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Does the Supporters Direct cash crisis matter?

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Dan Roan | 12:06 UK time, Wednesday, 15 June 2011

As @RyanBabel, @Carlton9Cole, @WayneRooney, and @jack_wilshere know all too well, the trouble with high-profile tweeting is that comments forged in the heat of the moment can, when viewed in the cold light of day, appear rash and unwise. Even a 'DM' can come back to bite you, as @RioFerdy5 discovered last week.

Humiliation, condemnation and even a hefty FA fine can swiftly follow.

But spare a thought for @theboyler. His injudicious tweeting cost him his job, and set in motion a chain of events that have now become one of the most emotive issues in the sport and even the subject of a Facebook campaign.

Dave Boyle was, until the weekend, Chief Executive of Supporters Direct (SD), the organisation born out of the policy commitments of the previous Government, and which encourages fan ownership, helping supporters to establish trusts like the one which now owns 20% of Swansea City.

Boyle had worked on many campaigns since joining SD in 2000, including the founding of AFC Wimbledon.

Following the phoenix club's hugely symbolic promotion to the Football League, Boyle got carried away and, in heady celebration, tweeted some obscene and offensive remarks, directed at MK Dons Chairman Peter Winkelman, a central figure in the original Wimbledon club's relocation to Buckinghamshire, along with a lawyer who had been involved with the decision to allow the move.

Supporters Direct and Dave Boyle worked closely with AFC Wimbledon to assist the club in getting promotion to the Football League. Photo: PA

Supporters Direct and Dave Boyle worked closely with AFC Wimbledon to assist the club in getting promotion to the Football League. Photo: PA

Then matters got more serious. The Premier League-financed Football Stadia Improvement Fund (FSIF) on which SD depends, felt that Boyle had not been disciplined adequately, and concluded it "no longer had confidence in its (SD's) leadership and judgement". Boyle resigned, but funding of £1.2m was then withdrawn, putting SD's very existence in jeopardy.

So how much does SD matter, and should we care about its plight?

As this excellent blog by my colleague Matt Slater proves, the fan-ownership movement in football (and more recently rugby league) has had its fair share of ups and downs. But what is certain is that over the last decade, SD has helped establish nearly 200 supporters' trusts and has close to 300,000 members, forging a democratic model for mutual fan involvement. In doing so, it has managed to accumulate an enormous amount of knowledge and expertise which supporters groups can tap into when it comes to the often overwhelming task of saving their club from crisis and potential extinction. How to quickly establish a trust as a legal entity, raise funds, find a decent insolvency practitioner, deal with creditors. SD had the answers, and developed a model that proved invaluable to countless fans from as far afield as Chesterfield and Chester to AFC Wimbledon and Wrexham.

SD's supporters insist that not only is the organisation essential, it represents good value, with just 9 staff, 2 offices and a total annual budget of £800K. SD match-funds the start-up costs of new trusts up to £1k and pays the registration fees trusts must pay to become industrial and provident societies. It recently arranged a volume deal with a Manchester firm to do this, a good example of how their collective knowledge and bargaining power helps.

Quite apart from the advisory and financial role it carries out, at a time when the sport continues to find financial prudence difficult to achieve, SD's ethos of living within one's means appears as relevant as ever.

Supporters of SD stress that its campaigning work is far from over, with the goal of proper supporter representation on every board still a long way off. SD, they stress, must keep making the case for sustainability at a time when there have been more than 50 insolvencies in professional football in the last 20 years.

Others however, believe that SD's work is now done, and that the sport can survive without it. After all, the FSIF says that funding is still available to individual trusts, who can apply directly on a case-by-case basis rather than through the conduit of SD. This could be satisfactory for an established body like the Arsenal Supporters' Trust, led by highly-qualified and well-connected finance and media professionals. Perhaps less so at somewhere like Southend or Telford where SD's guidance has proved crucial. SD would also argue that such a system would encourage trusts to toe the Premier League's line.

Some have suggested that SD, as the one true voice of fans, was becoming a thorn in the side of the Premier League, whose leadership gleefully and callously exploited the opportunity that Boyle handed them to remove a talented critic, and put the organisation firmly in its place. Despite its official neutrality on the issue of ownership models, few would deny that the capitalist outlook of the international billionaire investors and sugar-daddies that own most Premier League clubs are at odds with the community-based philosophy that SD promotes. Some would add that the League's concerns over SD's governance is a little rich given their handling of crises at Portsmouth and West Ham in recent times.

