Democratic Republics of Football?

Posted by on Jan 25, 2011 in Uncategorized | 5 Comments
Our latest guest post comes from John McGee, gaffer of Carlisle United website, Bring Me the Head of Keith Mincher. The topic of fan ownership has been hotly debated on blogs and twitter in recent weeks. Here, John attempts to make sense of the strident opinion swapping.The topic of fan ownership has become something of a footballing hot potato recently with first The Guardian’s North East football correspondent Louise Taylor making her case for what she calls ‘benevolent dictatorship’ only to be astutely rebutted by ardent Manchester United fan Andrew Thomas at his excellent blog Twisted Blood and Two Hundred Percent’s Ian King, himself an expert on the merits of fan ownership. Strange that I should have found myself thinking the unthinkable on this self same issue this week…

But let’s start off on the right foot by examining the ideal, the club held up by every right minded individual as the evidence to immediately counteract Louise Taylor’s argument — Barcelona, ‘The People’s Club’. How, claim detractors, can fan ownership be anything other than the right way forward when the world’s greatest club stand as it’s beacon? A paragon of virtue and righteousness in a world littered with profiteers and charlatans.

They’re right of course, Barcelona is a magical club whose history, image and style stand for everything that is wonderful in the world of football. But theirs is a simplistic view which forgets that, like all great democracies and institutions, Barcelona Football Club is built on good governance and the rule of law (of a fashion). Barcelona’s model of fan ownership runs less like the average supporter’s trust and more like a FTSE quoted company — the board make inference heavy recommendations to the fans and, as with all shareholders, they are able to vote on their preference. Some of these obviously strike to the heart of fandom at any club — that the ‘Elefant Blau’ Laporta rein should pass resolutions against the increasingly tatty commercialisation came as little surprise for instance. The fact that Barca fans shook off their misgivings to allow for commercial sponsorship of their sacred shirts in 2003 was surely less a product of their ideals and more of a forced, central practicality that highlighted its importance to the side’s future. That Barca have been able to wait until the 2011/12 season to follow this resolution through is to the credit of their accountants rather than their fans.

As with all true democracies the Barcelona structure allows for its electorate to depose unwanted administrations, as they did in unseating Laporta in favour of Sandro Rosell earlier this year. They are in the healthy position that their economies of scale, the fact that they are a truly global brand with a stable income and adoring public makes this transition straightforward. Try to imagine such a similarly blemish free hand over were this Wrexham and the limitations start to show.

Central to Louise Taylor’s argument against democracy in football was the case of Ebbsfleet whose takeover by the 20,000 subscription paying members of has been much derided since its completion in 2008. The £35 fee was supposed to give members the opportunity to rule over manager Liam Daish’s team selections and allow members the opportunity to influence matters such as transfer policy and budgets. That the membership has fallen to 4000, with 85% declining to opine on team selection is put by some as concrete evidence of the failure of democracy in football. Surely it was ever thus with all democracies? This May saw the most divisive and talked about UK general election in 13 years — the turnout was 65%. For the 2009 European Parliament elections it was 34.7%.

For me it is this that strikes at the very heart of the notion of democracy in football — the more prosaic the problem and the further removed the fan, the less the level of engagement. To many fans the notion of fan ownership is a chimerical ideal, a poetic albion for those whose talent never allowed them the chance to play professionally — the chance to steer your own team. It’s certainly boy’s own stuff — or at least I’m sure it is until you find yourself with your backs against the wall trying to fight off HMRC before popping home to wash the club kit in your family bathroom. All the while wondering where the other 2,999 of your fellow owners have gotten to.

This in turn hints at that other problem with fan ownership — the persuasive nature of the vocal minority over the silent and sensible majority.

Whilst the electoral exit polls show a nation disenfranchised from their political classes the action on the streets of London over the increase in tuition fees and removal of student EMA grant have shown a rather more virile, and direct, engagement in democracy. It is the notion of this type of action at football clubs which truly makes me blanch.

