This year’s annual Supporters Direct conference found the organisation at something of a crossroads. The high profile failure of Supporters Trusts at Notts County and Stockport County have caused a deal of unwanted attention to be cast upon SD (even though they are obviously not for responsible for the goings on at specific trusts) and, with continuing concerns about the credentials of some of the owners coming into the game, this year’s conference was always going to carry an underlying theme about two subjects: foreign ownership and the question of whether supporter ownership of clubs is always a good thing.
The primary lesson that we took away from the events of the day is that there is no “one size fits all” answer to the question of how supporters trusts should work. It is clear from clubs such as Exeter City, Wimbledon and FC United that supporters ownership can and does work. The Exeter representative Neil Le Milliere placed a considerable amount of the credit on his club’s transformation on manager Jason Tisdale, commenting on his “extraordinary loyalty”, but what must be added to this is that the culture of Exeter City must do something to engender this loyalty. Also, it was noted more than once that the Exeter trust has sold the concept of mutual ownership to the people of the city very effectively, and that this has created a culture in which the trust has a mandate and the authority to make the decisions that need to be made.
We heard powerful testimony from Brian Burgess of Brentford’s Bees United Trust on the ceding of control by the trust, but with the important difference between what is going on at Brentford and what happened at Notts County is that Bees United are making sure that they continue to have a say in the running of the club. Notts County Supporters Trust, perhaps unsurprisingly, didn’t turn up. The continuing existence of that particular organisation remains something of a mystery. What was notable, however, was that several different delegates described problems when they had majority shareholdings of in the region of fifty to sixty per cent of the shares in the club.
Perhaps it is this level of shareholding that causes a problem for Supporters Trusts. With a lower shareholding, they are likely to retain a degree of influence over the decisions being made by the club. A higher shareholding than half, however, would mean that they have to share control with a quite possibly hostile selection of other shareholders who can block reform of a club’s affairs while maintaining the façade that any problems with the running of the club are down to the trust’s actions. What is clear is that we need a multi-layered range of solutions to the issues that supporters trusts face. The one phrase that seemed to pop up more than any other over the course of the day was that there is no “one size fits all” policy when it comes to how supporters trusts should run themselves.
In the afternoon came a workshop called “The Value Of Football”, led by Tom Hall and Adam Brown, which was an outline of the preliminary findings of an SD commissioned report into the social and effects that football clubs have on their communities. What was most evident from the workshop was the importance of developing strong relationships with local authorities, and that clubs with a strong supporters trust (or that are trust owned) are likely to be able to build closer ties with their communities, because thy are more likely to be perceived as working for their community rather than being simply private businesses being run for private gain.
The closing speeches of the conference certainly provided talking points for afterwards. Barcelona’s chief marketing and commercial officer Lander Unzueta stressed the importance to his club of doing the right thing (the most visible aspect of which so far has been their reverse sponsorship deal with UNICEF, continuing to be a multi-sport club and the continuing development of their national and global brand. It was interesting stuff and was engagingly presented (technical glitches notwithstanding), but nothing that one wouldn’t have guessed that a marketing man from FCB would say. We then moved on to Alex Phillips, the Head of Professional Services at UEFA, who confirmed that clubs not running to a profit would be barred from entering European competitions in three years time.
Then came the FA’s new Chief Executive, Ian Watmore. The modern perception of the FA is that they are, broadly speaking, on the side of doing things properly, but Watmore’s speech gave serious cause for concern at the future direction that the game will take. His comment that football needs a more consistent Fit & Proper Persons Test was welcome, but his expression of disappointment that Chester City were stopped from playing at the start of the season gave the distinct impression that the F&PPT will, if anything, be made more lenient in the future and his agreement with the Premier League’s Richard Scudamore’s comment that, “You can’t bar people because you don’t like the cut of their jib” (a powerful argument could be made that there should be far more barring people from football on account of their jib cutting) seemed to indicate that either he is already in the pocket of the Premier League or that he had misjudged the audience that he was addressing. One would hope that it is the latter.
The lukewarm applause that Watmore received was in sharp contrast to the standing ovation given to Brian Lomax, who has stood down as the Supporters Direct chair after ten years in the position. Lomax, perhaps more than anybody else, is the man behind the entire supporters trust movement thanks to his work at Northampton Town during the early 1990s and will be sadly missed. This much was evident from the obvious warmth in the room and the heartfelt tribute from SD’s current Chief Executive, Dave Boyle.
This conference ended with more questions that answers, but that is by no means a bad thing. Supporters Direct is a fluid and flexible enough organisation to be able to change if demand is sufficient, and an open debate on, say, the further development of CIC (Community Interest Clubs) schemes, for example, might be one way for supporters trusts to work for their clubs and build bridges with their communities. Perhaps Supporters Direct has in some respects been too successful. Everything that they do often seems to be judged on the basis of how many clubs are owned by their supporters, but this overshadows what progress has been made elsewhere. Over seventy clubs now have a representative on the board of directors (over 150 clubs now have supporters trusts), a situation that would have been unthinkable twenty years ago, and the majority of trust run clubs remain successful and thriving, building close links with their communities and prudently managing their financial affairs. The fact that this position even exists is a testimony in itself to their ongoing good work.