For years Boyle was granted the license enjoyed by a student politician, tolerated by those who disagreed with him but who felt unthreatened. But with the DCMS inquiry into football governance expected to strongly back SD's demand for greater fan power, and the recent success of clubs with prominent trusts like Chester, AFC Wimbledon, Telford, FC United and Swansea City boosting SD's cause yet further, did Boyle and his colleagues get too influential, too popular with the media and politicians? In short, did the Premier League feel that the organisation it financed had got too big for its boots?

The League strongly deny this, pointing out that they have generously funded SD when no one else wanted to, praising its "commendable" work, and stressing that the decision to withdraw funding was taken in conjunction with other FSIF Board members. Spokesman Dan Johnson told the Guardian, "No one at the Premier League or in the broader football authorities is anti the Trust movement. The FSIF funding pot remains intact for the broader Trust movement - whether that includes SD or not going forward depends on meetings yet to be had."

Others will argue that the funding SD receives is little more than 'guilt money', and that the Premier League deserves little credit for buying goodwill, the very least the Premier League, with its annual revenues of £2bn, should do. But there is little doubt that many find it surprising that SD was so compromised by depending on the Premier League for its money, and should have found alternative, more independent sources of finance. Has its leadership brought all this on themselves, they ask, by being so vocal in their criticism of the way football is run, and biting the hand that fed them.

For what it's worth, my understanding is that talks between SD, the Premier League and the FSIF have every chance of reaching an agreement in the coming days, and funding could well be restored, saving SD and the jobs of those who work there. Certainly is not in the Premier League's interests to be accused of spitefully bringing down such a well-regarded body as SD just weeks before the Government makes recommendations on how the game should be run.

Those of a more cynical disposition may argue that this was the Premier League's intention all along, enabling them to gain the moral high ground at the perfect time while reminding their opponents exactly who is boss. Others will simply see the reinstatement of funding and the salvaging of an important organisation as a victory for common sense.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    I think what FSIF did in withdrawing funds was outrageous and it seems to me that they used Boyle's outburst as an excuse. Football needs these kinds of initiatives at grass roots level to eventually effect change at a higher level. One wonders who was behind this decision. I hope the Premier League sort this out as SD has been a fantastic initiative.

    I personally thought what happened to Wimbledon when they were moved to MK despite fans' opposition was disgusting and showed what truly damaging ownership is capable of. With so many foreign owners in the game fans need more than ever to be protected.

    That Wimbledon managed after several years to finally regain league status was fantastic to see and deserving of immense national praise. And I hope to see FC United reach the same heights. I look forward to the day when Wimbledon pushes past MK in the league.

  • Comment number 2.

    I think any response has to start where you finished off, Dan. For my money, the PL and their convenient frontman FSIF have been completely cynical here and it was always a divide and conquer scenario for them.

    The first question you have to ask is what exactly is all this to do with the Premier League? Was it their decision to allow Wimbledon to be uprooted to MK that Boyle was criticising? No. That decision was made by the FA and you only have to read David Conn's book to know that the decision to allow this stank like 5 day old roadkill.

    Boyle may have been foolish (with the superb benefit of hindsight) but, as a Wimbledon fan, is he not allowed to have a partisan opinion on this?

    In doing this, the FSIF have simply confirmed what football fans really knew deep down anyway: that the role of the PL is to milk fans dry, make loads of money for themselves, not care for the good of a football as a whole but to hand out a few sweeties here and there so long as you're politically acceptable and can tow the party line.

  • Comment number 3.

    The only reason AFCW and FCUofM do so well is that they have a massive wave of support in the media and therefore get a massive cash injection (same with Gretna to some extent although that was also because Brookes Mileson was rich at that level) - look at Blyth Spartans and Whitley Bay and you'll see what's it's like when you're not media-darlings. Bay have won the FA Vase 3 years in a row but because they rest in the shadow of NUFC and a lesser extent Sunderland they get next to no coverage.

  • Comment number 4.

