Torquay United: Providing a Case Against Fans in the Boardroom?

Posted by on Mar 14, 2013 in Uncategorized | 17 Comments
Torquay United: Providing a Case Against Fans in the Boardroom?
Image available under Creative Commons © Jack Tanner

Making his first appearance on these pages, James Bennett considers what fan ownership has done for the club he supports, Torquay United, and wonders whether the club’s recent downturn form is perhaps indicative of a wider malaise.

When a football club is in serious trouble, fans usually look for a reason, a suitable scapegoat for why things have gone so catastrophically wrong. Often there’s a villain or an extraordinary set of circumstances that helps form a good narrative, in order to deflect blame away from the Good People – the players, the manager, the fans. But as a supporter of Torquay United, I cannot help but think the biggest killer of Football League clubs is something that will not be found in the headlines: there are far more examples of teams being relegated to the Conference as a result of complacency rather than corruption, and I fear we are about to join that list.

Rewind to 2007. Our season has its own classic narrative with its own villain – long-time owner Mike Bateson sold the club to a group of mysterious investors led by ambitious figurehead Chris Roberts, who had plans for a new stadium on the site of Torquay Athletic RFC’s Recreation Ground on the seafront (which, it was later revealed, would have led to the football club being renamed Torquay Athletic FC), and wanted to import cheap players from the lower leagues of Eastern Europe. It was a near-disaster and Bateson was forced to return to stop the club sliding into administration. As it was, the team had also descended into farce under the control of the hapless Lubos Kubik, and we ended up finishing bottom, below even Boston United who had 10 points deducted for entering administration at the end of the season.

Bateson sold the club again shortly after, this time to a consortium of wealthy fans (from here on referred to as “the board”). They immediately appointed Paul Buckle as manager and Colin Lee in a director of football-cum-chief executive role. With plenty of money to spend for once, a new squad was assembled and an air of optimism surrounded Plainmoor. Despite failing to get promoted after defeat to Exeter in the play-offs, our average attendance was over 3,000, higher than it had been in League Two.

When 2008-09 started badly, the board were under pressure to sack Buckle, but they stuck it out, and consortium member Paul Bristow, usually referred to as “the Lottery winner”, quietly pumped further money into the squad, which was enough to help us to promotion via the play-offs. The following year, a similar scenario played out – a prolonged struggle, when at one point it looked likely that we would immediately return to the Conference, was corrected by further investment from Bristow, who sadly died just after the end of that season. We finished the season strongly, and this momentum was carried into 2010-11. A late surge led to another play-off campaign, resulting in defeat at Old Trafford to Stevenage. Buckle, though, had already decided to leave for a fateful spell at Bristol Rovers, and an exodus of key players followed.

This was the situation Martin Ling found when he arrived at the club in the summer of 2011. Yet he skilfully built another new squad playing attractive passing football, and what was meant to be a transition season quickly became a promotion campaign. A dramatic late slump in April, though, cost us dearly and we lost in the play-off semi-finals, which brings us to the start of this season…

The conventional narrative states that the problems started here – after selling defender Chris Robertson to Preston in January, the club then offloaded Mark Ellis to Crewe, Bobby Olejnik to Peterborough and Eunan O’Kane to Bournemouth for a total of around £500,000. The only investment in the squad from this was the £70,000 purchase of former loan star Billy Bodin, which was mostly funded by a generous fan who had a particular desire to see the young Welshman at the club.

Why was the money not reinvested? The board, seemingly complacent after a surprisingly good season, chose to revamp the training facilities at the same time as building the new stand, which meant taking money out of the playing squad. In League Two more than any other division, it’s vital to improve the squad to stay still. But last summer, if anything we regressed – the key players weren’t replaced and we were left with a smaller squad than last year, including several youth team graduates and inexperienced youngsters, most of whom clearly weren’t ready to play at League Two level regularly. Midfielder Ian Morris was then ruled out with a long-term injury early in the season and wasn’t replaced.

We didn’t make any signings in January, either – Ling was making hints in his interviews that he wanted money to spend on players so it clearly wasn’t his decision. It’s not until around the time Ling went off sick that the board bothered to do anything – the re-signing of Elliot Benyon on loan felt more like an act of desperation, turning yet again to a former player. You wonder if it was even the decision of the management team…

Ling’s illness remains a turning point, as assistant Shaun Taylor, who stepped in to manage the team, was plainly not up to this task. But it is worth bearing in mind that our form had been going downhill for a long time – it all stems back to the end of last season, when a physically and mentally tired team collapsed after a long season. Ling had always refused to rotate so it was inevitable that something had to give. He had resorted to increasingly defensive, functional tactics over the season, and like Alex McLeish at Aston Villa, it’s difficult to undo the effect that has on a player’s mentality, which is why Alan Knill has a considerable task ahead of him to save us from relegation.

However, I think the narrative misses out some key points. While the management team certainly aren’t blameless, having made numerous errors over the past two seasons, I think the responsibility ultimately lies with the board, and it lies with the manner in which they have run the club, a method which many football fans currently advocate as a good way of running a football club.

Since taking over, the board have maintained a non-interventionist approach, refusing to sack Buckle and Ling when there were considerable calls from the more reactionary fans to do so. In Buckle’s case, it paid off. In Ling’s case last year, it paid off. But this may have only been a short term gain. While football fans hate the idea of sacking someone before their time, an approach of standing back and watching always provides the risk of not reacting quickly enough.

