Keynes, the work of Supporters Direct was invaluable in the formation of AFC Wimbledon, which started its life at the bottom of the non-league pyramid but rose to reclaim its place in the Football League a decade later. Three years after this came another breakaway, this time by Manchester United supporters who became so disaffected with their club and “modern football” that they formed FC United of Manchester, to try and run a football club in a different way.
Protests lead to news headlines, of course, and Supporters Trusts took its campaigning cue from a growing dissatisfaction at the way that the game was being administered in this country. Each club has its own tale to tell, from Chester to Wrexham, from Portsmouth to Lewes, from Northwich to Telford. There have been hiccups and there have been setbacks, but generally speaking the principle has been sound. Where clubs have found themselves n positions in which the supporters no longer have any faith in those charged with the custodianship of their clubs, the Supporters Trust has become the unifying voice of protest, reform, and often ownership itself. Whilst ownership or boardroom representation is the goal of most if not all supporters trusts, though, their very existence – and there are now over 170 of them, with more than 300,000 members – is a symbol of the most important aspect of Brian’s legacy to all of us.
One could argue over whether Trusts are a symptom or cause of this all day and night, but what is undeniable is that football supporters – or at least a proportion of them – have become less and less happy to be treated as mere consumers as the game has become increasingly commercially focused. There were protests that were nothing to with this movement of course, at Oxford United and Reading in the 1980s, at Charlton Athletic and Brighton & Hove Albion in the 1990s, but perhaps the greatest gift that Brian Lomax (and the others that were present at the birth of this movement) gave us has been an alternative language through which we can interpret our role as football supporters. We’re not the dumb consumers that we were – and often still are – assumed to be. The last two decades have seen a significant shift in this perception of ourselves and what we are capable of achieving. We should all take a moment to consider that shift in perception, the clubs that have been formed, saved or reborn as a result of this forward thinking. Thank you Brian, and sleep well.
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