    The Premiership is an Evil Empire. It should be crushed and the remnants cast to the winds.

  • Comment number 5.

    #3 Actually FC United are doing well because of a huge groundswell of antipathy towards the Glazers' ownership and the fact that not only had a number of fans had enough of their cynical approach to ownership, many United fans put their hand in their pocket to finance them. The media didn't preempt this, fans vocal and visible outrage pushed the media to take notice. Plus anything United sells stories as you know;)

    They also benefited from AFC Wimbledon's experience and advice in starting the club up.

  • Comment number 6.

    #3 AFC Wimbledon and FC United also have a lot more fans than the likes of Blyth Spartans. They are the ones who consistently provide the cash for clubs like ours to flourish, not the media.

  • Comment number 7.

    Dan,

    At Liverpool FC and the Spirit of Shankly in particular, Dave Boyle has given much assistance.

    He helped the Spirit of Shankly supporters' union in its approach to the current owners about supporters acquiring a share of LFC, and in so doing gaining a real influence in the boardroom, and also directly advised the Club on its recent appointment of fans to a supporters' committee set up by LFC.

    It looks to us that the PL have taken the opportunity to use this error of judgement by Dave to emasculate SD at a time when it is needed more than ever.

    At SOS we hope our Club will do what is right and say to the PL that the funding should be maintained and in so doing securing a valuable resource at all levels of the game for supporters to get involved and in some cases take back their clubs.

  • Comment number 8.

    When Wimbledon moved their club to MK there was an enormous outcry (and rightly so), I wonder if there was as much of a hoo-hah when the directors of Woolwich Arsenal decided to move from South-East London to Highbury?

  • Comment number 9.

    I've been directed here by Andy Slaughter MP (see why here - [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]
    Probably the most useful he's been. Good article.

  • Comment number 10.

    As I'm not a complete saddo I don't subscribe to the likes of Facebook and Twitter so haven't read what Dave Boyle wrote. However, as an employment lawyer (and so probably a saddo), quite how somebody can lose their job as the result of voicing what I presume was an opinion is beyond me unless the comment was defamatory, breached confidentiality or brought Supporters Direct into disrepute. A lot will of course depend on what his contract of employment said about the use and misuse of social networking sites.

    That being said, under article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights there is a right to freedom of expression so an employee is allowed to make negative comments about his employer so long as the remarks are not damaging.

    One of these days football will hopefully start to live in the real world and not think it's a law unto itself.

  • Comment number 11.

    8# Unfortunately there's no one alive today that could tell us that because it happened in 1913. Even if there wasn't, there should've been. But perhaps football fans relationship with their club wasn't as close in earlier decades of professional football, than it has been since.

    Any football historians out there that could answer that, just for historical interest?

  • Comment number 12.

    You cant go around using expletives on twitter if you want to be taken seriously but to withdraw funding from a whole organisation because of the actions of one man is ludicrous. The idea remains a positive one. The football authorities however talk a good game on this issue but will take any oppurtuinity to make life more difficult for supporters groups. What is needed is government intervention but it will be a cold day in hell before we see that from a Tory administration.

  • Comment number 13.

    Who is it that supports MK Dons? Residents of Milton Keynes? Or fans of Wimbledon FC?

    I honestly don't know? With MK being a new town, makes me wonder what are the most successful New Town football teams out there?

    Strange.

  • Comment number 14.

    Boyle was out of line. But he has since resigned. Leaving no proper reason to cut the funding. I think the Premier league have been looking for any excuse to withdraw the funding. Increased "Fan power" is what they fear the most. The Premier league has only got away with ignoring fans because we let them (if we don't go to matches or purchase cable and satellite subscriptions the sponsors and TV guys would head for the nearest exit).

    SD is first time where fans are properly organised and will actually do things that make the clubs sit up and notice us. They've realised that we will turn on them and stop spending our money on the "Golden goose" that is the premier league.

    One man's bad comments who is no longer head of that organisation shouldn't be an excuse to cut the organisation's funding. Otherwise there are plenty of organisations within football that should have tax breaks, charitable status and funding cut.

  • Comment number 15.

