Caveat Emptor: The Rise & Possible Fall Of OwnaFC

History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, then as farce. It’s a well-worn phrase, but it was difficult to keep it out of the mind this time just a fortnight ago, as one of the more surprising stories of this season leapt, apparently already fully formed, into the spotlight. The modern news cycle, however, spins at a dizzying rate, and less than two weeks after various news outlets were writing uncritical puff pieces about OwnaFC, a ham-fisted looking attempt to bring British football a form of club ownership that has already been tried, tested and has failed, the venture is already quite a long way down the road towards becoming a laughing stock.

We’ve been here before, of course. It’s now been a little over eleven years since My Football Club (MyFC) completed their takeover of Ebbsfleet United. With pushing on for 32,000 members at its peak, Ebbsfleet peaked by winning the FA Trophy at the end of the 2007/08 season whilst finishing in a comfortable mid-table position. Over time, however, the project started to fall to pieces. The original slogan of “Own The Club, Pick The Team” came to nothing, not least because it soon became apparent that the Ebbsfleet manager Liam Daish wouldn’t accept internet polls picking his team for him and, with membership numbers dramatically tailing off, the club spent much of the next five years bouncing between the National League and the National League South. On the brink of bankruptcy and with MyFC’s membership having dwindled to just 1,300 members, MyFC’s members voted in favour of handing two thirds of their shares to the Fleet Trust and the other third to one of the club’s major shareholders in April 2013.

OwnaFC first came to prominence at the very start of the year, when it was reported that the company, run by one Stuart Harvey, was interested in purchasing another National League club, Chesterfield. Even at this very early stage, however, there were inherent contradictions and gaps in any explanation of how his might all work. The app was described as having “nearly 2,000 subscribers, each of whom have paid £99 to download and register”, whilst the Ebbsfleet-shaped elephant in the room was tackled somewhat glibly, with Harvey’s take on the failure of MyFC being that “the smartphone was only coming into existence at around that time and in the end it all grew a bit too quickly for Ebbsfleet despite their initial success”, which seemed to overlook the fact that Ebbsfleet’s success came so soon after the takeover that the ownership had taken control of the club that they likely had very little to do with that success other than pushing up the crowd figure for the final at Wembley.

At the end of last month, though, the hype machine started to crank up. In a puff piece interview with the BBC, Harvey pushed up the salesmanship to stratospheric levels:

This is a live, real-time boardroom in their hands. It’s the ultimate experience of a being chairman with a big board of directors – each day dealing with monumental decisions of running a club. It replaces the boardroom nonsense we see at many clubs with the people that matter.

By this time, though, questions were starting to be asked on social media and the responses were not terribly encouraging, with some finding themselves getting blocked by the @OwnaFC Twitter account – to borrow from Marty DiBergi in This Is Spinal Tap, don’t look for it, it’s not there any more – whilst the snippy tone of replies to anyone asking legitimate questions about it all was as troubling as it was noticeable, even before blocking people who asked difficult questions began. There were reportedly three non-league clubs which had been identified by Harvey that he was unable to name because of non-disclosure agreements. One name, however, kept on coming up on online discussion of who the targets might be, that of Hednesford Town, of the Northern Premier League.

Hednesford Town’s most successful period came in the late 1990s. Promoted from the Southern League in 1995, the club finished in third place in their first season at this level, but were relegated back from whence they came in 2001 and, having dropped a further level upon the creation of the National Leagues North and South in 2004, have spent most of the subsequent years playing two steps below the National League, with the occasional foray into the National League North, the last of which came in the 2015/16 season, when they were relegated in second from bottom place after just one season. They were down to a hardcore local support of around 300-350 people, the owner wanted to sell, but there is potential for the club to survive – and possibly thrive – at a higher level. They were in several different respects an ideal target for such a venture. The decision was due to be put to a vote last week, but last Thursday a somewhat terse-looking statement appeared on the Hednesford Town website:

Hednesford Town Football Club and OWNAFC have come to a collective decision that the deal for OWNAFC to take over the football club will not go ahead.

No further statement will be made in regards to this decision.

At best, for OwnaFC members this was a case of “back to square one,” but from here on the wheels started to fall off the wagon at a near-dizzying pace. Twitter account The Ugly Game had been on Harvey’s case since the BBC report pushed the entire venture into the public eye, pointing out that claims on OwnaFC’s Twitter profile that purchasers would be able to “run a professional football club with a budget up to £8.5m” had been changed to remove the very specific number at the end, pointing out that in the middle of December a number of new Twitter accounts had all been set up, all sending identical messages pushing the idea of signing up for it (this was explained away as an over-enthusiastic PR company which had since been relieved of their duties), questioning other inherent contradictions in the numbers used in their promotional material, as well as their terms and conditions, and criticising the ventures almost complete absence of anything like a business plan.