I think the board may have taken the approach too far, even though they set out not to do so at the start. There were two major changes in 2010 which have shaped this situation: the death of Paul Bristow, who bailed us out two years in a row, and the dismissal of Colin Lee, the mediator between the board and the manager. Both of these changes almost certainly widened the gap between the board and first team affairs – there’s little experience of running a football club on the board, which may explain the haphazard way decisions have been made.

Alongside this, everything has been conducted behind a veil of secrecy, seemingly under the principle that “it’s our club so our decisions are none of your business”, which inevitably gives rise to conspiracy theories. For one we are still none the wiser on the reasons behind Ling’s absence aside from that it is a “debilitating illness”, leading to the circulation of rumours.

Without Bristow, there has been limited impetus from the board to make things happen on the pitch. Granted, the infrastructure of the club has improved enormously: a new stand, bearing Bristow’s name, has been erected; the training facilities are being sorted out; the youth system is in a much better shape. But it’s no good having a shiny new stand if you’re in the Conference and there’s no one turning up to sit in it.

To me, it seems the board simply assumed Ling would be fine to pull more rabbits out of the hat as he had done the previous season, and that physio Damien Davey would continue to perform miracles in the treatment room after going through 2011-12 season of no long-term injuries. Football logic suggests going into a season with a weaker, smaller squad than the previous season means you’re not going to be doing as well, but it seems to have passed everyone at the club by. I’m sure Ling must have realised this and it is the mark of the man that he didn’t go off in a huff like many other managers would have done.

But there is another element to the lack of investment which hasn’t been talked about as much, and that is the issue of attendance. I can totally understand why we don’t have the money to build a big squad because of an average attendance of around 2,600, which is the excuse those who defend the board use. But the question that is not being asked is why the average attendance is that low.

Torquay has never been a well supported club – our average attendances rarely creep up above 3,000, which usually only occurs during a stellar season. We’re not the sort of club that conjures up images of fiery encounters or passionate support; we’re more likely to be the sort of club whose long record of playing in the Football League people are surprised by. Torquay isn’t a footballing town in the traditional sense.

But this is no excuse. Wigan prove the idea that a small club will always be small is a fallacy: in 1994-95, they had an average attendance of 1,748, putting them 92nd out of the 92, and now they are an established Premier League club. I’m not suggesting Torquay United can ever be an established Premier League club without a Dave Whelan figure, but to dismiss the idea of growing the club on the basis that we have always suffered from low attendances is defeatist and short-sighted.

For one, the club is simply not promoted well enough in the local area. As in the Bateson era, the few methods used are archaic: the next home game against Chesterfield will see a “bring a woman along for free” offer. The club still has the feel of being stuck in the 1950s. Those running it seem to be content to tread water, as if survival is an achievement; it’s therefore no surprise that people are happy to sit at home and watch ambitious teams on the television, because who wants to watch a team that isn’t bothered about winning?

My own theory is that this has all sprung from that successful first season: the board didn’t have to do anything to get fans through the turnstiles, because people were excited by the new direction the club was taking. They never learned how to get people to turn up. In our second Conference season, the average attendance dropped by 800. The only answer was for Bristow to pump more money into the squad, which worked in the short-term but was never going to be sustainable, especially after his death.

That to me sums this up: the board had and still have the right intentions, but they are running the club like fans. Fan ownership has been promoted as the ideal type for the last few years. But can this work when you have clubs in the same division run by businessmen like Andy Pilley and Tony Stewart who are pumping serious money into their clubs?

Our attendances recovered back in the Football League, probably more a result of higher away followings; but even during our last two seasons in League Two, when we were challenging for promotion, our attendances were nowhere near the heights of the last time we were towards the top of what was then Division Three a decade ago. The warning signs have been there for a long time – have we been too busy enjoying our success to realise that the club was shrinking?

Plymouth’s issues with owner James Brent have overshadowed our plight somewhat; the Argyle Fans’ Trust is doing the right thing by publicly tackling him head on. I think the only aspect preventing our board getting similar flak from the supporters is because the consortium are fans of the club and have been associated with success; our fans are angry but don’t know who to take it out on, because as far as they are concerned, the board are amongst the Good People and should not be cast as the villains.

But for me, it is the board that are responsible for this situation. During the tough times, particularly this season, the board have seemed increasingly out of touch and out of their depth, such as with managing director Bill Phillips’ comments about “our play-off push” while we were clearly plummeting down the table, or chairman Simon Baker finding time to appear on BBC News to talk about his desire for installing a 3G pitch at Plainmoor. The situation feels like it’s out of control and that they have no idea how to rectify it.

Despite all this, my gut feeling is we will survive this season. Relegation battles have a funny way of panning out, and it’s still very close at the bottom of League Two. But it would not be deserved. The seeds for this were sewn a long time ago: a disastrous season like this was inevitable considering the way the club has been run of late.

Even if we do stay up, I am pessimistic about our chances of staying in the Football League long-term, perhaps even beyond next season – key players Rene Howe, Aaron Downes and Brian Saah are out of contract in the summer and will probably walk away for nothing, and it’s difficult to be optimistic about after the botched way replacing similarly important players was handled last season, especially if the managerial situation is unresolved.

But if, as logic would state, we are relegated, we are in serious trouble. This time the Conference would not be the novelty it was for us six years ago. Going down without a fight after a run of dire form, and presumably with the same regime still in charge of running the club, will leave many disenchanted. I have no doubt that if we do go down, crowds will drop further which will make it virtually impossible for us to come back quickly. The Conference is a very tough league – we timed it right leaving when we did. Lincoln and Stockport have been close to ending up in the sixth tier after their relegation, and they are traditionally bigger clubs than Torquay.