    There seems to be an opinion here that capitalism is directly at odds with the aims of Supporters Direct. Well, it's not. I'm a capitalist who totally supports the work of Supporters Direct. The problem is that football was once a sport, which has now become a business. Should it be a business or should it be sport? If it is a business then businesses should be allowed to move location as they please and generally do whatever they want to maximise profit. But, in my opinion, football should be a sport, which requires competition on a level playing field for it to be meaningful, which in turn requires fairness (i.e. a more equal distribution of income).

    With specific regard to the aims of Suporters Direct, clubs need to remember that they would not exist without the support of their fans in the days before television money. And that, regardless of television money, they will be far better off in the long-term if they do not alienate their fan base.

  • Comment number 16.

    English football needs SD now more than ever. We also need the like of Dave Boyle in the game. He made a mistake and I expect he has learnt from it. For an organisation of that size, the impact they had on an industry that turns over billions is astonishing. He was the Chief Executive and should be highly commended for what they have achieved. A slap on the wrist would be sufficient. The Premier League will do what they intended all along... get Boyle out of a job, make a big song and dance about "who is the boss" and then act like they are superheroes by re-instating funding.

  • Comment number 17.

    Why should the PL care what the great unwashed peasants think? It stole the game off them in 1992, turned it into a business empire worth billions and thought 'to hell' if the smaller clubs perished. Elitism rules, darling!

    The only way that the PL will listen is when the great unwashed come to their senses and go down to the local non-league side instead of driving miles to Old Trafford and Anfield etc. to see a bunch of overpaid chumps who are only there for the money and whom couldn't give a stuff about the fans. Non League is cheaper, more family and community friendly and you get to meet the players after. I can't see Wayne Rooney or Frank Lampard opting to down a pint with fans in the clubhouse!

    At the end of the day, people power will decide. The people just have to be woken up first.

  • Comment number 18.

    Biting the hand that was feeding them? Politically naive.

    Never looking for alternative sources of funding? Stupid.

  • Comment number 19.

    The timing from the PL/FSIF is amazing. Just as there is a DCMS inquiry into Football Governance with SD submitting 2 papers to Parliament last month, which can be seen on the SD site, implying that supporters should be given a bigger say in how football is run at the FA/FL/PL as well as their local clubs, they withdraw SD's funding due to an 'offensive tweet', which was done in the heat of the moment, on his personal account, watching his team get their FL place spot back after it was 'stolen' from them 9 years ago. Dave Boyle has been a driving force at SD, and it's a pity that he has been made to resign. I just hope we do not lose his expertise in football administration as he could show a number of people at the FA a thing or two.

  • Comment number 20.

    First of all Dan, this is an excellent blog, especially in comparison to some of the others I have today had the misfortune to read.

    I knew nothing about DCS until this blog came out, but I believe that a service like this, which is cost efficient is required to help supporters establish their goal of part or full ownership of their club.

    I think again the EPL have shown a complete disregard for the fans and the clubs in the lower leagues.

    On a side note (and w/o going into the morality of it all) having been to see Wimbledon at Selhurst and MK Dons, there is a stronger level of support and energy at MK. Saying that, I have not been to see AFC yet, and that would be interesting to see how that has grown from the old and the new.

  • Comment number 21.

    Great Blog. You really do learn something new every day.

  • Comment number 22.

    Staff of 9, 2! offices, and a budget of 800k! What were these people getting paid? Talk about Quangos!

  • Comment number 23.

    Interesting how this broke in the Mail over 2 weeks after it actually occurred. This is the same newspaper that broke the Triesman story, another patently manufactured piece.

    The PL has been worried about SD for a while, particularly since the passionate Dave Boyle took over from the more politically astute Phil French. Powerful trusts at Manchester United, Arsenal & Aston Villa as well as Reading and now Swansea provide an articulate voice on behalf of the fans of these Premiership clubs.

    It's also not that well known that a putative trust at Manchester City came close to grabbing control of the club pre-Shinawatra and was only denied by some outright chicanery by the people runing the club at the time. SD were very active in that as it would have been a far bigger feather in their cap than the AFC Wimbledon story.

    Dave Boyle, a great friend and defender of the ordinary fan, was silly to tweet what he did but Pauline Green is a canny and experienced politician and she clearly felt his head wasn't required for it. Who would I trust more, the slimy Scudamore and his minions or Dame Pauline & Dave Boyle?

