In the three years since I last attended the annual conference of the supporters’ trusts umbrella organisation, Supporters Direct (SD), there have been significant changes. Communications manager Kevin Rye’s suits have got sharper. Chief Executive Dave Boyle’s suit… well, he was wearing one (although it would be cruel to suggest it was made to measure while he was elsewhere, so I won’t). The seats on the top table have got comfier… to the point of luxuriousness. And the food has got better – some of those attending won’t eat as well until next year’s conference.
But most importantly of all, as football’s governance becomes more widely recognised as the key to the game’s future, SD has become more damn right than ever, with a report to prove it. And the organisation looks more ready to persuade everybody who matters in the game that they are more right than ever.
The two-day event took place in the unfeasibly plush surroundings of the IET building in London’s Savoy Place – I feel I should be wearing a tie just typing that, let alone attending a conference there. And the theme was a strong reflection of the changing mood within football.
SD is only a decade down the line from being a “something must be done” protest movement. So it was inevitable that the “man the barricades” section of the community would still have a voice at the event, and not only because “left-wing film director” Ken Loach was the headline speaker. Loach once described SD as the only good thing New Labour had ever done – and you’d no sooner call him a Labour Party man than call Sheffield Wednesday’s chairman a Sheffield United fan (see below). And he re-iterated that support in what must have been a tub-thumping speech – the vagaries of public transport engineering works meant I didn’t arrive at conference until after he’d finished, but some of the furniture was still shaking when I got there.
Conference convened after a mixed year for the movement. The high-profile Manchester United Supporters’ Trust (MUST) campaign to force the Glazers out of Old Trafford has been imaginative, well-thought through and realistic; an example of how to mobilise supporters’ opinions and interests into the proper “voice” the Trust movement is designed to give its members. The high-profile concession of majority ownership at Notts County to un-named, unproven and ultimately unreal “wealthy Middle Eastern” investors was an abrogation of responsibility for good governance and sensible financial management.
But the focus of the Conference was less about pure ownership issues and more about the general state of football finance; how the Trust movement’s principles are vital to the future well-being of the game in this country and must be seen to be vital at the significant decision-making levels. The debate at the end of the first day was, by its very existence and make-up, an example of the successful maturity of SD from “something must be done” to “this must be done…and here’s how.” The panel was representative of the major strands of the game. General administrative management, in the unfeasibly young-looking director of external affairs for the Football League, Gavin Megaw. Senior supporters representation, in the form of MUST vice-chairman and articulate angry young man Oliver Houston. And two hugely imaginative invitees. Christian Mueller, the German Football League’s chief financial officer until a few months ago. And Lee Strafford, Sheffield Wednesday chairman until a few weeks ago.
Although the debate was supposed to be around a “better vision for football,” that vision thing quickly gave way to that financial control thing. Megaw robustly defended the Football League’s slow but steady progress towards proper regulatory control of the game’s money, with the consent of its member clubs.
Mueller robustly defended the German financial football model, tight regulatory and ownership control from the centre based on fundamental, and fundamentally unarguable, economic principles.
Oliver Houston robustly argued… everything, stemming from a passionate belief that there ought to be a law against all that is wrong with the game’s regulation of finance and ownership. And Strafford was a real catch, a mixture of views plucked from his experiences as lifelong Wednesday-ite (lifelong without the inverted commas), chairman and successful (“retired at 35” successful) businessman. Strafford soon “hated loving the club” after becoming its chairman. If “I knew then what I know now” he wouldn’t have touched the place with a bargepole so much as whacked a few people at the club over the head with one.
He painted a picture of “serious issues at executive level,” with self-interested “backward thinkers” from the “old world” who hadn’t “noticed” the problems money had brought to the game and had failed to “recruit professionally and cleanly” for many years. And so on, for a long time – I fear for Wednesday if he left anything out. He didn’t name names over his eventual departure from the club – Dave Boyle fought shy of asking him the searching questions in this regard (frustrating for the journalist in me but rightly so – the conference wasn’t about that). And he added an intriguing view of fans happy to have their pictures taken “in the bar” with players who weren’t good enough, asking “what were players doing in the bar, anyway?” The applause that this remark received suggested the audience were predominantly members of the Temperance Society. This impression failed to last into the second half of the England/USA game…and the free bar attached.
