Two years ago, we reported from the Supporters Direct Annual Conference under the banner that the organisation was at a crossroads. At the time, the farcical state of affairs at Notts County, where the Supporters Trust had handed the keys to the club to a group claiming the backing of a group of multi-millionaires, was threatening to cast a pall over events. That situation played out in a story so extraordinary that even those of us that smelled a rat at the time could barely have predicted it, but if 2009 was a crossroads, then 2011’s annual conference might easily have been a train wreck. Events elsewhere, however, would ensure that this year’s annual conference would end with smiles around and the feeling that closure could be found after a few trying weeks.
There was certainly a palpable sense of defiance in the air at The Queen Hotel in Chester yesterday, but there was a sense from Dame Pauline Green’s opening plenary was of defiance at the way in which the FSIF had acted in withdrawiing funding from the organisation after a “controversy” which had the feeling of having been manufactured with ulterior motives in mind. Indeed, for all the talk of the continuing progress that supporters trusts are making across the length and breadth of Britain (and increasingly beyond, these days), the warmest, most heartfelt round of applause of the morning came for SD’s former Chief Executive Dave Boyle, and this was repeated at the end of proceedings when UEFA’s director of communications William Gaillard also paid tribute to Boyle. It was a touching and perhaps cathartic moment at the end of a very difficult period for the organisation and, in a a more general sense, the supporters trust movement.
The most important news of the day was, of course, coming from elsewhere, with the reinstatement of its grant from the FSIF. Importantly, however, Green’s opening speech touched upon the importance of the organisation its sources of funding in the future. There has always been more than an element of anomaly about the fact that Supporters Direct receives so much of its funding from, ultimately, the Premier League. We may never know whether they were merely flexing their muscle in removing this funding, but what we can say with a degree of certainty that in the future this situation must not be allowed to play out again to the extent to which it threatens the future of the organisation in the way that it has in recent weeks.
Two briefing papers were launched as part of the opening, on the subjects of financing supporter community ownership and the business advantages of supporter community ownership in football (and we will return to these subjects next week) before the delegates departed for their workshops, all of which lent the opportunity to reflect upon the day. Immaculately organised as ever, the conference was packed with people that are, in their own way, critical to the ongoing development of lower league football in Britain. It is also worth pointing out that perhaps the most notable aspect of the atmosphere was one of solidarity, the feeling that the superficial rivalries between clubs could be set aside in the interests of a broader ideal.
With such positivity and energy, it was difficult to hold onto any feeling that Supporters Direct is an organisation in crisis for much longer, and by the end of the day it felt as if the delegates could return for the new season with a clearer vision of how to put their ideas into action. Today sees a Fans Day at The Deva Stadium, the home of Chester FC, between Chester and FC United of Manchester. It’s an opportunity to showcase the best of the trust movement and promises to be an enjoyable afternoon for all. With the funding back in place, it is a great pleasure to see light at the end of the Supporters Direct tunnel.
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