  • Comment number 24.

    "NormalforNuneaton" If any professional employee tweeted that the head of a fellow professional firm was a cowardly cheating idiot, my guess is that your partners or bosses would come under serious pressure to collect your resignation. Surely being a professional means that you need to act professionally ?

  • Comment number 25.

    Aaah football - bloody hell!

    On one level, I am really sad to see these events play out and I hope that Boyle and SD have a good outcome on this. On another level, though, the funding stream seems rediculous, given the nature of what SD is about. Yet another example of structural imbalance within the game, I suppose........

  • Comment number 26.

    Graham Smith said

    "At Liverpool FC and the Spirit of Shankly in particular, Dave Boyle has given much assistance.

    He helped the Spirit of Shankly supporters' union in its approach to the current owners about supporters acquiring a share of LFC, and in so doing gaining a real influence in the boardroom, and also directly advised the Club on its recent appointment of fans to a supporters' committee set up by LFC."

    Odd. On April 11th, Spirit of Shankly wrote about LeBron James being given a minority share holding:

    "The news is also somewhat surprising, given that James has been offered a stake in the club on a commercial basis while our proposal regarding the purchase of a supporter stake in the club has yet to yield a response from the club. At the time of our proposal the reason given for the club not being able to respond was that the owners needed time to get acquainted with the task at hand." - SOS web site.

    Being ignored is the apparent level of boardroom influence Spirit of Shankly is talking about, so perhaps Dave Boyle might be better off being disassociated with an organisation whose Chairman and officers do not seem to know what a vote or debate is, and puff themselves up to be more influential than they really are.

  • Comment number 27.

    Abune - it doesn't take many train journeys (standard class) or lawyers fees to eat up that amount of money. I know the SD employees well, and they aren't fat cats at all.

    SD has helped lots of trusts with advice, with caseworkers and with the creation of standard legal and financial forms. It isn't extravagant. And it took money from the FSIF because that is the only place it could find it in England for football - the same isn't true in Scotland or for Rugby League.

    One question should be why on earth the FA has abdicated its responsibility for the game and allowed the Premier League to control even grass roots football support.

  • Comment number 28.

    #26 Jammo01

    I think you've misread my post.

    SD and Dave Boyle have assisted the Spirit of Shankly in our aim to get a supporters' share in LFC and IF THAT IS ACHIEVED then what will follow will be "gaining a real influence in the boardroom".

    No contradiction.

  • Comment number 29.

    "The only way that the PL will listen is when the great unwashed come to their senses and go down to the local non-league side instead of driving miles to Old Trafford and Anfield etc."

    Yet instead of going to their local non-League clube AFCW and FCUoM decided to set up their new clubs - which basically feed off the existance of their original PREMIER-LEAGUE club (which was relegated in case of AFCW) and that are arguably the most sucessful club in the world (perhaps apart from Real Madrid and Liverpool).

  • Comment number 30.

    #22 - Abune - The article also mentions that they help pay the supporters group some fees. I think that 800k for the services they provide is astounding good value.

  • Comment number 31.

    Leidens-SS at 30, and a few others, as a result of your comments, I tried to locate the annual accounts of this organisation. Strangely, I can't find a link to their accounts on their own website, and I can't find the details anywhere else. Perhaps someone can point me in the right direction?

  • Comment number 32.

    Supporters' Trusts need a central body to guide them and support them collectively - after all, Trusts are just groups of fans trying to muddle their way through without the luxury of pots of cash. Supporters Direct - and Dave Boyle in particular - has played an incredibly influencing role in the formation and direction of Trusts up and down the country, including the one I'm on the committee of (LOFT - Leyton Orient Fans' Trust, which was one of the earliest Trusts to be formed and was helped enormously by Dave over the years).

    If the powers that be in football and government have any tiny piece of regard for supporter representation, then SD has to continue. It's as simple as that.

  • Comment number 33.

    Doyle deserves everything he gets. He has let himself, SD and every club trust out there down badly with what was childish and unprofessional behaviour of the worst kind.

