BY JIM KEOGHAN
Punk football, the sobriquet adopted by the supporter-ownership movement has come a long way in the past twenty years. From humble beginnings at Northampton Town back in 1992, the movement has blossomed. With the backing of Supporters Direct, trusts have proliferated across the game. There are now 104 of them in English football, 73 of which are in either the top-flight or the Football League.
Although not all own shares, many do. And there are even some that possess a majority shareholding, like the trusts at Exeter City, Portsmouth and AFC Wimbledon.
Many of these teams in which the fans have gained a significant stake have also done remarkable things. Think of AFC Wimbledon’s surge up the football pyramid, Swansea City’s climb from the bottom tier to the top and Exeter City’s transformation from Conference also-rans to one-time League One contenders.
But despite the many successes, it’s a movement that’s not been immune to failure. Several trusts, such as those at York City, Notts County and Brentford have been compelled to sell all or part of their holdings because of their inability to run the club successfully. And at Stockport County, the trust there took the club into administration, a move usually associated with sleazy businessmen, not principled, die-hard fans.
What’s more, at the moment majority ownership and success on the pitch appear to be incompatible. Although trusts are numerous, instances where they have achieved the goal of taking control at a club are not. In the top four tiers of the game, examples of majority ownership by the fans tend to be confined to League Two. There might be scattered examples of share-holdings elsewhere, such as at Carlisle, Norwich and Arsenal but these tend to be small, minority stakes. Unintentionally, the bottom tier has become punk football’s test bed, one in which the results aren’t looking too good.
Most of the division’s handful of trust-owned clubs had poor seasons, with two of them (Exeter City and Wycombe Wanderers) coming dangerously close to relegation to the Conference. It’s led at least one of the supporters trusts at the helm (Wycombe) to question whether selling up to a private investor might be more beneficial to the club than staying in control.
And there is certainly proof that this could be the case. A few years ago, Bees United, the supporters trust once in charge at Brentford opted to sell up and hand over control to Matthew Benham. At the time, the club was struggling (both financially and on the pitch) and many of those involved with Bees United believed that in the absence of private investment, Conference football beckoned. Since the handover, the club’s fortunes have undergone a radical transformation. During the last campaign, Brentford finished second in League One, earning promotion to the Championship. It’s an outcome that would have seemed improbable just a few years earlier.
So does this all mean that the dream of supporter ownership is starting to falter?
The truth is that life is tough for those clubs that have a significant holding in the hands of the fans. Despite the various financial regulations that have been introduced from the Premier League down to the Conference, football in England is still a game where money matters. With their reliance on commercial revenues and trust membership subs, supporter owned clubs will always struggle against peers backed by deep pocketed owners ready with open chequebooks. Where trusts have reduced their holding and sold to a private investor in the past, the main reason has been their inability to enable the club to compete effectively. In short, the money simply hasn’t been there and so fan control was only maintainable if the fans were willing to risk stagnation or decline.
But, and this is the key area where punk football differs from the conventional model of ownership, for many fans such a risk is worthwhile. And it’s worthwhile because punk football changes what it means to be a supporter.
If you follow Manchester City, Manchester United or Chelsea, then life can be great. After all, cup runs, league titles and big name signings is what we’re told football is all about. But supporters of these clubs don’t have any say over what happens at the Etihad, Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge. These fans are little more than customers, there to pay at the gate without any rights or responsibilities at the club.
You couldn’t possibly say the same thing about the followers of AFC Wimbledon, Portsmouth or Exeter. Here the supporters have the right to join the trust and actively participate in the community of the club. They might not enjoy much success or win anything, but at the Cherry Red Stadium, Fratton Park and St James Park, the supporters matter. The club won’t charge what it wants for tickets, choose to place the needs of the corporate demographic over that of the ordinary fans or run the finances into the ground. The supporters are the club and as such, everything is run in harmony with their views.
This is the reason why despite enduring disappointing seasons there have been relatively few calls from the supporters of these clubs for an end to supporter ownership. The fans recognise that despite the benefits that private investment can bring, there are downsides that could make the abandonment of punk football a very risky move.
Despite the hard times and the failures, as a concept, supporter ownership is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. It remains something that many fans dream about and at the moment is the only viable alternative to the dominant (yet imperfect) private model. Although the dream hasn’t panned out as many hoped, punk football is far from dead.