Two weeks ago my own club Carlisle United lost 1-0 to Torquay in the third round of the FA Cup, missing out on their most straightforward opportunity to make the 4th round pot since 1997. After defeat the previous week to lowly Tranmere this came as little surprise to many fans and yet it was met with a level of opprobrium which could only justly be described as rabid. Fans flocked onto Twitter to lambaste club kitman and media officer Andy Hall for the performance, some demanding the manager’s head and personal meetings with the board of directors. To his credit he answered each and every query with a level of sympathy and panache I’d never have accomplished. Meanwhile on the popular Carlisle United Mad messageboard a climate of revolution was brewing with posters seeking to out-do each other in the level of hysteria and scorn they could pour on the situation. The two media platforms crossed over as some fans directed Andy to the list of complaints and demanded he take them to the directors. Perspective was lost at absolutely every level — one wondered what would happen were this cabal ‘in charge’.

It brought to my mind the struggle of the Chartists through the mid 19th century, though this ‘Fan’s Charter’ was rather more prosaic than that drawn up by William Lovett and his contemporaries at the Crown and Anchor. Those of you who frequent such fora will recognise the issues (paraphrased but representative):

We the undersigned demand that you:

1. Sack the manager immediately. The man is a buffoon with a round head and he doesn’t shout enough on the touchline so he doesn’t care;

2. Appoint a new manager — preferably one we’ve had before like Paul Simpson or Neil McDonald (note here the singular talent for nostalgia that is the peculiar shortcoming of the English football fan — King Kenny 4LYF etc);
3. Resign, the lot of you. We know you have a combined 75 years of football club administration and have ploughed not inconsiderable sums of your own cash into the club but you’re absolute rot;
4. We know you’ve resigned now but we still need AMBITION. We can show this by signing ‘x’ player (at Carlisle this is currently Adam Le Fondre, replacing local boy made good Grant Holt as the unobtainable object of public affection — that Holt has ‘bought a house on Warwick Road in Carlisle has become a recent trope of Carlisle fandom);
5. No, don’t resign yet, find some investment. Has anyone rang Eddie Stobart?;
6. Stop signing loanees. We have absolutely no idea of our station in the Football League pyramid, that we sign full international players from Manchester United is degrading to us as fans; and
7. Why don’t you just develop our ground? (PS no seats on the Paddock, don’t remove the Warwick Road end shed, don’t move the terrace bar etc).
Of course this is a caricature of the possible extremes of fan ownership but, I hope, is illustrative of the fact that no one fan can fully control who represents their views – such conflicts of interest and opinion are only natural and the absence of a common sense arbiter or executive gives genuine cause for concern. That Carlisle have since won three straight games, conceding none and scoring nine also makes a mockery of such reactionary nonsense and highlights its real dangers.

It’s also worth noting that no one’s asking for responsibility for programme design, no one’s putting up their hand to help with marketing or safety training. The same is true of the political sphere — people will take to the streets to give collective voice to their hurt but who can honestly say they’ve volunteered for a Big Society project, our chance to put things right? Supporters Direct are forward about the fact that they don’t wish to choose a team or depose a manager but their mission overlooks the notion that this is exactly what the average fan may want from their club engagement.

The notion of the Big Society brings us neatly to a recently born notion of democracy in football — the community club. Best known of these is the aforementioned FC United but AFC Wimbledon, Chester FC and the German club St Pauli are all run as fan-led co-operatives with strong community ties and a very personal ethos. I’d argue that these clubs are the exception rather than the rule. All of these clubs (bar St Pauli, though there is some argument that their efforts to but out racism and violence could fit) were born out of a catastrophe that has bound their founders together with a set of common principles — they are examples of localism in its purest and most positive form. However it’s easier to design the perfect football club from scratch than to reverse engineer its blueprint onto an existing model — a sharp, but apt parallel may be the struggles of the Western world to mainstream democracy in an African continent to whose tribal culture it is anathema. Even then the model has had its limitations — FC United have reached all their goals as a force for good in their local community and attracted the misty gaze of football dreamers the country over but have hit a glass ceiling on the pitch. The fee they received for allowing their FA Cup game with Rochdale to be televised on a Friday evening has gone a long way to securing them a new home at Newton Heath but it did so in sacrificing their founding principle of Saturday afternoon football. Some of the more ardent romantics attached to the club felt this a slight on their standing but it was just an example of the right governance structure allowing its (admittedly elected) board to make a decision in the best interests of the club.