As we stand on the brink on what could be a defining moment for the club, the great tragedy of the consortium era thus far is that while at first it looked like this was a clean break from the past, and a period of progression into the 21st century, the result is we have simply slipped back into a state similar to that which the club had been mired in for the past couple of decades, where thrift was prioritised over success. Like the anarchic teenager who became a stereotypical conformist middle-aged man, they have become the exact thing they didn’t want to turn into. It’s doubtful this will change any time soon. It’s difficult to see where our long-term future lies, but at this moment, it seems highly unlikely to be in the Football League.

The Two Unfortunates
The non-partisan website with an eye on the Football League


  1. Kevin Hughes
    March 14, 2013

    I read this with a lot of interest. I’ve possibly been guilty myself of thinking of the Board as “The Good Guys” which I never did when Bateson was at the helm – even though ended up proving beyond doubt that he was one.

    The situation with regards promotion though is one which has caused frustration in me for years. However the playing side is managed, the other side to it had always seemed amateurish and woefully outdated. I suspect it’s a problem many small clubs have where they rely on ex-footballers or fans instead of getting in professionals to promote and run the business end.

    Two points of view about attendances which always wind me up are that Torquay will never achieve larger attendances because of the size of the town, or that if we play decent football and do well the crowds will increase. Both of these have an effect, of course, but there’s much more to it – as other clubs have proven.

    I don’t have the answers, I’m not a marketing person, but I do know that the club should be thinking of this stuff as at least as important as the playing side. More community engagement, better use of the web and social media, make people feel involved, invested in the club. Make the club more visible and the town connected to it and proud of it.

    • James Bennett
      March 14, 2013

      Absolutely agreed. Social media’s a great point – I should have included that. The official Twitter feed is a joke compared to most other FL clubs’ feeds. It’s no longer enough to just tweet goal updates, links to articles on the website (hours after they’ve been published) and the odd “rumour”. Also I’m pretty certain we don’t have an official Facebook page.

      The problem as I see it is that to the club, promotion of matches = special offers for tickets, and that’s nowhere near enough. You need to make people in Torquay and South Devon aware of and interested in the football club to begin with, not just announce special offers on the website and expect people to read it – if they’re not interested, they won’t go on the website to see them. The only people that will pick up on the offers will be the ones that normally go, so rather than increasing attendances, these offers are just pouring more money down the drain. It’s very short-termist and short-sighted.

      The frustrating thing is, from comments from people connected to the club on the online fans’ forums, they think that because they are throwing these offers out there, that’s evidence enough that they are doing enough and therefore we shouldn’t complain. It gives the impression the board are living in a bubble – that they’re not watching what other clubs are doing, or that they’re not talking to current or former fans. Or maybe that they want to be seen to be making an effort, rather than actually making an effort. Or maybe it’s just sheer naivety. I’ve no idea because I’m just an observer, but it’s still clearly being managed very badly. There just seems to be a lack of initiative and no thinking outside the box, and unless they change this, people will continue to drift away from the club with no one turning up to replace them.

  2. Stanley
    March 19, 2013

    As someone who is generally supportive of fan ownership, it is important to be reminded of how it can go wrong. The presence of supporters in the boardroom is no panacea in and of itself: Exeter and AFC Wimbledon, in particular, have been fortunate to find among their crowds people not only with a high level of experience in finance and business management, but the willingness and drive to get involved in running a football club. As you have made clear in your post, James, owners must be judged on their competence and actions, not on the colour of the scarf draped round their neck.

  3. david
    March 20, 2013

    Your argument is selective and full of false assumptions and red herrings (let’s see how long Fleetwood last).

    The major flaw in your argument is that no advocate of fan ownership that I know of has in mind undemocratic control by private owners who just happen to be fans, a la Torquay and formerly Port Vale. That is not “fan ownership” in any meaningful sense of the term. Neither is it the case that most advocates of fan ownership (in the UK at least) RUN the club – i.e that they make day-to-day decisions, whether those decisions involve managers, players, or anything else. That is certainly not the case under the Trust model at Exeter, AFC, Wrexham, Wycombe, Chester, or even Swansea (which is owned by a consortium of individual fans and a powerful Trust – it is the third largest shareholder with a shareholding only 3% less than the largest).

    These clubs are run by a professional board that is overseen by a democratically elected body representing the fans interests. Hardly analogous to your situation.

    Ironically the situation at clubs like Bayern Munich (82% fan owned) Galatasaray (private ownership of football clubs is prohibited in Turkey) and Barcelona is one where fans have more direct influence on club policy than either your ordinary fans or the Trusts at the aforementioned clubs, given that the membership model directly elects important officials with executive powers and in the German model of mixed public/private ownership fans often sit on oversight boards with important decision making powers.

