Eleven years ago an unassuming revolution took place in Devon. There were no triumphant shouts of proclamations of the new regime. Instead a dedicated group of volunteers grimly rolled up their sleeves, surveyed the damage in front of them and got to work. Now, over a decade since the Supporters’ Trust was invited to take control of the battered and near-critically wounded Exeter City, another potential revolution is in the offing. It’s even more bloodless and yet could end up killing the very thing that many City supporters treasure – fan ownership. It’s no exaggeration to say that the future of the Trust is at stake over the coming weeks. Currently under a transfer embargo, things could get a lot worse for the Grecians over the coming weeks.
The challenges of fan ownership mean that a club of Exeter’s size will always be at a financial disadvantage to some of the division’s big spenders but the last few seasons have been particularly unkind to Exeter. Relegation from League One followed by missing out on the playoffs the season after and a battle against relegation this season has led to plenty of glum faces at St. James’ Park. Off the field, postponements, failure to progress in cup competitions and no recent player sales has stretched finances. But this is a fan owned club. Should it not be living within its means?
The answer that has unravlled over the past week is that the Trust is most emphatically not in control at Exeter City. And if recent events are anything to go by, it could be ousted and killed off, dumped by the side of the road like a mafioso hit. Twohundredpercent has previously highlighted worrying questions that the club and Trust had to answer. Now those answers have emerged, there are even more worrying questions that need answers urgently.
It’s worth taking a moment just to explain the governance structure of Exeter City. It may not be exciting but it lies at the root of this crisis. The majority shareholder is the fan-run Supporters’ Trust. They have a board of society (BOS) which is made up of elected members, most of whom are volunteers. Two members of the BOS also sit on the Exeter City club board, which is made up of individuals employed by and appointed by the club as paid employees and experts in their field. The idea is that the Club Board takes the day-to-day commercial decisions with the approval of the Trust members on the board. Should the Trust object to a club’s decision, as owner they can theoretically veto it. In theory this should work harmoneously.
The reality is rather different and starkly illustrated by two key parts of the current crisis at City. Firstly, the Club Board took out a PFA loan of £100,000 to cover player wages for the summer. The conditions of this loan place the Grecians under a transfer embargo until it is paid back. This in itself is alarming, although also not entirely uncommon for financially stretched clubs and is a marginally better alternative to spending cash the club doesn’t have. What is less common is the Trust claim to know nothing of the loan being approved and were under the assumption the club would ask for an advance from the Football League, although this is an equally worrying development as it can eat into cash flow for the subsequent season and is a favourite trick of desperate chairmen.
Taking aside the rights and wrongs of advancing or loaning money, the most alarming part of this saga is the breakdown in communication between Trust and Club. When the decision to apply for the loan was taken, the Trust representative on the board was out of the country, yet the club pressed ahead without informing the Trust, who only discovered the loan has been taken nearly a week later. No effort was made to communicate to the Trust.
Less dramatic but potentially more concerning was an attempt by the club board to remove the Trust’s ability to appoint independent directors on the Exeter City club board. In the minutes of the May meeting it was noted that the club had proposed to remove the Trust’s majority vote from the Club Board Appointment Committee (CBAC), meaning the owners would essentially have no say in appointing directors, veering majorly away from the principles of a supporter-owned club. This change was presented to the BOS as something to be noted and passed. The BOS were less happy and in a rare display of rebellion against the club, voted down the proposal.
The rhetoric from the club board in recent weeks has sought to blame the ownership model for the financial crisis, while there have been subtle digs at the overall fanbase from some of the management team. Certainly, reading between the lines, the message from the club is that the Trust ownership model is not fit for purpose. It seems that the relationship between the Club and Trust has broken down and it is now the Club who are in charge, paying lip service to the notion of fan ownership when it suits then, while the actual owners, the Trust seem unable or unwilling to confront those in charge over mistakes that have led the spiral into another financial disaster at St James Park.
It is a situation that reflects well on nobody. The Club has blamed the postponement of the Wycombe and Morecambe games this winter along with poor season ticket sales for the shortfall, yet if this was the case it should have been apparent from February onwards that there were financial difficulties ahead over the summer months and still nothing was done to tackle this. Meanwhile, the Trust seem paralysed at challenging the club and almost unaware of the severity of the financial situation. That they were unable to send a representative to a crucial financial meeting and were powerless and uninformed about the PFA loan does not reflect well on the BoS, far less the BoS individuals who were willing to sacrifice the Trust’s ability to veto CBAC appointments.
This may sound jargon heavy but this is how those passionate about fan ownership have been replaced by technocrats. In truth, the seeds were inadvertently sown during Exeter’s 3 season stay in League One. Many of the original BOS members were forced to stand down due to Trust rules limiting them to six years in office (or a maximum of two terms on the board). As a new, more inexperienced BOS was shaped, the decision was made to split the chairmanship of Club and Trust in order to bring in more outside, salaried staff who could move the club into a more professional footing and, in one specific example, work with the local authorities on stadium redevelopment or relocation. It seemed like a sensible move to grow the club at the time and entirely in keeping with the ambitions to reach the Championship; in hindsight it was more akin to Jar Jar Binks giving Emperor Palpatine supreme power, although no one could have known this at the time. It’s inevitable that a Trust with no real blueprint or example to follow will make mistakes. It’s how they react to the mistakes that’s the key.
So the Trust stands at a crossroads. Many original active members have drifted away, disillusioned or apathetic. Many once loyal fans are cancelling their Trust subscriptions in protest or renouncing their season tickets, even in the knowledge that this will further injure both Club and Trust. If the Trust wants to survive it has to take decisive action and even that may be too late. The Trust has been pumping increasing amounts of cash into Exeter City to keep it afloat and recently put in £60k of short term loans. Cash reserves, which were intended to go no lower than £30k currently stand at £15k.
If the will is there the Trust needs to decide, as the owners of Exeter City, if the current Club board are the right people to be running the club. If they are, then both sides need to mend fences urgently and work together to solve the current crisis. If not then the Trust should exercise their power and remove them even if it leads to short term difficulties. And if the Trust do nothing, then there’s every possibility that one of the original leading lights of the fan ownership movement will slowly wither and die, killed by backroom meetings.