The other headline option for fans is to form a trust to buy a stake in the club and receive a representative on the board of directors. Many clubs have a set up like this and it has been actively encouraged by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport who have set aside a fund for launching of such endeavours. Personally I’ve never quite bought into the notion that they work, a fact underlined to me by the catastrophic sale of Notts County to Munto Finance by a fan led boardroom. To me the ‘fan in the boardroom’ is a panacea which often leads to little positive change. For starters the ability to pick one ‘fan’ to be truly representative of all ‘fans’ and trust them not to ‘go native’ is something I can’t quite comprehend — the politics of envy run hot in this country and in no place more so than the world of football. Why should that be any different when discussing club governance rather than player wages?

There are some obvious exceptions in the cases of Exeter City and Brentford (for an excellent prà©cis see Gary Andrews piece at Pitch Invasion: both of whose Supporters Trusts have rescued their clubs from the verge of extinction through poor financial management. Exeter’s board even astutely appointed Paul Tisdale and have watched the savoir faire boss steer them to League One. Brentford meanwhile entered an agreement with club fan Matthew Benham which has provided financial backing for their charge up the divisions.

However, even these successful examples highlight the limitations of the concept. They worked here due to the chaos of the situation and an absence of financial governance — I’d argue that this sort of desperate situation allows real fans to bury their differences in the interests of the future of their club. I’d be less confident of this being the case were a club to become involved with a club in a strong position — human instinct would undoubtedly lead to divergence and envy which is absent in a more trying scenario. The case of Brentford, whilst novel and laudable, notes a more practical drawback of the supporters trust model. Pure lack of capital. Brentford are fortunate that they had a benefactor willing to deal with them on their terms. The situation didn’t hinge on their being fan owned, though it is to their credit that the settlement negotiated keeps the balance in their favour. Carlisle’s owner/directors (all fans) have tried for years to find their own sugar daddy with no such luck.

Astute observers may point out a modicum of bitterness on my part due to the failure of Carlisle United’s own supporters trust. CCUIST was set up in the late 1990s in a bid to wrest some control from our own benevolent dictator, everyone’s favourite Stretford End ball juggler — Michael Knighton. At the time fans latched onto this development as a hugely positive move. Knighton was resistant to sell to local ‘millionaire’ Brooks Mileson (latterly of Gretna fame — to his credit Knighton looked on Mileson and saw a kindred spirit, a point for which Carlisle fans owe him a great debt) and the Trust gave him a backdoor entrance as his benevolence bought them a seat at the table. Nearly 15 years later and no fan is entirely sure where this has benefited club or supporter — public perception has seen its controlling faction labelled publicity seeking egotists and its core membership has dwindled to the point where it is now seen only as the provider of buses to away matches despite still owning 25.1% of the club. Their involvement has been marred by ongoing legal rows over share percentages and a mooted sale of land belonging to the club in the area surrounding Brunton Park. The associated legal fees of around £150,000 have hardly been rung up with the clubs best interests at heart.

So if not ‘proper’ democracy, nor benevolent dictatorship, what is the solution to the club ownership conundrum? At League One and Two level most clubs are owned by fans, just not in the sense that FCUM are, or Supporter’s Direct may like.

Carlisle United is owned by a trio of successful local businessmen, one of whom, Andrew Jenkins, has clocked up over 50 years service — for anyone to say that he’d act in any way contrary to the good of the club makes a mockery of the notion of loyalty. As at most small clubs the directors are approachable and willing to engage any fan with a reasonable and workable suggestion, either at matches or at the oft petitioned, regularly organised (and I note sourly, appallingly attended) Fans Forums that all clubs hold. This season has seen the introduction of a new ‘Carlisle United Real Ale’ at the ground after a fan did the leg work to get it off the ground whilst the club bent over backwards to help a new group of ‘Ultras’ despite minimal co-operation from the Local Authority. The manager Greg Abbott has started an open door policy and reported that several fans have been to see him and made some constructive points. What are these if not the tools of democracy? Every Government enactment is subject to open consultation and stringent examination by public stakeholders and what are we, the fans, if not the key stakeholders of our football clubs? That our opinions should be heeded is without question, that we should bow to the wisdom of those in a better position of understanding — just as we do with our own parliamentary democracy — is in my view sacred too.

It’s easy to suggest that I see this from a rose-tinted point of view and that my position would be quite different were I a supporter of Mike Ashley’s Newcastle United. Quite so. But I did follow the club under Knighton so have some understanding of this feeling, albeit at a slighter level. In my view it’s this level of engagement that should be the aspiration of fans around the country, with the full ownership left to situations where it works best — those where its absolutely necessary.

