Kingstonian: A Day In The Death Of A Football Club?
Sometimes you have to admit that your fans aren’t that terrific. Until this week, my only criticisms of a Kingstonian fan-base with many terrific individuals was their fouler-than-average language during matches, their inability to out-sing a mime artist with laryngitis and an occasional tendency to dissolve into whining self-pity. The first issue matters, the second doesn’t. But this week, the third dominated proceedings to the extent that it shook my faith in my club’s future.
That future is fraught. Ryman League Ks have been sub-tenants at Kingston Council-owned Kingsmeadow Stadium since entering administration in October 2001 (five years after becoming a limited company), having been leaseholders since the ground opened in August 1989. This was 18 months after leaving their own Richmond Road ground, which they agreed to sell for housing four years earlier… at 1984 prices, thereby missing out on the financial benefits of the late 1980s property-price boom, the promise of which persuaded members to approve the move.
In that 18 months, Ks’ “home” was neighbouring Hampton and, twice when Hampton was unavailable, not-so-neighbouring Carshalton Athletic. From next season, Ks face a similar scenario. Current Kingsmeadow leaseholders AFC Wimbledon have sold the lease to Chelsea, in preparation for the famous “return” of a “Wimbledon” FC to the Plough Lane site of Wimbledon’s old “traditional” home. The knock-on issues facing Ks are its enforced relocation and the Hampton-style groundshare arrangements required before the club owns its own ground again. This could be years away, as they have latched onto a Chessington housing development, in Kingston borough’s deep south (half-a-mile from the famous World of Adventures theme park), which is at a “pre-planning” stage and raises numerous local infrastructure issues.
In 2014, a working party was formed to examine changing Ks from a “directors-owned private limited company” into a “community-owned club.” In September, the working party called a referendum of 252 life members, patrons, season-ticket holders, supporters club members and supporters who specifically registered, to vote on Ks becoming a “Community Benefit Society” (CBS), one of many fan-ownership models promoted by fans’ organisation Supporters Direct (SD).
On November 9th, directors and working party members formed a top table at an open meeting of supporters to discuss the proposal, addressed by SD’s Club Development Manager James Mathie, who was also involved in working party discussions. Mathie will never make TED talks for a living, which he can consider far more of a compliment than it sounds. Despite the directors’ recommendation to change ownership structure, Mathie’s slideshow presentation was less of a rallying cry for the “Yes” campaign than an evidence-based assessment of the benefits, challenges and pitfalls of owning/running non-league clubs.
However, it was instructive to read a report on the meeting from one of its most impressive contributors from the floor. Mathie’s presentation was the meeting’s legitimate focal point. The report never mentioned it. Most attendees had pre-conceived objections to fan ownership or wanted to address the major relocation issues instead. To them, Mathie’s presentation was irrelevant. And it soon became clear that very few in the 100-strong gathering had listened to it. SD were involved with Ks in 2004, when a Kingstonian Supporters Trust was formed after Ks then-owner Rajesh Khosla said he wanted to hand the club to supporters. The initiative failed. The Trust chair was a clown (me) and Khosla merely wanted supporters to bankroll and administer the club, not own it or have any decision-making role.
Early in his presentation, Mathie outlined SD’s background and the different ownership models with which they’d been involved, making a careful point of differentiating between Trusts and Community-Owned clubs. The presentation defined the proposed ownership model, a member-controlled club via the “one-member, one-vote” principle, with profits “reinvested into the club” not “distributed to shareholders” and a firm commitment to “running as a sustainable business.” Mathie outlined what that would “look like in practice,” citing the ability “to raise money in a cost-effective way without changing the one-member one-vote dynamic” with the club “only spending what it earns.” But as he reached “the nerdy bit” about legal structures, a voice from the floor shouted “who pays the debts?” It was a veteran Kingstonian fan, a kindly but irrelevant man with a history of ultra-polite negativity and missing the point spectacularly at meetings.
Here he clearly missed the point about “sustainable business,” which was unsurprising as he was never involved in a Ks set-up that could be described as such. He also, apparently, missed Mathie’s announcement that “questions” would come at the end. It was the first hint that the meeting could turn ragged. Mathie was clear that the advertised benefits of a CBS were potential not guaranteed. And they included the potential for “better, more extensive relationships with local authorities and other local partners,” a past bugbear of Ks fans, especially a certain veteran.
Mathie showcased the more successful clubs, name-checking Lewes to a degree which suggested charity sponsorship. He listed 36 community-owned clubs (sorry, I just can’t use the acronym COCs) at levels above, below and alongside Ks in non-league football’s “pyramid” structure, with similarly comparable average home gates. This showed that Ks were a “big” enough club to sustain a CBS. Fans were unconvinced. Clubs “have still got their own pitch to do it,” interrupted one. And this was a recurring excuse for a potential “No” vote, although Mathie countered, correctly, that “lots of these (clubs) start from losing their own ground” and cited Ks league colleagues/rivals Enfield Town, who “spent the best part of 10 years getting a (ground) lease.” The “challenges” of fan-ownership covered a whole slide. The club could only be as “big as the community willing to support it” and cashflow issues would need facing without a financially-generous director (or three, in Ks’ case) covering periodic cashflow shortfalls.
