Now’s the right time to embrace the fans’ Power
Matt Arnold believes that supporter representation in the corridors of power at the County Ground is not only an aspiration we should all hold, but it is also a workable solution to increase transparency between clubs and their supporters.
When I read Vic Morgan’s blog ‘Supporters representatives let’s have a heated debate’, I was reminded of another heated debate. It was 20 years ago and took place between irate fans and then Swindon Town Chairman Ray Hardman. It can be seen here, as part of Carl Ross’s excellent Channel 4 documentary ‘That’s Football’ which followed Town during our Premiership promotion winning season.
The cause of the supporters ire? The sale of full back David Kerslake to Leeds for £500k. He was a wide man flogged for under-market value during a promotion push, which all sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it Mr Richie…? In the era of Twitter spats, the public row now seems almost endearingly quaint. On camera, Ray Hardman insists “I’m a fan, of course I’m a fan”. And given, the passion with which he delivers the words, not to mention the accent, you are inclined to believe him. In hindsight, I feel for Hardman as the match-day malcontents set about him with gusto. This made me wonder, when was the last time we had a genuine, dyed in the wool, Town fan on the board?
Neither Lee Power or Sangita Shah are. Jed, as I think anyone who meets him, however briefly, will soon learn he was originally ‘a Luton boy’. Willie Carson only seemed to have eyes for his horses and Jeremy Wray might love Town now, but he is a Hammer. I’ve no idea who William Patey supported as boy, but I’d wage a hefty sum that it wasn’t us. Telltale accents again. So despite Vic’s misgivings, isn’t it time a real Town fan at the top table once again?
For much of the 20th century football club boardrooms were, by and large, dominated by successful local men with links to their club. Not all these captains of regional industry or splasher of inherited wealth were successful, even fewer were popular. But you knew who they were. And you could tug your forelock or publically chide accordingly. As Mr Hardman discovered. Now we have clubs run by offshore hedge funds, Russian oligarchs, Malaysian billionaires, and, yes, former professional footballers.
Some teams have spent the early part of this century being traded like Panini stickers by a succession of shady businessmen with no connection to the club in question. Portsmouth, now in the hands of their supporters trust, is one which springs to mind. And their tale is hardly unique. Do Leeds fans know who runs their club? Do Coventry’s? Does Cardiff City manager Malky Mackay? At a time when football gets more exposure than ever, who actually controls clubs is becoming ever more opaque. This is why I’ve’ve long been a proponent of real fan representation at board level.
The blog argued that “We buy cars but we don’t demand a voice in the Ford, Chrysler etc boardroom”. Some people, it’s true, love their motors, perhaps a little too much. But it’s hardly the same. You can change your car, you can’t change your club. To use an ugly, modern phrase, forgive me but we’re discussing the business of football, few companies worldwide inspire the sort of ‘brand loyalty’ football fans have for their teams. It’s ingrained, passionate and life long. It’s also, at the top level, incredibly lucrative. No wonder everyone, from American businessmen to Indian poultry farmers wants a piece of it. So, while the ‘leave the politics to the boardroom, concentrate on the football’ argument is seductive, it’s also I think flawed.
Now more than ever, when new owners, seemingly on a whim, can change a club’s colours, their name or even move them to Milton Keynes. Fans need a real voice, and perhaps just as crucially, a real ear at board level. All good in theory, but, as Vic rightly wonders, how would it work? We’d all own the club, and every time there was a decision to make, be it sacking a manager or whether to get rid of that god awful music we play after goals, would we all pile into the Legends’ Lounge for a show of hands? No, of course not. I doubt there would be room for us all for starters. Especially not with the hot dog trolley and piano that have mysteriously sprung up recently.
We could of course do it digitally, debate and decide every aspect of running the club online. A modern and inclusive solution, but as Ebbsfleet United found out – through myfootballclub.co.uk – the appeal can quickly fade. For one thing though we might all find time to vote on everything, would any of us really put in the hours doing the sort of research that would make each tick of the box an informed decision? I know I wouldn’t.
So, my ideal model would be this. The fans holding a stake in the club, say 30%, and are represented on the board by a representative drawn from the fan base, elected on a simple ‘one member one vote’ basis. Anyone could stand, as long as they were a member. That person would serve for one, or maybe two, seasons, before standing down or facing re election. That representative would be tasked with going to board meeting, raising our concerns and praises; and letting us know what was being discussed by those who run our beloved club.
A concern raised was how could one fan speak for all 7,000 plus of us regular supporters? Well, via a dedicated site, we could discuss and vote prior to each meeting, we could essentially raise, at board level, whatever we choose. See that’s the thing about ‘fan representation’ that gets forgotten, it isn’t all about politics, ownership and big picture stuff. It’s about improving our club on every level; moulding Town as the people who really matter, us, want.
On Saturday, the TrustSTFC twitter account asked fans what’s the one thing you’d change about STFC? I see that the replies were varied, while some wished, inevitably, for a benevolent billionaire with little business sense and a lifelong love of the Town, other concerns were more prosaic: better food and more modern match-day music were seen as key to some, whilst the more thorny issue of safe standing was also raised. The beauty of the fans rep is this, you could have a streamlined, ordered way of raising, and addressing such concerns with the club. Like a Trade Union rep for supporters, or a MP for the County Ground constituency. But without the expense account.
We, as Town fans, talk more than ever. The internet has opened up the channels of communication between us in a way that simply wasn’t possible in the past. For example, when the make up of Jed’s original board room was revealed (and who among us, can honestly say, we don’t still occasionally pine for Callum Rice) it was posters of the TownEnd forum not the media who were first to publically dig into their background. Why not use the passion and technology we all have at our disposal as fans in 2013, to organise, and help run the club we all love? Perhaps best not ask Ray Hardman to join though….
For more on the case for supporter involvement please visit http://www.supporters-direct.org/homepage/research/supporter-share-ownership