For advocates of supporter-ownership, the current standings in League Two will make pretty grim reading. Two of the division’s fan owned clubs, Exeter City and Wycombe Wanderers are in the very heart of the fight to avoid relegation to the Conference, while another two, AFC Wimbledon and Portsmouth have had dismal seasons.
Unintentionally, the bottom tier has recently become a test-bed for supporter ownership, an idea that has come a long way since it first emerged just over twenty years ago. From humble beginnings at Northampton Town back in 1992, punk football (the sobriquet adopted by the fan ownership movement) has spread right across the game. Today, there are 104 supporters trusts in English football, 73 of which are in either the top-flight or the Football League.
Although numerous, instances where trusts have achieved the goal of taking control at a club are not. There might be scattered examples of share-holdings across the leagues, such as at Carlisle, Norwich and Arsenal but these tend to be minority stakes. In the top four tiers of the game, examples of majority ownership by the fans are confined to the bottom tier, a division in which punk football appears to be struggling.
According to Dave Boyle, football writer and one time chief executive of Supporters Direct, a big reason for this struggle is the uneven nature of modern football.
“A good way of thinking of this issue is to picture supporter owned clubs as being the only sane men in a world filled with lunatics.”
Clubs like AFC Wimbledon, Portsmouth and Exeter tend to be more sustainable in their approach to business. In part, this is because the fans have often taken control following a severe financial crisis, leaving a legacy of debt and the memory of how painful this can be. But equally, it’s also attributable to a philosophy that runs through the punk football movement which sees financial sustainability as something to strive towards.
“We won’t borrow money to fund transfers or pay exorbitant wages,” says Erik Samuelson, chief executive of AFC Wimbledon. “If the club can’t afford a player, then that’s too bad. And if a player is demanding a salary in excess of what we can manage then we can’t afford to keep him; it’s as simple as that. Other clubs might be happy to borrow or turn to a benefactor but not us. Sustainability is paramount here.”
Although laudable, this approach can place these clubs at a competitive disadvantage. The overwhelming majority of league and non-league teams in England have tended to spend to win, regardless of the fact that this can mean accruing unsustainable levels of debt.
“And they’ve done this” argues Dave Boyle “because history has shown that some mug will normally be on hand to bail them out should matters take a turn for the worse. The effect of this madness creates a situation where sustainably run clubs are constantly finding it difficult to maintain their league standing, let alone begin edging their way upwards.”
In the recent past, it’s this uneven nature that has led to several trusts to sell-up, sign over their holdings or dramatically reduce their stake.
“When the supporters were in charge at Brentford we found ourselves facing the reality that our meagre finances could barely fund the club to compete in the Football League” says Donald Kerr of Bees United, the Brentford supporters trust.
According to Donald, with deteriorating form and finances, those involved with the Trust faced an unenviable choice.
“We could have continued to own the club but only if we accepted that it may see us drop down a level or two. The sad reality was that the trust-owned incarnation of Brentford was probably better suited to life in the Conference.”
Like trusts at other clubs, such as York City and Notts County, the members of Bees United eventually opted to reduce their holding, selling the majority of their shares to Matthew Benham (a longstanding fan with greater resources). For Brentford, in football terms at least, this has been a definite success. The club now stands on the cusp of promotion to the Championship, an outcome that would have seemed very unlikely a few years ago.
“Not only would we have found it very difficult to survive as a league club if we had remained under supporter ownership, we would also never have been in this position unless our owner had taken over and provided the necessary investment for this club to prosper” thinks Donald.
It would be easy to look at Brentford’s recent success and the current on-field difficulties faced by supporter owned clubs in League Two and come to the conclusion that the punk football model is an admirable one, yet also one that’s flawed. Often dependent upon meagre finances, committed to sustainability and usually outspent by rivals, supporter ownership appears to carry with it a significant risk of stagnation or decline.
This is one of the main reasons why the trust at Wycombe Wanderers is currently debating whether to sell the club to new suitors; investors who appear to offer the necessary cash for the club to improve its league standing.
But while there is certainly some truth in the fallibility of the punk football model, simply concentrating upon league positions doesn’t tell the full story.
At Exeter City, the supporters trust has enjoyed majority control since 2003, having rescued the club from a financial crisis that threatened its survival. Since then, the Trust, which has an impressive 4000 members, has turned a financial basket-case with a dysfunctional relationship between the fans and board into a sustainable business that is run wherever possible in harmony with the wishes of the supporters.
“And that’s something we’re hugely proud of and a big reason why the vast majority of fans still believe in this model” argues Laurence Overend, current chairman of the Exeter City Supporters’ Trust.
According to Laurence, under the ownership of the Trust, the club has developed goals that aren’t necessarily tied up with going on cup runs or earning promotion after promotion.
“We have a model that places not just a strong emphasis on financial sustainability but also upon the creation of a deep bond between the fans and the club. That for us is vitally important, regardless of whether we are playing in League One or the Conference.”
Although he acknowledges that relegation would put pressure on the trust model, Laurence still believes that it is one that would survive the dreaded drop.
“Relegation is a real concern and if we did go down then the risk exists that whilst previously we have been seen as the answer, we might now be viewed as part of the problem. But I, and many others involved in the Trust, have faith that support for this model would remain. Most people accept this was always going to be a project that came with ups and downs, good times and bad times. But what matters most is the kind of club we have created, one where the supporters matter. And that will still be the case even if we end up dropping out of league football.”
Clubs owned and governed by the fans are just as capable of on-field failure as their privately owned rivals. But unlike privately owned clubs, it appears that this failure is not always viewed in the same way by many of the adherents of punk football. Despite several trusts selling-up in the hope of achieving greater footballing success, there are others who recognise that although supporter ownership brings with it risks, the benefits it delivers for fans can make those risks worthwhile.