Last weekend, SJ Maskell wrote on the matter of questions that she felt should be answered by Supporters Direct. They asked for a right of reply and we were glad to agree to it, so here’s their Communications Manager, Kevin Rye, with some responses to the points raised.

Following SJ Maskell’s piece Supporters’ Trusts: Some Hard Questions, we were prompted to ask if we could write a response to some of the issues raised in the article. Many of the questions raised were common; how do fans get majority ownership of the ‘big clubs’ (we’re not just talking Premier League, but a clutch of clubs in the Championship straining to get into the top flight)? How can it be ensured that Supporters Direct continues to retain and build its role as the advisors to and representatives of the supporters’ trust movement, and indeed part of the wider movement for reform of football governance? How do supporters’ trusts specifically keep fresh, and retain their role as the spokespeople for the fans? What do supporters’ trusts do to stay relevant when they have no specific role at their club?

Since 2000, Supporters Direct has been an organisation that has established supporters’ trusts as the organisation that can play a proper, constructive role, with the bedrock of representation and share ownership where once was only a verbal agreement and a plaque behind the bar as guarantee of longevity. It has helped deliver some 100 shareholding groups; tens of trusts with directors on their boards; vital involvement in critical projects, and the flagship achievement: well in excess of thirty clubs into fan and community ownership, many of which under ‘normal’ circumstances would have had no future.  Though therein lies a tale; a number of those – Stockport, Chesterfield, York City, Notts County and perhaps most tragically following their recent demise, Rushden and Diamonds (a club we are helping to reform as we speak) – have fallen back again into the hands of private ownership (or in one, tragic case, disappear – for now), in all but one obvious case the result of the legacy from the owners who the trust concerned had rescued the club from in the first place.

But a major focus in recent years has been to seek to address these major points of concern that Maskell tackled in her article. Some of the questions about how these clubs compete beyond simple mediocrity without sacrificing their core principles are being gradually addressed as football looks at itself more closely. Under the aegis first of former Chairman Lord Mawhinney and now Greg Clarke, The Football League’s Salary Cost Management Protocol operated for around seven years at League Two level, and finally, is to be extended to League One, with the framework for UEFA’s Financial Fairplay to be gradually extended to the Championship.

Likewise, the gradual tightening of financial controls in The Premier League and the ‘cultural effect’ of FFP in the majority of Premier League clubs (as a result of their applications for UEFA licences) also has an effect. Arguably in European competition, the adoption of Supporter Liaison Officers (SLO’s), will also have an impact(something Supporters Direct have been assisting UEFA to establish). These changes do make for a more ‘controlled’ environment, if not a kinder one, for all clubs who aren’t prepared to spend beyond their means in the pursuit of short-term success (don’t forget the Crewes of this World). Don’t write off the role that the trust movement and wider reform movement in football had in seeing these changes come about.

But we’re still left with how you tackle the ability of trusts and fans to become democratic owners of their clubs – at least in the majority. This was where we sat down and started thinking perhaps hardest. Much of the problem with the environment for trusts who are trying to take their clubs over is that it’s affected by external factors often beyond football’s control. We recognised pretty early on in the development of our own thinking on these matters that if the factors affecting takeovers were clearly not just about what happened in football, but also how companies and financial regulations were drawn up and implemented, that we had to expand our horizons as well. So it was that one of our recent series of four briefing papers, Financing Supporter Community Ownership, specifically tackled the need to make the regulatory framework for supporter community takeovers one more akin to community buyouts than normal company takeovers.

The Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee review into football governance tackled this as a direct result of the ‘challenge’ laid down by the Minister for Sport. The report recommended that specific attention be given to amending the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 in order to recognise the special nature of investments by supporters trusts as more akin to those governing other community investments. The idea is to make share issues carried out by trusts and similar companies or organisations far easier bureaucratically and financially. On top of this, their recommendation that ‘The FA should give some thought to ensuring that properly constituted supporters trusts, or consortia which include supporters trusts, can play a part in rescuing clubs from insolvency. One fruitful avenue might include giving trusts or such consortia a real opportunity to make a successful matching bid for a club that has gone into administration’ could help address both routes for takeovers.

