The English game is rife with conflict between controversial owners and their clubs’ supporters. Whether it’s the Glazer family and Manchester United, Vincent Tan and Cardiff City, or the Oyston family and Blackpool, English clubs have served as both battleground and prize in an ongoing clash between moneymen and fans. The perception, for the most part, is that the owners hold all the cards. They have the money, they have the legal paperwork that names them as rightful property owners, and supporter culture is such that fans can’t just take their business elsewhere.
Yet club supporters are not entirely without recourse. The past few decades have seen the rise of fan-owned clubs, where the supporters themselves hold a controlling interest in their teams. Some of these, like FC United of Manchester, were formed in protest of the ownership group of their former clubs. Others, like Portsmouth, came under the auspices of their supporters’ trusts after previous owners nearly drove the club in question into the ground.
Perhaps the most high-profile example of a fan-owned team is AFC Wimbledon. The club was formed in 2002 after the owners of Wimbledon FC won approval from the Football Association to move the club, franchise-style, to Milton Keynes, 60 miles north of of the community that nurtured and supported the club for over a century. Following the FA’s decision, fans decided to start from scratch rather than follow the team to Milton Keynes. The new club—AFC Wimbledon—began play in the 2002-03 season in the ninth tier of English football, only a few steps above Sunday pub leagues. Over the next decade, they clawed their way up the ranks and eventually won promotion to the Football League.
With the proliferation of fan-owned clubs and their continued success (with “success” usually defined as running a sustainable business while remaining under the fans’ control), there has been a lot of talk about fan ownership in the higher echelons of English and European football. In a time of billion-dollar TV deals for the Premier League, the tidal waves of corporate cash flowing through the Champions League, and the ungodly sums being paid in transfer fees by the continent’s mega-clubs, teams like AFC Wimbledon and FCUM have been touted as both a welcome respite from and a strong rebuttal to the current state of football.
Jim Keoghan, a writer and lifelong Evertonian, talks about this extensively in his book Punk Football: The Rise of Fan Ownership in English Football. The book offers a snapshot of fans who were convinced they could run their club better than the owners and, in many cases, did just that. Keoghan’s book places this emerging movement in the wider context of English football and investigates what makes fan ownership work and where it falls short.
I had the opportunity to talk with Keoghan about the fan ownership revolution, the current state of the English game, and what the implications of supporters with genuine stakes in their clubs could be for the future.
Paste: In the wider context of European football, fan ownership isn’t new. Barcelona famously popularised the socio model, while German clubs are required by law to give their supporters a controlling interest. What makes the history of fan ownership in England distinct?
Jim Keoghan: Back at the game’s beginnings, in a race to attract external investment to improve competitive performance, English football embraced the private ownership of clubs very quickly after professionalism was introduced in 1885, abandoning the democratic sports club model that had dominated since the game’s emergence in the mid-Victorian-era (the kind retained in parts of Spain and in most of Germany).
By and large, English fans were happy to have their clubs owned in this way. They primarily saw themselves as customers (albeit with an almost pathological sense of brand loyalty) and local businessmen as the best option for the kind of finance necessary to run and develop their clubs.
Because of this, until relatively recently supporter activism was rare in this country. That began to change during the late 1980s and 1990s, as a number of factors, such as escalating ticket prices, heavy handed stewarding and financial mismanagement at clubs gradually unsettled the status quo.
This growing disconnect eventually saw the emergence of the supporter ownership movement. In particular, it has grown in response to the high number of clubs that have encountered financial difficulties in this country. Often the fans have been the only group willing to take control of an ailing club.
Despite long being a country in which its football fans were relatively passive, over the past few decades the English have embraced both activism and the concepts behind punk football. Today, the movement is one of the healthiest in Europe.
When we talk about fan-owned football in England we tend to talk about the higher profile cases— AFC Wimbledon, FC United of Manchester, Portsmouth, etc. Meanwhile, the smaller clubs—which mostly play non-league football—seem to operate in relative obscurity. Some say that low profile for fan-owned clubs hurts the cause of the broader Punk Football movement, while others say it’s kept the movement from becoming a fad and flaming out. Are either of those arguments valid? Would fan ownership be helped or hurt from more attention?