    All the ills you ascribe to the undemocratic “fan ownership” you have at Torquay can be levelled in spades at the model of undemocratic ownership by private individuals who are not fans.that has brought a host of clubs to the brink of disaster – and some beyond it. It wasn’t democratic fan ownership that finished off Chester, Rushden, Telford et al; or that ripped AFC and Brighton from their roots; or that nearly finished off Exeter, Chesterfield, Northampton, Plymouth, Notts County, Grays, Stockport, Kidderminster, Bradford, Swindon, Wycombe, Luton and more; or that may yet finish off Coventry, Portsmouth and I suspect more to come; or that even in cases where clubs aren’t in immediate danger of extinction, has led to them sinking into a moribund state with huge fan dissatisfaction and a poisonous relationship with the owners of their football clubs. Even Chelsea are not immune – I hear more and more Chelsea supporters on radio phone-ins complaining that, “It doesn’t feel like our club anymore” (well you don’t say). You are even seeing what may turn out to be the beginnings of something similar down the road at the Court Of King Brent, with the obvious split in the fanbase and allegations of dissenters being intimidated and threatened in an alarmingly sinister way.

    While it’s possible that some of your specific criticisms are true – notwithstanding the fact that none of them are necessarily the consequence of having the club run by owners who happen to be fans – it’s disappointing to hear a Torquay fan resort to the old “lack of ambition” canard. I thought that was an idiosyncracy of the “woulda/coulda/shoulda be(en) a contender” brigade at Exeter and Plymouth, with our wild exaggeration of our historical significance and the relative size of our populations (which is skewed wildly in our favour by our rural surroundings. The much larger conurbations beyond the arbitrarily defined limits of other cities means their urban areas, which are what really counts, are relatively far larger than those who trot out comforting myths about our cities would have you believe – Plymouth is nowhere near the 14th biggest city in England in any meaningful sense, in the same way that Exeter is not remotely in the ballpark of Reading)i.

    The fact is that our three clubs are either small or middling in football terms and are located in the back of beyond as far as the football industry (and most importantly footballers) are concerned. Your own former manager, Leroy Rosenior, alluded to the problems that causes in attracting and keeping players on the Football League Show, much to the indignation of those fond of talking nonsense about “potential catchment area” and so on. As the respected Guardian journalist David Conn said, while reporting on Argyle’s recent troubles, “huge potential catchment area” is just another way of saying that you are in the miles from anywhere else.

    None of us have established ourselves beyond League 1 in the modern era and in the case of ourselves and your club not even that. Add to all that the importance of Rugby Union, the significant population of transient residents and incomers and a drop in attendances across the board (Brent claims that other chairmen have shown him figures indicating that the true declining trend is as much as a third) then the position you find.yourselves in is hardly an outlandish one, regardless of whether your criticisms of your owners are fair not.

    I’m afraid I see nothing of any substance in your argument that fan ownership per se is the problem rather than the solution.

    • James Bennett
      March 20, 2013

      I think there are two different types of fan ownership that share enough similarities to be considered under the same heading. Yes, it’s not the same as a club being run by a supporters’ trust, but I think it’s still relevant. It’s interesting that our supporters’ trust is now completely invisible, having been formed by frustrated fans under the Roberts regime and initially been quite successful. It feels like most fans are happy enough with the board so don’t see any reason to join. That element of approval is important – whereas supporters’ trust ownership is more democratic, in some ways the regime at Torquay is more like being an Eastern European Communist government, in that the revolution has happened, power is concentrated in the hands of a small group, but they still have the approval of the fans (for now). So while there’s no voting, it’s still fans owning the club, and the majority of fans trust them to be running it – the fans happy with a few people running the club on their behalf to me means that it’s not a world away from supporters’ trust ownership, given that not all fans are members of said trusts anyway.

      The fact is fans are fans and I think that does always give them a different angle on things when they are put in charge of running a football club, especially if they have little experience. The problem I have with the board at Torquay (and this comes back to the “lack of ambition” point) is they seem scared – they don’t want to run the club into a loss because they don’t want to kill the club; they don’t want to have to make risky decisions). This is all well and good but the exact decisions they are making to try and prevent this – e.g. cutting the budgets, not investing in PR, hesitating over bringing in players to push for promotion/survival etc – are in fact killing the club. It’s just happening slowly and without anyone realising. The (perhaps sad) truth is you need an element of risk to get people interested and excited.

      I wasn’t putting Fleetwood up as a positive example – ultimately financial doping is a problem, albeit not a new one. The point is more and more teams are spending increasing quantities of money on playing squads in the lower leagues and we aren’t. That’s not a situation I support but it’s now the reality of Leagues One and Two (and the upper echelons of non-league). It’s not so much an issue of “lack of a willingness to get us to the Premier League” (as that’s highly unlikely to ever happen), but that resting on our laurels and being content to be a League Two club forever will lead us into the Conference and potentially lower, because we’ll be overtaken by the bigger or big-spending clubs below us, and because people who aren’t hardcore fans aren’t interested in a club that, essentially, isn’t all that bothered about winning. You have to move forward to stand still, and certainly have to be seen to be moving forward. and we are not doing this.

      Also I don’t buy the “lack of population/location” argument. Villarreal has a population of 51,000, compared to Torbay’s population of 131,000, and they finished 2nd in La Liga a few years ago and were regulars in Europe. As far as I’m concerned, the sky’s the limit in football and people make too many excuses for why they’re club isn’t doing better. I’m not saying we should throw money at it (as that rarely works immediately anyway) but I think the attitude of a lot of Torquay fans is totally defeatist and the excuses they make up to try and justify this are based on myths, like “we’re a small club and always will be” or “we’re too far away from London/the North West to get players”. The owners seem to be stuck in the same small club mentality, and that’s why the club is shrinking. As I said, in the article you need aim high now, otherwise people won’t be interested.