As was rightly pointed out by Maskell though, much of this would be in vain if Supporters Direct itself was to fall by the wayside. The role SD plays here in not just setting up, but building the capacity of organisations to take on such vast challenges like that seen by the tenacious Wrexham Supporters Trust, is vital. It’s critical for the wider reform movement within football that the organisation is around for the long-term. Why? Quite simply because all that would be left would be a collection of like-minded organisations with little ability to operate as a collective whole on issues. SD helps, we believe, to provide a focus that was seen when in excess of 30 supporters’ trusts submitted evidence to the DCMS Committee as part of its call for evidence, and in the mass lobbying of political parties prior to last year’s General Election by the football reform movement. Of course, we are doing all we can to ensure a co-ordinated approach on such matters, and the Committee report had a great deal to say about the important role and future importance of the work of SD.

Much as we’re pleased that pieces like Maskell’s are out there, stimulating debate, one of the issues she raised was, may I say it, a bit wide of the mark; the very model of supporters’ trusts – in particular the open democratic element – provides both the potential refreshing of the board and those in charge, and the check and balance all too often not in place at football clubs. Its very purpose is to help to prevent the potential over-reliance on individuals she raises. Of course this doesn’t mean automatically that all will be well and that organisations won’t find difficulties along the way, but then helping trusts to deal with these sorts of issues is the very purpose behind the Committees’ views on the importance of SD and securing long-term funding and a long-term role for the organisation.

In a wider sense, the door does need to be pushed further open to enable trusts to go beyond, as Maskell phrases it, just ‘bumbling’ along. Supporters’ trusts becoming a formally recognised part of the process of checks and balances at a club is a role that would help a great number of them to find an important role that fits with their raison d’etre. It’s a role a great number of trusts continue to perform without any formal recognition, and still far too often in the face of resentment from club owners and directors. Maskell also reflected on whether there’s really the desire on the part of fans to become involved in ownership of their clubs when it means committing your time.

In response to this we’d first of all point to the hundreds of volunteers at clubs like AFC Wimbledon, FC United of Manchester, Telford United and Chester FC, amongst others. Thousands of hours of volunteer time to a football club, but why? Because of how it’s owned and how it relates to them. As the Social Value of Football report we published last year shows, when you open up the ownership of a club, and explain what that means and how people can play their part, the results speak for themselves.  Indeed, just looking at the current takeover at Wrexham, the professionalism of the WST has been recognised by all the external bodies involved, professionalism that is given by volunteers for no reward, save the achievement of supporter ownership. Once that has been achieved, we expect the same results as other clubs in their position.

Indeed, in the Social Value report, Charlie Dobres from Lewes FC (now under community ownership) said that when they started to establish a community ownership and community benefit model, many people misunderstood the concept. However, they have managed to demonstrate that even at a relatively small club, the ownership model has helped them tap into a well of professional skills and experience that the club would otherwise not be able to afford. This, he argues, has resulted in a more professionally run club: ‘What we’ve tried to demonstrate is that it’s about opening the doors so that you’ve got greater usage of human resources. The people we’ve got running the club are professionals in their field, almost all of whom give their time entirely voluntarily and are happy to do so. Ironically, by becoming community owned, we’ve actually opened ourselves up to far greater professionalism in the running of the club – it’s not one man and his dog any more. We’ve found that we now have a far greater call on resources, both financial and human, because of being not-for-profit as well as the community mutual ownership model.’

Ultimately, we can’t claim that all is rosy in the garden: We are just exiting one of the more unsettling parts in our existence. However looking at the long-term, we currently have a game whose direction of travel is towards more rigorous regulation, and crucially a set of robust recommendations by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee – recommendations the Sports Minister is determined not to see go the same way as myriad reports on the state of the game since the 1960’s. We also have a tremendously vibrant and healthy supporters’ trust movement that shortly will witness the completion of a major labour of love by the fans of Wrexham (with another supporter-takeover at Rugby League side Hunslet Hawks in the offing as well). We are always bullish about our potential as a movement, and genuinely believe that despite differences of opinion in some areas – as there always will be in a game like football – we can maintain a healthy, forward-thinking and constructive dialogue with the football authorities to ensure that we can progress towards a more sustainable game, more sustainable clubs, and more and deeper integration of supporters in the life of their clubs.

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