Megaw had a difficult job preaching “evolution not revolution” over financial regulation in the Football League, emphasising that measures such as imposing transfer embargoes on clubs not paying their taxes were not only working but were a “long way down a very hard road” from the unregulated game of ten years ago. Not everyone was convinced that matters were progressing fast enough. The idea of an independent financial regulator for football appeared to be getting confused with government “interference” in football. Megaw in particular tried to hide behind the suggestion that FIFA wouldn’t wear it. But Houston was having none of that. In fact he was having none of most of what Megaw was saying. “Debt,” Houston said, “has as much place in football as cigarette machines in primary schools,” and should be the subject of government legislation.
If Strafford wasn’t playing devil’s advocate by this stage he was doing a fine impression. He claimed chairmen had opposed financial regulation down the years because the fans won’t have it.” And he called on fans (“us”, he said, in a brief moment of populism) to “get rid of that excuse” by being more realistic about their clubs’ financial limitations. He suggested that “only in the last year” were fans properly “engaging in the discussion,” which…er…sat uncomfortably, shall we say, with FC United’s general manager Andy Walsh, who has spent every waking minute of every day for a decade “engaging” in the discussion and much more besides (Walsh received the “Richard Lillicrap” award for services to the Trust movement the following day). To be fair to Strafford, he had just received a deep psychological wound, having been called “the gentleman on the end” by a previous speaker who then compounded the felony by adding “chairman of Sheffield United.”
Observing all this was a perpetually bemused Mueller, who was moved to ask “why do you need owners?” Mueller, of course, was from a radically different football background. But the answers he got were little more than pointing that out, variants on the theme “we do things differently here,” as if that were a good thing. Mueller was fresh from one of the many conference workshop sessions, where he had explained, to general understanding and approval, how Germany “do different things” there; requiring professional clubs to not only show financial health for their near-future but show their workings-out as well (he also explained some of this to a backdrop of “God save the Queen,” sung drunkenly outside conference by an England fan…at 4.05pm, three-and-a-half hours before the England/USA kick-off, by which time, one wag observed, he’d be as likely to have fallen in the Thames as fallen into a pub).
Mueller’s workshop presentation, jam-packed with common sense, formed a double-act with Coventry University’s Dr. John Beech and his vividly accurate presentation entitled “Just how broken is football’s financial model?” And if that title pulled few punches, his follow-up the next day pulled even less: “Ways to know your club is up the financial creek before it enters administration,” a talk which concentrated on some familiar names, which I won’t mention because that would be unfair on Sam Hammam, Ron Martin, Peter Ridsdale… Former Hereford boss Graham Turner once called Beech “scurrilous” for highlighting a £1m loan in the Bulls’ accounts that recently celebrated its tenth birthday. Beech wore this as a considerable badge of honour.
There was much more besides, throughout the weekend, SD attracting an impressive mix of guest speakers and lecturers on topics including “using social media” and the “social and community value of football.” The former introduced me to a social media site called “audio boo,” named after the reaction to most articles I’ve written. The latter was based on an in-depth study presented by Dr Adam Brown from social research organisation Substance, which echoed SD’s long-held views that football’s social and community values were immense. “That’s a relief,” noted Boyle, thankful that years of his life had not been wasted on a misconception.
The Guardian’s David Conn, a long-time champion of the Trust movement, spoke for “ten minutes” at a previous conference I attended, a “ten minutes” which lasted much of the morning. So I was prepared for his “ten minutes” this year – packed lunch, change of shirt etc… But this time Conn stuck to the timetable – in keeping with the slick organisation of the modern SD – although he still found time to give the Glazer family a good booting. Just before the end of his speech, there was a fly-past in his honour by the Red Arrows aerial display team. Someone at the conference claimed this was actually for something called “Trooping the Colour”, whatever on earth that is. But most people knew who was more worthy.
The overwhelming view of this conference was that greater fan involvement in the governance and ownership of professional football was an idea whose time had come; both morally, as had been the case at all the previous conferences I’d attended, and politically, with the main party’s manifestos all containing commitments to that principle. Whether this was touchingly naïve faith in what is after all a Conservative-dominated government remains to be seen. I’m sure Ken Loach would have had a view on that. But SD certainly looks and acts more than ever before like an organisation whose time has come. It was an impressive, mature conference, for which SD deserve every credit.