      Finally, the mention of rugby is interesting – the Exeter Chiefs weren’t all that big until a few years ago but have now played in the Heineken Cup and are an established top-flight club. Surely that’s a good example of how to move forward as a sports club.

  4. david
    March 20, 2013

    BTW, apologies for the typos and lack of fluency. I’m not used to. writing onsmartphones and I see no edit function.

  5. david
    March 20, 2013

    Just one more thing;

    James Brent now claims to be fan of Plymouth Argyle – apparently having managed to studiously avoid football altogether while living in a football-mad country for newrly fifty years, he has apparently been struck by an epiphany and now “gets it”, to the extent that his lip quivers when Argyle lose.

    Now I tend to regard that nonsense as just another example of his skill in spin and cynical manipulation – something you expect to come from an ex-“Master Of The Universe” elite City Banker. However if he’s telling the truth, then by your rationale, Plymouth Argyle are a fan-owned club – Brent is simply an owner who happens to be a fan.

    I suspect Supporter’s Direct would beg to differ on that score.

  6. Kevin Hughes
    March 20, 2013

    So the conclusion of this discussion is pretty simple I suppose. A good board is a good board, and a bad board is a bad board – whether they are fanatical supporters of the club or not is irrelevant?

    Sounds sensible to me.

    A properly implemented trust model, of course, has been shown to be very successful, and is as different to the current situation at Torquay as under any other ownership of the club. There is a Torquay United supporters trust but, if I understand correctly, they don’t own any shares in the club at all.

    • James Bennett
      March 20, 2013

      Ultimately if every club was at least part-owned by a supporters’ trust as in the Bundesliga (and a salary cap too, for what it’s worth), this wouldn’t be too much of a problem. The problem is you have an uneven playing field where some teams are in an arms race, and those who don’t want to get involved in it are getting left behind.

      To a certain extent it is irrelevant whether or not owners are fans, but I think here there’s a certain amount of wanting to protect the club which I think has grown over time and has now become a crippling fear. The board got burned a couple of times, including the Mo Camara situation and the dispute with Colin Lee which both cost the club a lot of money. They’re going to end up running this club like Bateson did. Bateson ironically had the same trajectory during his ownership tenure – the board hit the same stumbling blocks, and instead of trying to resolve them, they’ve shrunk back into their shell and tried to do as little as possible to keep the club in the black. I question the drive of those running the club because it just doesn’t look like they’re interested in anything other than keeping the club in existence, which is a totally counter-productive way of running a football club.

      • Kevin Hughes
        March 20, 2013

        It is a difficult line to draw, though. Of course every fan wants us to be ambitious and successful. I remember, as a much younger person, having an argument in the middle of the Family Stand with Mike Bateson after a horrible defeat (it may have been that 8-1 loss to Scunthorpe). His line was something like “this is real life and we have to be careful” and mine was that it’s not real life – it’s football – and without the ambition, what’s the point?

        But when you see so many clubs going to the wall, or at least coming very close, it’s not difficult to see why the board, faced with the reality of all the figures, are scared to push things too much.

        My main problem, as I mentioned in my reply before, is not about the playing side, but of the club which can often come off as (and I hate to use this term) a bit “Mickey Mouse.” If we want to grow the club, of course the playing side is important, but there’s so many easier ways the club could be more professional in its engagement with the community and its marketing – and that’s how you can build for the future.

        And it’s very linked with the fans/non-fans thing for one simple reason. If we need to attract more supporters – and we do – then the people we need to attract are by definition not fans. So we need people in the club who can see things from non-fans point of view and promote itself to them. There’s no need to market to people like me – we’ll turn up every game anyway.

      • David
        March 21, 2013

        No Bundesliga club is owned or part-owned by a Supporters Trust. As in most other countries clubs where clubs with fan ownership exist (real Madrid, Barcelona and the big clubs in Brazil and Argentina) supporters do not hold their ownership under a Trust umbrella, but directly as members of a private club. Neither are German clubs always part owned by their supporters – Hamburg is an example of a club fully owned by its supporters.

        It ‘s not irrelevant whether clubs are privately owned by individual fans or goups of indicidual fans “to a certain extent” – it’s completely irrelevant. It’s a non-sequitur to say that because a club is owned by fans is failing, all clubs owned by fans are likely to share the same fate. Crystal Palace were brought out of adminstration by aconsortium of wealthy fans, and they are fighting for promotion to the Premier League.

        There is no useful template you can apply to the attitudes and beliefs of the typical fan, beyond a love of the club in question – just about every fans forum or pub discussion will demonstrate that.

        The idea that fans are characterised by excessive caution and a desire to protect their clubs at all costs (which I would argue is a good thing anyway) is patently false. A tendency to knee-jerk reactions and the desire to throw money at a problem is just as typical of the average football fan as the opposing strategy – even more so in my experience. The fact that you are a fan of Torquay and yet you would clearly rule with a different emphasis than the fans curently in control demonstrates that your argument does not stand up..

        You seem to believe you have identified systemic problems in the way Torquay is run. Unfortunately you cannot simply extrapolate your experience to cover all other clubs having even a remotely similar ownership structure; without considering the precise characteristics of each club’s ownership model, or the different contexts in which they operate.

        • James Bennett
          March 21, 2013

          It was never the intention of the article to say “this is why fan ownership doesn’t work everywhere”. The point was more that it’s not the be-all and end-all as is often suggested, especially in a league where some owners are pumping serious money into their clubs and fan-owned clubs (in various forms) have a tendency not to do that.

