Author Jim Keoghan describes the growth of fan activism
It might seem like a distant memory, but there was a time when a club like Manchester City would have been the type considered ripe for a supporter takeover. Unpopular owners and financial uncertainty, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility to imagine, were it not for the arrival of the current owners, City could easily have ‘done a Pompey’ and ended up in the hands of the fans.
City also had that all important element for any successful supporter takeover, a devotedly loyal fanbase with a strong activist element. Fanzines, blogs and a willingness to protest, there was never any suggestion that the fans of City ever viewed themselves as little more than customers. There had developed an activist culture at the club in keeping with that which had developed at other big clubs in the north-west; a culture that refused to accept that the board should be left to run matters as it saw fit.
Such an outcome today of course seems remote to say the least. Even the most rabid of supporter activists would probably agree that City are now one of a handful of clubs that appear to be beyond the reaches of punk football (the sobriquet adopted by the supporter ownership movement). Like United, Arsenal and Chelsea the costs involved and the current regime’s iron-grip on the club make the idea that the fans will one day make the transition from the terraces to the boardroom as likely as Liverpool finishing a season strongly.
Since the emergence of the first supporters trust at Northampton Town back in 1992, the concept of supporter ownership has slowly gathered momentum in English football. Examples of share-ownership now scatter the leagues, and there are even some trusts that have managed that rarest of feats, majority control.
But not at the top. In the Premier League today, there are only two clubs that possess share-holding supporters trusts, Swansea and Arsenal. The former acquired their shares when the club was hovering near the bottom of League Two, in dire financial straits and for sale at a knock-down price. The latter have just three shares, out of a grand-total of 62,000, which hardly makes them the Gordon Gekko of supporter ownership.
Part of our collective hesitancy in embracing punk football can be attributed to a degree of cultural catch-up. Unlike in parts of continental Europe, for many years in this country the idea of the fans having any say in how the club was run has been alien to both those in charge and amongst supporters too. The board has traditionally been left to run things pretty much as it sees fit.
Slowly, the English perspective has begun to shift over the past few decades. Rising ticket prices, a growing sense of disenfranchisement amongst fans and concerns about the way our clubs are run have led more and more supporters to challenge the deferential relationship that once existed between the fans and the board (and in the process question whether they themselves could do a better job).
But although more of us have come around to the idea of supporter ownership, a stubborn degree of hesitancy persists. And two big reasons for this are the costs involved in takeovers and also the absence of a level playing field once the fans have taken control.
This is specifically a problem at the top. When it comes to clubs like City, Utd and Chelsea, the idea that the fans could ever unite to take control seems remote because it would take thousands to each invest and thousands to do so; something that has never taken place in world football. Once in control, those same thousands of fans would also have to support the club financially, keeping it competitive against rivals backed by deep-pocketed owners, which could very well lead to stagnation or decline.
So does this mean that punk football has no place in the Premier League and that trusts are meaningless?
Although ownership, no matter how small gives a voice, that doesn’t mean that without a stake fans and trusts are powerless or without purpose. At rival clubs such as Chelsea, Liverpool and Utd, the trusts active there have sought to become an effective medium through which a strong relationship can be forged between the club and the fans.
These trusts have campaigned upon issues such as the creation of safe standing areas, the improvement of the club’s links to the local community and ticket pricing. Of course the nature of ownership has meant that not all of these campaigns have been a success and there’s been little to stop the clubs involved ignoring the demands of the trusts or any other supporter organisation, which is exactly what has happened on several occasions.
But in an age when our national game has never been more commercialised, as fans we should take comfort from the fact that even in the Premier League there are supporters who refuse to simply be viewed as customers alone.
At the moment, supporter activism is still young and the supporter trust movement a mere infant. Football has changed beyond recognition over the past twenty years and as supporters many of us are still trying to adjust to the new reality. The trust movement is a reaction to these changes and for many fans their way of attempting to redefine what it means to be a supporter in the modern game.
There will undoubtedly be success and failures and times when the struggle appears futile, but as fans, whether we follow a Premier League giant like City or a minnow plying their trade in the Conference, if we care about our game and about how our club is run, then it makes sense to be more than just a customer and join together in a trust. And in the long-term you never know what could happen. With enough members and enough momentum, football supporters are capable of achieving just about anything.
Jim Keoghan is the author of Punk Football: the rise of fan ownership in English football, which is published by Pitch Publishing