Critics may suggest that this analysis suggest that this overlooks the big decisions to be taken by big clubs. I’d challenge that but come back to the importance of good governance being at the heart of the decision making process. I am in little doubt that the fans of Spurs should have a strong say in their plans to abandon Tottenham for the Olympic Stadium but how do you ballot? Season ticket-holders? Too narrow. Entire borough? Risks hi-jacking by Arsenal/Chelsea/Carlisle fans. Even mighty Barcelona face this quandary — how can an ardent Hong Kong based fan make a fully rounded contribution to the democratic foundation of their club? Black and white business decisions are at the heart of modern football and, whilst it remains a chimerical ideal, one wonders whether this is completely germane with a fan led democracy in the majority of cases.

Democracy in football, as elsewhere, is about more than just suffrage but about engagement with and understanding of the issues worrying the fans, however trivial they may be. In order to reach this position a club doesn’t need to be owned by fans, indeed, I’d suggest that its best if this isn’t the case in the majority of circumstances, merely that the owners have in place a governance structure which fosters this engagement. Fans fora, transparency of business dealings and community (and fan run) ventures are all positive tools to encourage this two way dialogue — with it then ruin may never come, without it the most absolute reliance on fans most definitely will.

John McGee
thinks about Carlisle United all the time. His stock in trade is viewing the world of football in embittered fashion with a Cumbrian bias. Seldom does he fail to invalidate an opinion by slipping into lamp-jawed gobshitery. Like any sane man, he prefers his defensive midfielders to read the play and only ever pass sideways.


  1. Lanterne Rouge
    January 25, 2011

    A very strong argument for moderation. My kneejerk reaction is to prefer some kind of fan ownership structure over the scions of Big Business but it's clear that it's a case of horses for courses – I think most of us would be happy to leave the running of the clubs we support to others if they are competent. If not, then mobilization is necessary.

  2. Stanley
    January 25, 2011

    A very thoughtful piece, John.

    One of the major flaws in Louise Taylor's piece was the citation of Ebbsfleet. The MyFootballClub concept is best characterized as a real-life version of Championship Manager, and the involvement of many fans of clubs other than the 'Fleet scuppered it from the beginning.

    I think you're right to recognize that one model doesn't suit every club. The Barcelona way would work well for a Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United. However, the majority of the Football League will have to find other ways. The co-operative model is inspiring, but requires a writedown of ambitions which would be unpalatable for most supporters of medium-sized teams. Meanwhile, arms-length 'consultation' leaves open the possibility of management treating supporters' organizations purely as cash machines to be drawn on in times of need. Personally, I am in favour of fan representation on the board and a role for the Trust as a 'custodian' of shares in the club. This would allow further investment to better the team, but act as a barricade against egotists and fantasists (as in the Notts County/Munto Finance).

    My club, Millwall, operates a system not unlike that which you describe in your final paragraph. And it has been very successful thus far. However, such arrangements are dependent on the continued goodwill and openness of chairman John Berylson. Were he to sell his share of the club, there's no guarantee that they would continue. For that reason, I don't think it's greedy to want a bit more.

  3. unitedite
    January 25, 2011

    Stanley beat me to my point, which was that Ebbsfleet was never fan ownership in its purest form and I think that is the crux of the issue here.

    How may “owners” of Ebbsfleet were actually true fans of the club before? How many actually care what happens? As you point out very well, even those who consider themselves “true supporters” are just as likely to act in self interest as much as the club interest. When there is a lack of emotional attachment that can only increase.

    There is an important role fans can play at their clubs, both interms of ownership and decision making influence, but to do so they must separate themselves from the forum opinionators and provide a clear view of what the majority and not the individual want to achieve.

  4. Michael
    January 25, 2011

    Excellent piece. As you imply, many of the lazier (though most often cited) arguments against fan ownership could be applied equally to the workings of parliamentary democracy. Nobody's suggesting that every single fan votes on every single decison but rather, as happens at FC United, that the supporters have the ability to influence major decisions either by giving their consent beforehand or by removing those responsible for the changes later.

    Unfortunately, there's not much chance of any real engagement, let alone fan ownership, while Ashley and Llambias are in charge of my club.

  5. The Monday Profile: James Berrett | The Two Unfortunates
    September 14, 2012

    […] profile has been penned by John McGee, author of a thought provoking post for us on fan ownership just a few weeks ago and steward of the site, Bring me the Head of Keith […]


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