          And while fans do have a tendency to react in a knee-jerk fashion when talking about football, I suspect that the vast majority would not follow that up when they are in the situation of running a club themselves – fans only say this because they don’t have personal connections with the players, manager and staff; if they did, I doubt they would react so harshly. I think most fans owning a club, bar absurdly wealthy ones like Dave Whelan, would probably be quite conservative and cautious in running a club.

  7. Dave Boyle
    March 21, 2013

    I’d endorse everything David says; this is no more a critique to do with democratic and accountable (the most critical part of fan ownership of all) fan ownership than it is of having owners who are men. James says that this is another model of fan ownership, which is simply an untenable position.

    Clubs have mostly been run by people who were fans for most of their history. The issue though isn’t whether you’re a fan or not, but whether you are accountable to fans as the owners. Without accountability, you have nothing but the new boss promising to be not like the old boss. Accountability gives fans the tools and processes to hold them to these claims.

  8. Lanterne Rouge
    March 21, 2013

    A great debate and I think David’s point about hinterland is quite convincing – perhaps it”s the size of the suburbs and wider conurbation around a city that breeds success rather than the central core – see how the vast majority of Arsenal and Spurs fans seem to come from Essex and Hertfordshire whereas going the same distance out of Plymouth or Torquay will see you in the middle of Dartmoor.

    • James Bennett
      March 21, 2013

      Fair point, but I would add that lot of Torquay fans are exiles anyway, though – there is quite a widespread diaspora. I’m a Torquay fan despite being from South Wales and currently living in Coventry. My dad was from Torbay and moved away to join the RAF. A lot of others have done the same – there aren’t fantastic employment opportunities in the area so they moved away and come back to Torquay to watch the football.

      Interestingly this has been used as an argument against trying to encourage children to come to matches, suggesting that actually a lot of them will move away to go to university and/or to get jobs and may not return, so to focus on trying to attract them as “the future of the club” is a bit of a folly. I think there might be something in it, although obviously not all kids move away.

  9. Mike Gibson
    March 21, 2013

    What an ambling unfocused rant..

    Buckle and Ling deliver great seasons – you moan. The board invest in a stand and training facilities – you moan. So when every season is not as good as the last – you moan.

    Rather than deliver your post-mortem now I suggest you get a grip, stop being a miserable sod, get behind your team, keep them up and then next year when there’s no stand or training work to pay for argue for investment back into the team.

  10. David
    March 26, 2013

    The entire article is based on a strawman argument – nobody is advocating the Torquay model of governance in the first place. Neither Supporter’s Direct, nor The DCMS select comittee on football governance, nor any other advocate of fan representation I know of has ever proposed a model like that of Torquay.

    Your article is the first time I have ever seen the form of governance at Torquay described as “fan ownership” in the generally accepted sense of the term. If the Torquay model actually was an example of this, then there would be no need for anyone to advocate or argue for a move towards such a model at all. After all, it is hardly anything new; neither is it especially unique. Jack Walker, Dave Whelan, Bill Kenwright, Francis Lee, Matthew Harding, Delia Smith, Peter Coates, The Moores family, Michael Foot, Paul Stapleton, Ivor Doble and Steve Gibson, along with Tony Bloom and his grandfather, were/are all fans of the clubs they own/owned, as were the owners of countless other clubs in the past. I think more than a few eyebrows would be raised if it were suggested that the likes of Blackburn, Wigan, Everton, Manchester City, Chelsea, Norwich, Stoke, Liverpool, Middlesborough, Brighton, Plymouth, Exeter (before the Trust era) and many more were all at one time or other examples of fan ownership in action.

    The story of Frank Bristow further illustrates this point, as it bears a far greater resemblance to the private ownership variant of a sugar-daddy doping a football club than it does to one of representative fan ownership. In fact making a football club a hostage to the (mis)fortunes of a wealthy individual (whose supposed largesse is more often than not leveraged against the club in any case) is precisely the sort of thing Trust ownership is supposed to safeguard against.

    Just because Torquay is supposedly being badly run by a consortium of plutocrats/oligarchs who just happen to be individual fans, that has no bearing on the credibility of those who advocate football clubs being owned by organisations offering democratic representation for fans as a whole. The whole point of democratic supporter representation is not for individual supporters to run the club a la Torquay, but to allow them a chance to exercise collective oversight, as a safeguard against the dangers of private owners whose motivations may be different to the fans and whose interests may run counter to their own. In a similar fashion, any citizen of the UK can choose to exert some small influence on the running of the country by voting in general elections, but most of us do not personally get involved in the day-to-day business of government.

    I think the problem arises as a consequence of confusion over different definitions of the noun “fan”. When used to describe the situation at your club ,”fan” is used as a singular noun, referring to an individual supporter of a football club who is part of a small number of other individual supporters each having a personal shareholding. In the Trust model, “fan” is used as a collective noun – the “fanBASE” if you like – where fans are stakeholders in a single collective shareholding. Therefore there are no meaningful similarities between the ownership structure at Torquay and that of a Trust-owned club , or the membership clubs found in other countries, beyond the involvement of individuals who describe themselves as fans.

    “(Torquay) fans (being) happy with a few people running the club on their behalf ” IS a world away from the Trust model. To repeat, the situation at Torquay is constitutionally identical to most other privately owned clubs – whether the private owners describe thimselves as fans or not is immaterial. By your own admission an ordinary Torquay fan can have no formal influence whatsoever on the decisions of the owners, as a Trust member at a Trust-owned club can. Could you vote to reject a relocation/groundshare, as we did at Exeter City?