“Over to you!” Questions,” read the last slide, the exclamation mark representing a positivity which never emerged. Mathie announced “an hour Q&A session.” It lasted longer, or at least it felt longer, as contributors produced variants on one theme: “we can’t do it.” A leading Supporters Club committee member consulted a member of another CBS, who claimed the model required a “young-to-middle-aged fanbase,” possessing “vibrancy,” “passion” and “high earners.” He refused to identify this consultant, which, however necessary, rendered the suitability of the advice ungaugeable. And he strongly implied that Ks’ fanbase was too old, despite showing all the “vibrancy” and “passion” required whilst being “too old” himself.
Young(er) fans were the evening’s most eloquent, constructive contributors, although one was curiously flummoxed by the ballot paper. “What are we voting on?” he asked, citing the ballot paper’s reference to a community-owned club controlling “a minimum of 50% + 1 of the voting rights.” Too long was spent pondering how/whether to reach that figure, when the ballot proposal was 100% control. A 12-page working party pamphlet, “Frequently-asked Questions” had been available for three weeks. But the Q&A session demonstrated that it wasn’t widely understood. For instance, it said the co-chairmen “would write off the balances of their loan accounts and ensure that all previous debts are paid by the limited company.” Yet one co-chairman had to re-iterate this throughout the meeting.
However, there was insufficient detail of on-going financial obligations. It was my, and surely others’. immediate question on reading the pamphlet. The co-chairmen all had “loan accounts.” And their very existence highlighted an uncomfortable message from the pamphlet: “Our current level of support is not sufficient to maintain the club at the level that it aspires to on its own.” The pamphlet added: “There is no reason to assume that the Club and team could not be competitive.” And one co-chairman said they were “still competitive” despite a budget “as tight as a tic.” But the loan account figures, from a company balance sheet distributed by an enterprising fan, rather backed the pamphlet’s first suggestion.
Kingstonian’s future, rather than its ownership structure, controlled the rest of the meeting. As one fan said afterwards: “It was an opportunity to get (the co-chairman) in front of us and question him.” And you could hardly fault the opportunism, even though it exposed the meeting’s lack of a designated chairperson as a mistake. Another tradition of such Ks gatherings is to blame Wimbledon for…well…whatever’s available. “They’ve gone into our schools,” was a repeated cry. And there were persistent attempts to sully the seven-figure contribution Wimbledon were making to Ks.
Mr. Irrelevant waved a piece of paper which said Ks had security of tenure at Kingsmeadow until 2023. Afterwards, he said Wimbledon broke Ks’ sub-tenancy agreement in a manner he found underhand and claimed their Ks “donation” was no such thing, to which a shoulder-shrug and a “so what?” was sufficient response. More pertinent was one co-chairman’s explanation that the money would fund Ks’ search for ground-share arrangements while part-funding the nomadic club’s losses, although its precise use was still a negotiation issue, with current agreements lasting three years.
More pertinent still was how a Ks “community-club” could survive, let alone thrive, just as they left that very community, playing at one of four clubs with whom Ks were negotiating. Cries to identify the four were rightly swatted away, although one internet rumour about Carshalton being among them was scotched. The pamphlet majored on the advantages of Ks owning their own facilities. However, one contributor’s Dad was reportedly told on solid authority that Ks’ Chessington move had only a “10%” chance of ever happening. Mathie’s afore-mentioned reminder that “lots of these (clubs) start from losing their own ground” was long-forgotten.
The meeting’s consensus was dismally easy to summarise: “There’s only 252 of us. We can’t do this because of Wimbledon, the council and others who aren’t us. We’ll let the co-chairmen continue to fund our ambitions…oh, and their plans won’t happen and the club might die.” At a time when transatlantic electorates have voted to “take back control,” without being offered any way of exercising that control, Ks fans are mirror-imaging the trend, offered demonstrable control but feeling unable to take the attendant responsibilities.
They don’t believe this responsibility will sufficiently galvanise Ks’ volunteer base, despite Mathie’s presentational evidence OF that effect. The failure of the Trust was also cited as evidence of this insufficient vibrancy. But, as Mathie countered, the club wasn’t on offer then. Many contributions were refreshingly thoughtful. But Ks’ directors-subsidised business model will need replacing. The current co-chairmen would not have begun the Community-owned club debate or contemplated selling for a “God bless you,” if their commitment wasn’t waning. And that is no criticism of them whatsoever. Nevertheless, a “no” vote will likely emerge when this ballot closes on November 25th, if the meeting is a guide. But unless future subsidies can be guaranteed, a “yes” vote must emerge in Ks’ near-future, otherwise that “Ks future” might never exist.
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