Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn thinks that football fans should have more control in the running of their clubs.
Is this a good idea, or would it actually cause more problems in football, such as seeing more teams being liquidated?
TUXtra reporter Adam Hassell analysed Labour’s plan, with the help of experts at Spennymoor Town Football Club and a Middlesbrough Football Club supporters’ group.
Mr Corbyn has recently made comments about the running of football clubs saying “clubs are part of the social fabric that binds us together.”
He said in early October: “A football club is more than just a club, it is an institution at the heart of our communities.”
“They are too important to be left in the hands of bad owners, who put their business interests ahead of everything else, marginalise supporters and even put the financial security of clubs at risk.”
To counteract this he has pledged that a Labour Government would:
- Legislate to give supporters’ trusts the power to appoint and remove at least two members of a club’s board of directors.
- Legislate to enable supporters’ trusts to purchase shares when clubs change hands.
At least 43 football clubs throughout the entire English pyramid are already fan-owned, normally through one of three main ways:
- Protest: for example AFC Wimbledon vs MK Dons. AFC Wimbledon were formed as a protest at the former Wimbledon rebranding and relocating to Milton Keynes, under the new name of MK Dons.
- Phoenix: for example Scarborough Athletic. The original Scarborough liquidated in 2007, and so a new club was formed out of the ashes, with a similar yet different name of Scarborough Athletic.
- Supporter buy-out: for example Wycombe Wanderers. Wycombe were in financial trouble and liquidation seemed an inevitability, so then a group of supporters, with funding from many other supporters, bailed out the club before it went bust.
Of these, only Exeter City, Wycombe Wanderers, Newport County and AFC Wimbledon compete in the English Football League (EFL), but none of these sides are higher than the 3rd tier.
Six are partially fan-owned, with a minority supporter ownership allowing fans to have their say on the running of the club and this being valued by the majority owners.
Only Accrington Stanley, Carlisle United and Grimsby Town are EFL clubs, but again none of these sides compete higher than the 3rd tier of English football.
No team in the Premier League or Championship, the two top divisions in English football, or wholly or partially fan-owned.
Bury, who were expelled from the EFL in August 2019 due to unsettled debts due to “bad ownership”, were fan owned from 2002 after the club entered administration, but the fans’ stake was ultimately bought out in 2013.
They are due in the high court later in 2019 and could face liquidation.
In 2019 alone, in the top five English leagues, Bury, Bolton Wanderers, Southend United, Notts County, Macclesfield Town, Ebbsfleet United and Gateshead have all been “within days” of potential administration or even worse, liquidation.
We approached the Premier League, the EFL and the National League, who between them govern the top six divisions of English football, for comment, but they all politely declined to speak on the issue.
Sixth-tier side Spennymoor Town are themselves a phoenix club, after Spennymoor United were reborn by merging with Evenwood in 2005, who were on the verge of folding in the same year.
Spennymoor Town’s managing director, Tony Wilson, was very candid when talking about the fortunes of the previous Spennymoor club.
He said: “It was owned by an owner who, maybe, wouldn’t have passed some of the stringent financial regulations that are around now.”
“That is the key: if we have good audit processes to make sure that the people who own football clubs are doing it for the right reasons and are passing the regulations for the right reasons, we wouldn’t have been in that position.”
Watch Tony have his say on Corbyn’s proposals at Spennymoor’s home ground, the Brewery Field, along with volunteers at the fan-led Middlesbrough supporters’ group, RedArmyTV here.
A potential solution to this problem could be for football clubs in this country to adopt a policy like Germany’s ‘50+1’ Rule.
This rule, in short, ensures that fans hold a majority of a clubs’ own voting rights. Under German Football League rules, football clubs will not be allowed to play in the Bundesliga, the German top-flight, if commercial investors have more than a 49 percent stake.
This ensures that profit is never a priority over the supporters’ wishes, and protects a team from the risk of potential reckless owners.
RedArmyTV’s Dave Roberts thinks that this is “an interesting concept” but also describes himself as a “different fan to be asking for.”
As well as being the founder of RedArmyTV, the only fan-led football TV channel in the world, he used to have sporting jobs around the globe, for the likes of the BBC, Sky Sports and Fox.
When he was at Fox, he was tasked with leading the business development in acquiring football clubs, football businesses and football competitions in Asia.
Dave said: “I think that’s probably why my views on ownership by supporters in football clubs is skewed against, because I’ve looked at business models, revenue generation models for the football industry and I think if you have a bunch of fans sitting behind that decision-making boards, there will be problems; they won’t make the right decisions.”
“I can see the benefits from a fans’ perspective because they’d have more of a say and more of a feel of ownership in their own club, but again it comes back to the running and the administration of a club.
“We have some clubs in the UK which are really poorly administered, but I still think at the end of the day, the majority of clubs need to be run from a business perspective, from a financially sound perspective and any decision-making has to weigh up risk as well as reward and I don’t think fans are best placed to make those decisions.”
If Jeremy Corbyn and Labour get into power in the 2019 General Election, then we may see these promises legislated, but if it would do more good than bad for football clubs throughout the English league system is still up for debate.
Trainee Sports Journalist at Teesside University.