    Of course this is no excuse for the withdrawal of funding for a body that is desperately needed in this country to ensure that clubs supporters groups get the advice they need. However every cloud has a silver lining and maybe the withdrawal of funding will actually force SD to go down a more independent route. It was always somewhat of a conflic of interests for it to be funded by a body that is in reality made up of the clubs themselves. Hopefully the shortfall can be made up via funds from some of the more successful trusts out there stepping in (My own Swansea trust included).

  • Comment number 34.

    An Early Day Motion tabled on 13th June has currently been signed by 24 MPs calling for the Government to reaffirm its support for Supporters Direct.

    Supporters' groups are asking those interested to lobby their MPs to sign the motion to get the funding restored and secured.

  • Comment number 35.

    Further to my post 31, I have established that I can obtain a copy of the accounts from the FSA website, but I have to pay £20 for the privilege. I'm not that interested, personally, but I always get suspicious when an organisation like this doesn't publish its own accounts on its own website.

    Anyway, funding was £1.2 million, budget £800k, according to the article, so I assume that £400k is passed on to the local clubs, etc, and that £800k is the cost of the 9 employees and 2 offices. That still seems very high to me.

  • Comment number 36.

    GrandFalconRailroad wrote:
    "The only reason AFCW and FCUofM do so well is that they have a massive wave of support in the media and therefore get a massive cash injection"

    That's strange. My club (Exeter City) haven't had a cash injection of any sort - massive or otherwise. If we have "a massive wave of support in the media", then it's completely passed me by. On the contrary, it seems to me that we rarely if ever get mentioned by much of the media, despite the fact that until Wimbledon's fantastic achievement, we were the only fully fan-owned club in the football league. (Brentford's hybrid model, with a rich individual benefactor holding a large shareholding, and the Trust's stake earmarked for a full Transfer to him eventually, is somewhat different IMO).

    Indeed, I've lost count of the number of so-called expert BBC journalists and pundits, posing the question "can the AFC model work in the Football League" after they gained promotion, seemingly oblivious to our own ownership model and phoenix-from-the-ashes story.

    Under fan ownership, we have gone from being saved from certain extinction, purely by a series of unlikely events (not least the divine hand of St Tony Of Cascarino, pulling the Man U hat out of the FA Cup bag at the 11th hour) to one of the most sucessful periods in our history - arguably THE most successful. All done without the allegedly massive cash injection AFC and FCUM have supposedly benefitted from.

    In reality, I suspect that far from a massive cash injection, the reasons for their success are fairly similar to ours - e.g. among other things, the stability, the pride and the special atmosphere that I believe fan-ownership brings and the galvanising effect that is produced as a result.

  • Comment number 37.

    i dont understand the footballing finance nuances...but i know that true grit wins at the end for sure

  • Comment number 38.

    abune "I always get suspicious when an organisation like this doesn't publish its own accounts on its own website."

    I always get suspicious when people post comments like this. The accounts to December 2009 are on SD's website under the 'About SD' tab. Wasn't too difficult to find.

  • Comment number 39.

    If you plan on biting the hand that feeds you, first find an alterate food supply .... this seems to sum up what the blog is telling us.

    Sounds like good advice to me. If SD are so good at giving advice, then surely they should have been able to figure out such a basic truth?

  • Comment number 40.

    People have to realize that twitter, facebook, all these social networking sites, even here on BBC, is no different from any other form of public speaking such as radio, television, etc. If you wouldn't say it on tv or radio, you shoudn't say it on twitter. Think twice, then speak once. It amazes me that even politicians don't get that.

  • Comment number 41.

    It is disgraceful that the FSIF have withdrawn funding from the SD, as it is invaluable for smaller clubs. AFC Wimbledon proved this year (at the expense of my beloved Luton Town) what a side with passion and a few quid can do when given the opportunity.
    Hopefully they'll rectify this decision in the near future.
    Also, agree with @NevarMaor no. 40.

  • Comment number 42.

    13. Quite a few 'new towns' football teams have enjoyed some success at their relative levels, particularly Crawley Town and Stevenage in their rise into the Football League. Other teams we have in the Football League from 'New Towns' are Northampton (new town status 1968) and Milton Keynes (1967) and in Non League there's Blue Square North Play Off Winners AFC Telford United (1968) - but the highest placed 'New Town' Club currently in the English Pyramid is Peterborough United (1967).

 

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