The top ten fan owned clubs in English football – Part 2

Yesterday we brought you the first part of a look at the top ten fan owned clubs in English football, and today we’re down to the business end of the list with the final five.

Included in this part is a club born out of disillusionment with one of the nation’s biggest side, one that was created as a firm two fingers to “modern football”, and another that has had its legacy and history saved by the great work of its supporters.

 

Number 5 – FC United of Manchester, Conference North (level 6)

With the Glazer family’s debt-fuelled purchase of Manchester United – and the increasingly exorbitant cost of attending matches in the English Premier League – a group of Red Devils fans decided to break away and start their own club instead. Thus was born FC United of Manchester (FCUM).

The club began life in the tenth division of English football, securing promotions during each of its first three seasons, followed by winning the Northern Premier League in time for its tenth anniversary. FCUM will contest the Conference North for the 2015-16 season.

Most impressive of all is that FCUM recently opened their own stadium at Broadhurst Park. Supporters supplied almost half of the funding for the £6.5 million in construction costs.

FCUM is registered as a community benefit society, and is the largest English fan-owned club in which membership is in the club itself, rather than in a supporters’ trust. Membership costs £12 each year (PayPal and credit card accepted), and comes with a membership card.

As of August 2015, FCUM has more than 4,300 member-owners. The club also has a buy-a-brick scheme for £45, as well as “community shares” starting at £200.

FCUM is the largest fan-owned club in England to stream match commentary over the internet for free, and has its own internet radio station. The club also offers match highlights on YouTube, including from women’s first-team games.

Although FCUM was initially created as a breakaway club for disgruntled Manchester United supporters, it is open to everyone with an interest in joining, including people who have never supported the Premier League side.

Number 4 – Portsmouth FC, Football League Two (level 4)

Portsmouth FC spent most of the past 50 years in the second tier of English football, but found itself swept up in the money and allure of the Premier League during the 2000s. The club was taken over by a series of wealthy businessmen who spent vast sums of money on player wages.

Promotion to the top flight was inevitable, and during their debut EPL season in 2003-04, Portsmouth produced perhaps the most emphatic win of the entire league: a 6-1 drubbing of Leeds United.

Pompey’s impressive run culminated in 2008, winning the FA Cup and finishing a respectable 8th in the Premier League, followed by a brief run in the UEFA Cup that was highlighted with a home draw against Italian giants AC Milan.

Sadly for Portsmouth fans, the club’s tenebrous wealth was as quick to vanish as it had been to mysteriously appear, and collapse unfolded faster than success had been bought. In just four seasons the club was relegated three times, and entered administration (insolvency protection) twice.

But as Portsmouth was plummeting down to its nadir, the fans stepped in to bring stability back to the club. The Pompey Supporters’ Trust bought Portsmouth in April 2013, and in just 18 months was able to eliminate £7 million of the club’s debt, thanks to 2,500 fans each contributing £1,000 by purchasing community shares. Today, fan-owned Portsmouth FC is debt-free, and is the largest entirely-fan-owned club in England.

Membership in Pompey Supporters’ Trust – a community benefit society – costs just £5, and they accept PayPal. The group is politically active in promoting financially-sustainable football and fan ownership, and shares most of their documents online for public scrutiny, including annual audited accounts.

Pompey Supporters’ Trust is one of only a handful of trusts that lets members vote online during elections for board directors. Three elected Trust directors also sit on the club’s board.

As with all professional English sides, Portsmouth matches are easy to follow with PlayerHD, and the club boasts a large assortment of merchandise.

Number 3 – AFC Rushden & Diamonds, Southern League Division One Central (level 8)

Perhaps a surprise entry at number three is AFC Rushden & Diamonds, recently promoted from the ninth division and thus the second-smallest club featured in this list.

In the early 1990s, Dr. Martens shoe magnate Max Griggs created the original Rushden & Diamonds FC by purchasing and merging Rushden Town with Irthlingborough Diamonds. Griggs invested a small fortune into the Northamptonshire club, spending £30 million to develop Nene Park and taking the club up to the Football League.

After 13 years, Griggs eventually tired of sinking vast sums of money into his football creation, and sold Rushden & Diamonds for £1 to the club’s supporters’ trust in 2005. The fans, however, realised they wouldn’t be able to pay the £1.5 million annual operating costs of a club that had always lived beyond its means, and in desperation sold the club to a local businessman. Less than five years later, the club was dissolved.

No longer saddled by unsustainable operating costs and an insurmountable debt, Rushden & Diamonds fans resolved to make another attempt at operating a football club. AFC Rushden & Diamonds was born as a “phoenix” club in 2011, with the men’s senior team starting from the tenth division.

The squad earned two promotions in their three seasons thus far, winning the 2014-15 United Counties Football League Premier Division undefeated at home and with a 17-match unbeaten streak.

Despite still being a small non-League club, AFC Rushden & Diamonds – registered as a community benefit society – is impressive. Thanks to volunteers, the club offers free online commentary of most home and away matches, as well as match highlights and interviews on YouTube.

The Northamptonshire side is also very active on social media, including Instagram and Snapchat. For a club of relatively small stature, the Diamonds are surprisingly easy to follow from afar.