    Moreover, the idea that the constitutional position of fans under the two ownership models is functionally identical, just because some fans of Trust owned clubs choose not to join, is no different than saying that a democracy and a dictatorship are functionally identical because many people governed under the former choose not to vote. Similarly, by that logic the constitutional situation of the executive of the United States Of America in the nineteen-fifties is very similar to that of Brazil, Argentina and Chile under the military juntas, simply because the heads of state of all four countries were former Generals in their armies.

    While it is correct to say that not all fans are Trust members and not all Trust members are fans, the current Trust Membership at Exeter and AFC is almost identical to their average gates. It might not be a perfect situation, but it’s far better than the situation at most clubs, where there is no meaningful fan representation whatsoever – in the final analysis it’s the private owner’s way or the highway. For one thing, we would have a say in who the club is sold to if we were ever stupid enough to return to private ownership again. If your current board ever sold up, you would just have to cross your fingers and hope the club doesn’t fall into the hands of a slick and plausible asset-stripper like Plymouth’s Brent, or another Vaughan, or another Venky’s, or another human-rights abusing family dictatorship like the Al-Nahyans or the Quataris at PSG. To be fair, the latter scenario sadlydoesn’t seem to bother too many fans these days, as long as some silverware is on offer to disguise the stench of dirty money, such is the corrupting effect of the Premier League.

    I agree that that all clubs have to seriously consider the challenges presented by the funds available to clubs like Fleetwood and Rotherham – which is itself a symptom of the way in which the mega-money at the top is radically changing the landscape of English football to the detriment of small, remote clubs like ours. However you seem to sending mixed messages about the response to this challenge. On the one hand you claim not to advocate profligate spending based on loans from a sugar-daddy, but then in the same breath argue that clubs have no choice but to get involved in a metaphorical “arms race ” .

    I’m afraid this approach is a fool’s errand. It’s worth bearing in mind that, ironically, the actual arms race was possibly the single biggest factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union – the impossible strain of attempting to keep pace with the huge increase in US defence spending under Reagan put catastrophic pressure on the Soviet economy.

    If we are going to try to mitigate the effects of the financial insanity in English football on our clubs, then we have to find an alternative to short-term doping. However it is not an easy task, or a short-term one – and it’s not worth risking the future of our footbal clubs to do it. In my opinion you should never take a risk unless you are prepared to accept the consequences of the worst case scenario. Having been there, done that, worn the T-shirt and nearly seen us succumb to said worst case scenario, I know that gambling with the future of my football club just to feel the warm glow of playing in this or that division is simply not worth it.

    I am still not convinced that the story of Fleetwood and similar clubs will not end in tears anyway, or that the current financial framework of lower-league football will always be so disadvantageous for clubs like ours. For one thing the inexorable logic of the money flowing into the Premier League and the noises that periodically surface from the bigger clubs, is an eventual de facto or de jure closed shop at the top, as in the the US system. Don’t believe that anything so ephemeral as tradition means that, “it could never happen here” – as the saying goes, “there is nothing so constant as change”. We’ve already heard the head of the League Managers Association warn that the foreign owners in the Premier League are actively discussing this prospect. There have also recently been calls to address the danger of the new TV contract and increased parachute payments entrenching a revolving door of a few clubs becoming actual or potential Premier League clubs. I would argue that this has already happened to a degree.

    On top of that, we have the ever-present spectre of a European Super League – something that is openly called for by the presidents of Barcelona and Real Madrid and that is viewed synpathetically in other parts of Europe. In fact there are many football figures who believe it is inevitable – Arsene Wenger has said it will happen within ten years and Clarence Seedorf said something similar fairly recently.

    If (in my opinion when) the top clubs break away, the financial incentive for the smaller clubs left behind to spend far beyond their means will disappear and then hopefully we can all return to a time when success was earned and built on the quality of your personnel and strategy, rather than being bought by often dirty money. Even if I am wrong about an eventual closed shop and/or breakaway at the top, it is clear that the current scenario of administration after administration, crisis after crisis and the majority of clubs being only one adverse event from disaster, cannot continue indefinitely.

    I’m afraid I fundamentally disagree with your proposition that, in football, “the sky’s the limit”. This claim seems to completely ignore the modern reality of professional football in England, where the historic rules that once promoted equal competiton have been swept away. The Maximum Wage, Revenue Sharing, Tied Contracts, Retain-To-Trade and so on are no more. Consequently the odds are stacked against clubs overcoming the sort of natural disadvantages that stand in the way of small clubs like Fleetwood and ourselves; disadvantages that were previously alleviated by the aforementioned rules.

    I’m afraid we are now fully exposed to the handicaps of existing in a backwater region like Devon and Corwall, of which the rest of the football industry knows little and cares less, not to mention the problem of living alongside a powerful competing sport like rugby. Without being prepared to suffer the potentially near-fatal consequences of the steroid abuse that the contemporary phenomenon of financial doping so resembles, there is only so much you can do to buck that trend. How many clubs modern era have raised themselves much beyond their historic position without huge sums of money being spent? It seems to me that the answer is a big fat zero.

