The casual observer might have thought that the world was at their feet. A not unimpressive mid-table finish and a Wembley win against Torquay United in the FA Trophy coupled with the deep pockets of Eurostar and the worldwide interest of MyFootballClub should, in theory at least, have set Ebbsfleet United up for an improved and profitable new season in the Blue Square Premier, but the truth of the matter is that the already dwindling interest in the internet Championship Manager fad might yet cause a downturn in their fortunes. Yesterday’s edition of “The Non-League Paper” had much to say on the subject. Their much talked about “team selector” went live last week but, according to reports, just 1,855 out of over 30,000 members voted on whether they should pick the team for their recent high profile against Charlton Athletic, and that number dropped to just 1,124 for the match against Torpoint Athletic, of the South West Peninsular Premier League. Even the organisation’s founder, Will Brooks, couldn’t put a positive spin on this news, stating that, “I doubt that we’ll ever get 30,000 people picking the team”.
Now, as long term readers will be aware, we’ve done Ebbsfleet on here before. Several times over, in fact. We’ve taken a long at their unusual set-up, questioned the moral argument over whether it is right to take over a club that is nothing to do with almost everyone involved whilst operating under the aegis of being a Supporters Trust in name, wondered about the pitch put to MyFC members when they were to vote upon the take-over itself and called them up on their sudden volte face over whether members should be allowed to pick the team. As time has gone on, what has become clear about the MyFC experiment is the extent to which this simply is not the “Brave New World” of football ownership that was claimed by the organisers in the first place. Apart from a few thousand column inches that they probably wouldn’t have had otherwise, it’s difficult to say that much has changed at Stonebridge Road. This, however, is different.
Eight or nine months ago, it seemed highly likely that MyFC was going to be resounding success, in the short term at least. However, the rate at which interest has tailed off has been dramatic, even for those of us that questioned whether MyFC would be able to maintain the interest of its members in the long term. If the figures are correct, this is a massive drop off in interest at a stage even earlier than most cynical onlookers (myself included) would have guessed. Other voting figures don’t make for much better reading for MyFC. Just 4,782 voted on whether head coach Liam Daish should be allowed to be involved in the negotiations for new contracts with existing players. Even arguably the most important vote of the season, the vote to confirm the playing budget for the 2008/09 season, saw just 5,482 people take part. These figures seem to indicate that the vast majority of people that have spent £35 on MyFC membership aren’t terribly interested in the way things are going down there, and it’s difficult to see how many of those people that haven’t been voting will sign up again when renewals come around next season.
Ultimately, they couldn’t have had it much better than they did. They started last year in a blaze of publicity, much of it (in the mainstream press at least) relentlessly positive. The team was in reasonable form, and had half a chance of making the BSP play-offs, and finishing the season with a win at Wembley boosted media interest again at a critical time for them. The overwhelming feeling that one gets, however, is that most people that signed up to MyFC didn’t want to get involved in the running of a non-league football club, but did want to be able to pick the team, make the subsitutions and do all of the things that were initially sold to them when they parted with their £35. The likelihood is that he £1m bonanza of last season will turn out to have been a financial windfall for Ebbsfleet United rather than an annual payment to them, and this could spell trouble for them further down the line if they have, say, budgeted for an annual income from MyFC of £500,000 which turns out to be less than £200,000 because of falling membership.
It might not necessarily be mere boredom or annoyance with the way that the reality of being a member of MyFC has been different to the promises made to new members which are the only factors affecting voting numbers and potential future memberships. Global economic conditions have taken a massive downturn over the last twelve months. Food and fuel prices are up significantly, and we are teetering on the brink of a global recession. Everyone, already, is feeling the pinch. Brooks isn’t currently speculating on how many people will still be members of MyFC this time next year – “a good proportion” is about as good as you’ll get out of him at the moment – but one can’t help but wonder what the long-term prognosis could be for Ebbsfleet at this point. How much of their budget has been taken up with contracts for players that were based on the MyFC gravy train propping them up the next three or four years? How will Eurostar, who are reportedly happy to throw money into the club in the promotion of the town of Ebbsfleet, react to a downturn in the club’s fortunes?
The good news for Fleet supporters is that should the entire project go south, ownership of the club will pass to the Fleet Trust, who can then have a go at running it themselves. Of course, the important thing to remember in all of this is that the actual Ebbsfleet supporters themselves were never properly consulted above and beyond being invited to shell out £35 to join MyFC themselves and a few messages on the MyFC forum asking visitors to Stonebridge Road not to lord it around the ground like they owned the place. The biggest irony of all is that the people now most likely to stay with the project are the Ebbsfleet supporters that joined it themselves, and they are likely to be the people least likely to vote to pick the team, returning control over these affairs to Liam Daish and his team. For all of their lofty talk of revolutionising the management of English football clubs, things might just have to return to normal sooner than most people expected.