Membership in the club costs £20 each year (PayPal accepted), and comes with an ownership certificate and member card (ten different designs to choose from). Members receive access to a restricted area of the website, and are able to vote online regarding a range of club matters, including board elections.

Along with Hinckley, AFC Rushden & Diamonds is one of only two clubs in England in which members can vote online for the club’s directors.

The online shop features a thorough collection of items, including replica kit, scarves, and season-review DVDs. The shop also sells “part owner” pins for £2.99.

Number 2 – Wrexham FC, Conference National (level 5)

The penultimate entry on our list is the oldest football club in Wales and the third-oldest professional football team in the world: Wrexham FC. Established in 1864, the club is now more than 150 years old.

Like most of the big Welsh clubs, Wrexham competes in the English league system rather than in Wales. The team is based at the Racecourse Ground, which was originally built in 1807 and fitted for football in 1864. The venue carries the honour of being the oldest stadium in the world that continues to host international matches.

As with many of the clubs on this list, Wrexham was plagued by financial problems prior to being taken over by its fans. In 2011, Wrexham was presented with a winding-up order due to unpaid debts, and was later threatened with expulsion from the Football Conference. In response, fans raised an incredible £127,000 in a single day to ensure the club’s survival.

The Wrexham Supporters’ Trust took formal control of the club shortly afterward, and as of May 2015, had 4,129 member-owners. Thanks to the financial sustainability that fan ownership has introduced, the club is once again operating at a profit.
Wrexham won the FA Trophy in 2013 and narrowly missed out on lifting it again in 2015, losing on penalties.

The club is hoping to return to the Football League, but will have to overcome competition from such well-financed outfits as Eastleigh and Forest Green Rovers.

Membership in the Trust costs £12 each year, with credit card payment accepted online. Members can vote online for Trust board elections and resolutions, receive a membership card, and are entitled to discounts from the online shop.

Wrexham is easy to follow from afar with PlayerHD, which features live audio as well as video highlights.

Number 1 – AFC Wimbledon, Football League Two (level 4)

AFC Wimbledon – perhaps the club best known for fan ownership in England – is an obvious choice for number one on our list. The Dons are the second-oldest fan-created club in England, founded in 2002 after original club Wimbledon FC relocated some 56 miles to Milton Keynes.

The creation of AFC Wimbledon was one of the first examples of fans formally rejecting undesirable aspects of the modern game, and served as the inspiration for numerous fan-owned clubs, including FC United of Manchester.

Former club Wimbledon FC was a non-League team during most of its history, but gained entry to the Football League in the late 1970s. By 1986, after three promotions in just four years, the so-called “Crazy Gang” was in England’s top division for the first time.

Two years later they lifted the FA Cup by defeating Liverpool, the strongest English team of the 1980s that had just won the 1987-88 First Division by a wide margin.

Sadly, off-the-pitch matters would soon ruin Wimbledon’s enviable success story. The Taylor Report, released in 1991, forced England’s top clubs to play in all-seater stadia. Wimbledon’s Plough Lane featured terracing, and thus the club decided to groundshare at Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park. After more than a decade of this “temporary” arrangement, the club’s owners decided to relocate to Milton Keynes.

The vast majority of Dons fans refused to support the move, and instead created their own football club – AFC Wimbledon. The club began life in the ninth tier of English football, but secured five promotions in just eight seasons, returning the Dons in their new guise to the Football League.

The new Wimbledon’s rapid ascent included setting an English senior football record of 78 consecutive league games without defeat, during a period spanning almost two years.

AFC Wimbledon purchased the lease of the Kingsmeadow stadium in 2003, and had been able to finance much of the cost through a share offer to supporters that raised £1.2 million. Today, the club is in negotiations to return to Wimbledon-proper, and hopes to receive planning permission to build a new ground at the former greyhound stadium.

The Dons Trust, which is registered as a community benefit society, is the majority shareholder of the club. Membership costs £25 each year – both PayPal and online credit card payment are accepted. Members receive an ownership certificate, an owners’ card, as well as an owners’ lapel badge.

The Trust’s board elections and resolutions can be voted upon online – and the Trust will soon ask permission from members to authorise the club’s move back to Wimbledon.

Author Details

Devon Rowcliffe
Devon Rowcliffe

Devon Rowcliffe is a football writer based in Vancouver, Canada. His interests include formal supporter involvement in clubs (including fan ownership), national knockout cup competitions (particularly the earliest rounds of the FA Cup), as well as non-League clubs around the world. Rowcliffe spent three years in England, including briefly serving on the committee of London non-League side Hanwell Town. He is currently writing a book, Who Ate All The Squid? Football Adventures in South Korea, premised on following a Korean football club home and away for an entire K-League season. He can be found on Twitter at @WhoAteTheSquid, and his writing collects dust at http://devonrowcliffe.work .

5 thoughts on “The top ten fan owned clubs in English football – Part 2

  1. In the genesis of fan-owned clubs in England, Enfield were the first and the inspiration. Dave Bryant was the first person to give voice to the idea within a fans’ trust that they, the fans, were the club, not the company who held the legal registration, and thus that wherever the fans were, the club would be. That this notion seems commonplace is a testament to how revolutionary it was, but it really, really was pretty alien until Enfield Town came along. They gave AFC Wimbledon lots of support when the club was formed a year later, and AFC Wimbledon gave practical support to FC United 2 years later, and so on.

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