    You claim that the example of Villareal discredits my theory and demonstrates that if only small, unfashionable clubs like ours could get the right people in the boardroom and the right strategy in place then they too could rise to the top. In fact the opposite is true. Were it not for the 60 million Euros and rising that the ceramics magnate Fernando Roig pumped into the club, they would never have got anywhere near the brief European success they enjoyed and would almost certainly have never even escaped the Liga Adelante, to which they have now returned with debts exceeeding 20 million Euros. Prior to Sr. Roig’s intervention Villareal were playing in the Spanish second tier to crowds of the order of those watching a medium sized club in the BSP, in a stadium with a capacity of 3’000 that would not be allowed in the Football League.

    The fact that a side like Villareal once managed to survive in the Spanish second tier at all should hint at the other major flaw in your argument – namely that the context of Spanish football outside the top flight is vastly different than that of the UK. As a result, any comparison between the likes of Villareal and a lower league club in this country is meaningless to begin with.

    The Segunda Division (currently the Liga Adelante) contains few sides with attendances above 10’000 – and many with attendances significantly less than that. The lower leagues also contain reserve teams that can never be promoted, making competiton for promotion and an eventual challenge for the top flight far less intense than it is over here. In fact, you only have to go to the third tier of Spanish football to find feeder leagues, consisting of largely amateur sides. I would fancy even the chances of Exeter City or Torquay getting to the Premier League, let alone the Championship, if the Spanish system pertained in England.

    Of course there is also a radically different scenario in the Spanish top-flight itself. The fact that individual TV rights are negotiated in Spain, along with the unique political and cultural importance of Real Madrid and Barcelona, das a consequence of the legacy of the Spanish Civil War, means that those two clubs suck away 60 per cent of TV revenue and a vast proportion of other commercial income. That situation is exacerbated by the curious supporter culture in Spain, which means that although it is a football-mad country, only a few other regions and clubs have a strong local following – Valencia, the Seville clubs, the Basque region and so on. Consequently it is not unusual to find clubs in La Liga with attendances of 10’000. That makes it all the easier for a finacially doped small club like Villareal to make it to the heights of the European slots not occupied by the top two.

    The Exeter Chiefs are an equally bad example to hold up – partly for similar reasons to Villareal. The league system in Rugby Union is also vastly skewed towards the Premiership – the Championship contains amateur teams and you only have to get to the third tier to find sides playing on virtual recreation grounds. It is also the case that the Chiefs were punching below their weight for years, hamstrung by a ramshackle ground that was tightly surrounded by residential property making it uneconomic to improve, with poor access, poor transport links and no parking. The upside of that was that the County Ground was hugely valuable as residential development land, as those problems were a result of being located close to the centre of a city with relatively high house prices. Precisely because the Chiefs were not trying to survive in the insane financial context of football, they had been able to hold onto their ground, unlike ourselves and Plymouth. The cool 20 million pounds they pocketed when their ground was sold is not exactly unrelated to their present success.

    Of course, they are in a far better position than the region’s football clubs anyway, due to the importance of rugby in the region. The South-West is an important centre of the rugby industry, whereas it is a remote backwater of the football world. When I first moved to Exeter, I was horrified to find that football was looked down on at my new state school as an uncouth game for the great unwashed and banned from the school curriculum. It was a case of rugby first, rugby second, rugby third and cricket in the summer.

    I’m not saying that the likes of Torquay and Exeter should just give up, but we need to readjust our horizons to reflect modern realities, stop tilting at windmills and realise that flirting with the BSP is nothing outlandish for clubs of our size. Even before the Premier League reached the peak of its malign influence on lower league football, we both veered very close to the non-league on more than one occasion before we actually ended up there. We would probably have done a great deal more than flirt, a lot more often, had the lack of automatic promotion and relegation to and from the Football League not distorted the true hierarachy, with well-supported clubs like Yeovil being denied league football for no other reason than historical happenstance.

    Private ownership is the model that has been in the ascendancy in the UK during all the time that the lives of clubs like ours have been made more and more difficult, when more and more clubs have faced the abyss and where the prospect of living the dream of rising thorough the leagues against the odds has become more and more remote. The true sugar-daddy model is a relatively recent innovation in the grand scheme of things. It is also a reasonably rare one – true supporter ownership is far more common in the football world as a whole.

    Many of the intangible and lasting benefits of supporting a football club for it’s own sake are just as important as the tangible rewards of fleeting success, if not more so, especially when that success is cheapened by doping. In fact the article about Rotherham you linked to makes just that point, so I’m unsure why you linked to it in the first place. The writer eloquently expresses his disillusionment and alienation in the face of a shiny new era that is happy to embrace the likes of Steve Evans and which seems to have abandoned the fundamental essence of the club in the rush to embrace empty success. I think I know exactly what he means – I always say that there is more to a football club than league position. For that reason I would never give up the i benefits of supporter ownership, no matter what carrot was dangled in front of my face. I’d rather be in Conference South under fan ownership than have odious men like the Al-Nahyans, Abramovich, or Alisher Usmanov buy my club the Champion’s League.

    If your analysis of the problems at Torquay are true, then of course I’m sympathetic. In a non-patronising way I quite like Torquay. Ironically, one of the reasons is that, unlike ourselves and Plymouth, most Torquay fans seem realistic about their position and don’t resort to the delusion that the club is somehow punching below its weight and that if only you could find a way, then you would surely achieve your mythical “rightful place”. However by blaming a fan ownership model that doesn’t actually exist, you are simply tilting at the wrong windmill. In fact I believe that true fan ownership would be good for you in many ways. After all, it’s not worked out too badly for ourselves, AFC, Wrexham and Chester, has it?


Leave a Reply to Dave Boyle

Cancel Reply