Punk football represents an absolute revolution in football culture in England. Yet despite this huge transformation in what it meant to be a ‘fan’ today, it barely gets any coverage. It’s not just low profile, it’s no profile. And I think this is to the movement’s detriment. If we are ever to see more clubs in the higher reaches of the game embrace this model (whether total ownership or partial), then more and more fans need to understand what it’s about.
At the moment it’s seen as a lower league curiosity. But there is no reason why that should be the case. The model is applicable at any level.
At heart, I just don’t think the media is interested. A few years ago, all four semi-finalists in the Champions League (Dortmund, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern) were either fully or majority owned by the fans. This could have given the English media an opportunity to explore why these big clubs are able to operate in this way but in this country we don’t. But no-one bothered. Instead, they focused on the personalities and the football. There was no attempt to look at the mechanics of ownership and fan engagement. Although you would expect this in the tabloids, it was disappointing that the broadsheets did not address these issues.
The fan-owned clubs in the Football League had a good season in 2014-15. AFC Wimbledon had their best ever finish in League Two plus a good run in the FA Cup (which ended in that famous match-up against Liverpool). Wycombe came very close to getting promoted to League One (ultimately losing in the playoff final to Southend on penalties), while Exeter and Portsmouth had solid mid-table finishes in a division where avoiding relegation is Priority 1 for most teams. What do you think these clubs are doing right? How can some of these clubs take that next step while retaining their ownership structure?
Last season was good but the season before was awful. At one point, in League 2, all four ‘punk football’ clubs were facing possible relegation to the Conference. But I think the key with these clubs is that they don’t see relegation or promotion as threats to their model. If AFC Wimbledon were relegated, they would still balance their budgets, ensure that the club was not overstretched and continue to put the fans and the community first. Unlike a privately owned club, there would be no transfer splurge to avoid ‘the drop’. And the same was true when Exeter got into League 1. Despite having a difficult time up there, the club stuck to its principles and refused to overspend. And that’s what they do right.
With regard to the ‘next level’, the only way to dramatically change the footballing parameters within which these clubs operate would be to accept outside investment. In Germany, several sports clubs (the bodies that own most Bundesliga football companies) have diluted 100% ownership to attract private investment. They still have majority control and yet have been able to use the money to improve their competitive position. This could be done in England.
As of the start of 2015-16 there is only one fan owned club in the Premier League— Swansea. What do you think needs to happen for fan ownership to have a larger presence in the top flight?
Although it’s always possible that a top flight club would embrace punk football if an opportunity presented itself, for the model to truly blossom it would help if the rules of participation were changed. The football authorities in this country could make some degree of supporter ownership mandatory. They have that power but don’t have the inclination to use it.
Alternatively, the Government could get involved. The last Labour Party manifesto contained a commitment to enable fans to gain a 10% stake in their clubs following a takeover.
But it’s all down to inclination. In this country, Government’s tend not to get involved in sport. And our sport authorities, specifically in football appear to be happy as long as their ‘product’ is making money, which it largely is. There’s no hostility towards fan ownership at a Government level, at the FA, at the Premier League or at the Football League. There’s just indifference.
Fan ownership is one of several hot topics among English football supporters. Some of the others include Safe Standing, ticket prices, and the relationship between supporters and police. To what extent, if any, do you think fan ownership offers a solution to some or all of those issues? Does Punk Football have the capacity to fundamentally transform English football for the better?
Most of the problems that supporters face arise because clubs see fans as a resource to be milked. We are not ordinary customers. We can’t just switch to another provider. So ticket prices continue to rise, safe standing isn’t brought in because is accrues less income for clubs, and the stewards and police are used by clubs to subjugate fans into becoming well behaved consumers. If the fans own and run the club, this changes. It’s telling that amongst the few surveys that have been undertaken into this issue, fan satisfaction at punk football clubs is much higher than that which exists at privately owned rivals. Punk Football has the power to fundamentally change the average fans experience of going to the game. It’s not a panacea but it’s probably the closest thing we have to one at the moment.
_Punk Football: The Rise of Fan Ownership in English Football _is available at bookstores in the UK and on Amazon. You can find Jim Keoghan yelling about Everton on Twitter.