It was as if Birmingham was doing its best to live down to my expectations. Brighton, just after noon, had been warm and sunny – a splendid Indian summer’s afternoon. By the time I alighted the train at Birmingham International railway station, however, the sky was slate grey and rain was falling. With it being the middle of the afternoon, I felt that it would be appropriate to get acquainted with the area, but there wasn’t much to get acquainted with. The National Exhibition Centre is a strange, strange place. With Birmingham Airport on one side of it and an industrial estate to the other, it is curiously bereft of people. The small array of shops within the NEC itself shut before 5.00 in afternoon, and it’s hardly surprising that they do. There’s no-one about.
What, then, am I doing in Birmingham, sitting in a tastefully anonymous hotel with the BBC News channel humming away on the television in the background? Well, I am in Birmingham for the 2009 Supporters Direct annual conference. It would be foolish to say that this year has been anything other than a difficult one for the notion of football clubs being owned and run by their supporters, with supporters trusts losing control at Stockport County, giving up everything that had been worked so hard for at Notts County and Wycombe Wanderers being forced into a corner by a shareholder that was threatening to put the club into administration if they didn’t hand over their shareholding in the club to him. To suggest that the organisation doesn’t have a critical role to play in safeguarding the future of football clubs, however, would be extraordinarily wide of the mark.
Whilst the idea that being rescued by foreign owners and being given money is an appealing one, the reality is that it is foolish to imagine that, in the event that your football club falls into difficulties, a knight on a charger will arrive from nowhere and save it. At Notts County, there remain serious doubts to the credibility of the supposed billionaires that have been described as “funding” the club, and no amount of complaining by their chief executive Peter Trembling disguises that fact. At a lower level, Merthyr Tydfil Football Club was taken on by its supporters trust at a time that the club was on its knees. Without the invaluable advice of Supporters Direct, the trust would never have been able to manage to take the club over, and it would, in all likelihood, have died. Merthyr Tydfil FC might not mean a great deal to you, but it means a hell of a lot to the supporters of the club. They’re alive and have already overturned the ten point deduction that their spell in administration earlier this year cost them. They’ll survive, and they might even thrive.
And this is the truly important factor. Allowing football supporters the chance to engage with their clubs, and to encourage those clubs to build meaningful links with their communities. The success stories have been extraordinary, be it Exeter City rising from non-league football to League One, AFC Wimbledon’s rise to the Blue Square Premier or FC United of Manchester’s stand against the excesses of the modern game. Just as important, however, has been pressure from Halesowen Town forcing Morrell Maison from the club before it was too late to save them or the new trust starting at St Albans City at a time when the club faces an uncertain future after a sister company of the holding company that owns them fell into financial difficulties or the coming together of Chester City supporters with a view to a final push towards ridding their club of its poisonous owner before it’s too late.
This conference finds Supporters Direct at something of a crossroads, being forced to defend itself over actions and events that it has had no control over. It is always worth remembering that individual supporters trusts and their members are responsible for their own actions and behaviour. In the case of Notts County, for example, SD had no jurisdiction to step in and make decision on behalf of the trust but still found themselves being criticised for it – and that’s even if things were as bad as were often claimed at the club in the run up to their take-over. Tomorrow gives the organisation a chance to assert its authority and remind its detractors of the reason why it exists in the first place.