Book Review: Punk Football
Punk Football by Jim Keoghan
Published by Pitch Publishing
The rise of the supporter ownership model in England has been a slow and drawn out process in recent years and despite the wonderful coverage provided by When Saturday Comes and a host of websites, it has often been hard to step back and assess its progress.
Jim Keoghan, therefore, has done us all a massive service in summarising the movement with his book Punk Football, doing a brilliant job of discussing the highs and lows, delivered in a well written but accessible style without plunging into too much detail and all with an ever present undercurrent of charm and Liverpudlian wit.
Keoghan is an Everton fan ‘come Hell or Mike Walker’ and characterises himself as an ‘imprisoned zoo animal’ — forever condemned to keep returning to Goodison Park. This blind loyalty is at the core of the book and is partially responsible for the way that we as fans have become exploited by unscrupulous owners but also provides the motivation to try and make things different.
Early sections are particularly strong on context and history. That common fallacy that football ‘is just a business like any other’ is blown out of the water by the reminder that of 88 clubs which competed in the competition in 1923, 85 still survived in the top four divisions in 2007. With a format and technology that can never truly be outmoded, the sport has allowed its major players to linger around a lot longer than they would in industry or retailing.
Of course the other issue that separates football from regular commerce is the difficulty of making money out of the game — and Keoghan goes on to explore the highs and lows of the supporters’ trust movement, usually borne out of financial disaster brought about by the excesses of previous owners.
So, the AFC Wimbledon, Exeter City and Swansea City stories are told in pithy detail but without losing the reader in tales of labyrinthine negotiations. The majority of these tales are truly heartwarming – in particular the resistance to the establishment of MK Dons and how in a crucial meeting it was decided to set up a new club in south west London.
There have been failures too of course and the author does not gloss over these. Stockport and Notts County are prominent while a major question that Keoghan returns to is the difficulty of maintaining success via the supporter ownership model. It can be galling seeing clubs surpass you due to the patronage of a sugar daddy and indeed, Brentford fans ultimately decided to turn to Matthew Benham after their own experiment.
Abroad, this has been less of a problem with Barcelona’s socios mirroring the structure of the British game before the money men got involved at the back end of the nineteenth century. Uli Hesse, author of that masterful history of German football, Tor!, is also quoted liberally in an assessment of that country’s 50+1 ownership rule — a regulation that has admittedly been challenged in recent years.
For me, the main ‘takeaway’ (to deploy that latest, most egregious manifestation of business speak) is the example of Brighton where Dick Knight organised the sale of 9% of the club’s shares for £1 a pop as long as the buyers could prove their commitment to the Seagulls. This has guaranteed a fan presence on the club’s board even if no overall control is possible and the example of Swansea’s Trust, with its 20.4% share along with the various asset of community value rulings show how influence can still be gained even if full ownership is a pipe dream.
I’d love my club’s chairman John Madejski to allocate a proportion of his shares to the Reading Trust, STAR in the same way (even Arsenal fans own three shares — giving them a right to a presence at AGMs). This is especially acute given the financial calamity facing the club after the seemingly pernicious involvement of Thames Sport Investment.
The Reading case does highlight one of the book’s weaknesses and that might be summed up by the word hubris. Dan Wimbush of Reading blog The Tilehurst End reflects on the sustainable attitude to spending that nonetheless allowed Madejski to propel the team to two unlikely top flight stints and two Championship titles in the past decade — but it only needs someone to sanction extraordinary wages to a Royston Drenthe or Pavel Pogrebnyak for the house of cards to collapse and Swansea and Brighton fans might also wish to take note. Trouble can always be around the corner.
Indeed, Colin Farmery of the Pompey Supporters’ Trust is quoted as saying that the club’s fall from grace was ‘difficult to believe’ — really? I think most sensible fans should have seen how far beyond the club’s means messrs Mandaric and Gaydamak had pushed things well before even that first FA Cup Final appearance. Similarly, no right thinking Chelsea fan can think that their current lofty status will last for perpetuity?
But overall, this is a marvellous book which makes accessible one of the most encouraging narratives of modern football where fans have selflessly banded together to save the institutions they love and which draws heavily and cleverly on the sterling accounts of blogs such as The Swiss Ramble and Two Hundred Percent. Punk Football is an essential read and will hopefully galvanise more sets of fans into pursuing greater control over their club.