Is fan-ownership the answer to football failures?

By Matt SlaterBBC sports news reporter
The growth of fan-owned football clubs

Stop me if you have heard this one before but Portsmouth were supposed to go to the High Court on Tuesday. In administration (and the relegation zone), millions in debt, senior players up for grabs… oh, you have heard this one before.

Fair enough. In the context of their recent history, this adjourned visit to the Royal Courts of Justice was always going to be the equivalent of a tie in the early stages of the Johnstone's Paint Trophy.

But Pompey's next court hearing, on 31 January, could set the date for the biggest fixture in their 114-year history, which is saying something for a club that has contested five FA Cup finals.

The dispute is between PKF, the insolvency firm that has been running the club for almost a year, and Portpin, one of Pompey's five different owners since 2009, and the issue they are arguing about is a fair valuation of the club's Fratton Park home.

If PKF win, they will sell the club and all its assets to the Pompey Supporters Trust, giving the fans an opportunity to run the club themselves. If Portpin win, the Trust's plan unravels and it becomes difficult to see Portsmouth FC lasting much beyond its 115th birthday party.

It is a life-or-death drama fans of Wrexham will recognise.

"We've been in danger a few times over the last 10 years," admits Pete Jones, the chairman of the Wrexham Supporters Trust (WST), the fans' group that rescued the club.

"It's been a roller-coaster ride. We went all the way to the Court of Appeal to get the stadium and without that we'd have no football club now."

The battle for the Racecourse Ground took place between 2004, when Wrexham were given a year's notice to leave by their property-developing chairman, and 2006, when the club's administrators defeated him to reunite club and stadium long enough to patch up a deal with local businessmen.

That deal was completed on 30 May, three days before the Football League was set to expel the Welsh club.

In between eviction notice and appeal court victory, Wrexham became the first team to be docked 10 points for entering administration, a penalty that proved decisive in their relegation to League Two in 2005.

For the third oldest professional club in the world, founded in 1864, these should have been the worst of times.

Sadly, the local businessmen were not up to the challenge either, and relegation from the Football League in 2008 - ending an 87-year stay - brought further financial woes and another ownership tussle.

But from this unpromising position, WST began to realise that if it did not seize the day, there would soon be no club to support. During the fans' bid emerged as the favourite.

"And then, when it was agreed for us to take on the club, the Football Conference asked for a £250,000 bond which we had to raise within five days of the season starting," recalls Jones, who combines chairing WST with another voluntary role at the Racecourse, that of club historian. He is a prison officer by trade.

"The fans rallied around absolutely brilliantly, as they have done many times before."

Buckets were shaken, pockets were emptied and Wrexham found the money. That campaign, a first under trust-control, ended with a play-off defeat by Luton Town. It was the only aspect of the season that could be described that way; the rest was a triumph of hope.

Jones is not the only part-timer in power at Wrexham; Don Bircham is the club's chief executive when he is not running his travel agency business.

Bircham and his fellow football directors have been appointed by the Trust board, which sets the club's strategy and also provides three of the directors. The Trust board is elected from WST's 2,000-plus membership.

"The challenge is to run a sustainable club, and we run the business as you would run any other good business," said Bircham.

"Our shareholders, the fans, have representatives on the trust board and that board gives us a budget to use as we see fit. So if we want to sign a player, we don't have to run back and ask 2,000 people what they think."

What makes Bircham's football business different is that his shareholders are not looking for any "kickback or dividend". They are in it for love.

There is no doubt that fan-ownership, as a business model, is an idea whose time has come.

For years, the prevailing view among football's ruling classes was that the only clubs fans could run were "phoenix clubs", effectively the souls of deceased teams, starting again in the outer reaches of the non-league galaxy.

The thought of fans in boardrooms, and owners in the stands, was dismissed as unworkable, and arguments that it seems to work OK for Barcelona, Real Madrid and most of the Bundesliga were usually met with talk of different starting points and footballing traditions.

Perceived failures of fan-ownership at clubs like Brentford, Chesterfield, Nott County, Stockport County and York City did not help in shifting this idea, although Supporters Direct spokesman Kevin Rye sees those ownerships as successes.

"There's a particularly lazy lie that still gets peddled by some: that supporters' trusts like those at Brentford, Chesterfield or York City were failures," he said. "These were in fact outstanding successes for the fans in not just keeping them alive, but ensuring that they could have futures beyond the daily grind of just survival. The only failure was of football regulation to address the impact of an un-level playing field created by unsustainable spending, and our job still hasn't finished."

Real Madrid fans (left) & Barcelona fans
Real Madrid (left) and Barcelona include their supporters in boardroom decisions

As recently as two years ago, the only fan-owned club in the Football League was Exeter City. But the last two seasons have seen that number swell to three - AFC Wimbledon completing their remarkable journey from the outer reaches, and Wycombe Wanderers being saved by their fans - with Pompey trying to make it four and Wrexham top of the Blue Square Bet Premier.

It is also worth noting that fans of media darlings Swansea City have a 20% stake in their club.

Wrexham's Bircham does not need to be convinced of the virtues of giving his customers a role in decision-making. He has seen the alternative.

"The traditional benefactor model is a flawed model," he said.

"It is fine when the benefactor is signing cheques, and supporting the club, but if that benefactor decides he is bored with the project, or he passes away, where do we go from there?

"There's still an opportunity for the rich man's plaything in the Premier League, but anywhere below that, the fan-owned model can work."

It is a chance Pompey fans would very much like to try for themselves, and when you consider some of their recent proprietors they can hardly do any worse.

As for Wrexham, it was not that long ago that the Racecourse Ground looked destined to be bull-dozed for flats and the team consigned to history. That they have a future to look forward to is down to the fans. It is a potentially revolutionary concept that might just be catching.


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