Furthermore, some who’d signed up tried to cancel in the light of what they’d found out discovered that terms and conditions were being changed on the OwnaFC wesbite without notice, and that it felt as though obstacles were going to be thrown in the way of those who wanted refunds in light of what they’d witnessed over the previous few days, including trying to exempt the website from laws relating to distance selling. Those unhappy at what has happened regarding OwnaFC and their money, for the record, would be best advised to contact Citizens Advice, who may choose to refer the matter to Trading Standards. 

And with the attention, of course, came scrutiny into the man behind this venture. It became clear that Stuart Harvey has a history of his own, including an attempt to take ownership of the Whitehaven Rubgy Football League Club and rumours (denied) that he’d wanted to merge that club with local rivals Workington Reds, a couple of failed businesses (one of which was liquidated just months after posting a £100,000 profit) and, on his own part, a bankruptcy, in 2013. The redoubtable Against League Three did manage to get Harvey to talk, but his answers to their questions were underwhelming, to say the least.

As the questions continued to circle about what would happen next, criticism started to grow. Last Friday, Martin Samuel wrote a highly critical editorial in the Daily Mail in which he spelt out in no uncertain terms that, “Once you can’t press a button to hook the right back after 15 minutes, running a non-League football club is as far removed from amusement as it is possible to get.” And he’s right. This doesn’t mean that the work carried out by volunteers every single week to keep hundreds of non-league football clubs isn’t important or necessary, or that it’s appreciated. It’s more that whatever else non-league football may well be, it certainly isn’t glamorous.

Earlier in the week (and prior to the collapse of the Hednesford deal), the FSF and Supporters Direct had issued a statement expressing their concerns over “the lack of meaningful engagement with the club’s existing supporters and a business model similar to that of MYFC [which] means that a repeat of the ultimately failed takeover of Ebbsfleet United back in 2008 is likely.” Last weekend, the Non-League Paper’s Matt Badcock wrote an editorial which outlined the myriad difficulties that non-league clubs can face.

By last weekend, it looked as though the entire venture was on the verge of collapse. The OwnaFC Twitter account had been taken down, while an “unofficial” Facebook group was a closed group (ie, it couldn’t be seen by the general public) and demanded the email address used to register in order to let anyone join, which seems like a strange thing for an “unofficial” Facebook page to need – how would an “unofficial” page have access to the email addresses of those who’d registered to join it? Even the OwnaFC website was pulled, with the only announcement made being that a statement would follow on Monday. It was even reported by Daniel Storey on FourFourTwo last night that those who had signed up received an email on Sunday night saying that the company now had the options of selling the company or liquidating it, and that subsequent replies would be deleted without being read. 

But lo and behold, late last night a statement finally appeared on their website:

OWNAFC can confirm that, after meeting with its legal representatives, business is continuing as normal.

A further statement will be made later this week in regard to privacy and media relations, from OWNAFC Limited and its legal teams.

But can business continue as normal for OwnaFC? On one side of this conversation sits the chief football writer for a national newspaper, FourFourTwo magazine, the Non-League Paper, the Football Supporters Federation and Supporters Direct, as well as several websites and Twitter accounts who’ve been investigating impropriety in the structures of professional and semi-professional football for some consideration. One may not always agree with everything that any of them say, but it can hardly be argued that they don’t know what they’re talking about. 

And there remain questions to be asked about all of this, regardless of whatever PR blather emerges from OwnaFC later this week. Both the BBC and The Sun ran articles on OwnaFC which acknowledged that there had been criticism of it without seeming to actually ask that many difficult questions themselves when they had the opportunity to do so. Meanwhile, the most striking questions facing OwnaFC themselves are those of how they intend to own and then manage a club with a fraction of the subscription numbers that MyFootballClub had all those years ago, the matter of changing terms and conditions on their website unilaterally, and why, in a broad sense and considering the events of the last couple of weeks or so, anyone should entrust them with their money. 

Fan ownership isn’t a panacea for all the ills facing football in this country, but this doesn’t mean that participation and membership through already existing structures is not desirable. The biggest irony is that, by finding their local fan-owned club and becoming a member of its supporters trust, those who want to have an influence over the running of a football club can achieve exactly that, and for substantially less money than the £49 wanted by OwnaFC. A years membership of the supporters trust at Enfield Town, for example, costs £20. At Lewes, it costs £30. And these clubs are playing at the same level of the game as Hednesford Town. Those who want to get involved, can.

Non-league clubs are always looking for volunteers, and those who impress can stand for election to a club’s board of directors should they choose to, up to and including the chairmanship of the club. Sure enough, you probably won’t end up picking the team, but the structure is already in place at these clubs to allow this level of involvement. They may not have flashy mobile apps or reams of PR guff to back them up, but they’re out there right now, spanning the length and breadth of the country, for those who want it. 

And as for OwnaFC, perhaps the most troubling thing about all of this as of this morning is that they still seem to believe that they can continue as though none of the last couple of weeks has happened. It’s something worth reflecting upon for anyone who is somehow still interested in parting with their money. Caveat emptor, indeed.