To own your own club is the dream of many a football fan, but unless you are a petrodollar billionaire, or business tycoon, the options appear to be limited. It is not, however, impossible and tonight two very different fan-ownership models take centre stage in the FA Cup.
The ESPN cameras are at Stonebridge Road, the unprepossessing north Kent home of Ebbsfleet United, for the visit of AFC Wimbledon. At stake is a place in the second round, and an unglamorous, if winnable, home tie against Stevenage, but there is a bigger picture.
AFC are the club created by Wimbledon fans after the Football Association allowed the original club to be transplanted to Milton Keynes eight years ago. Most supporters were hugely relieved when Stevenage defeated MK Dons on penalties in a first-round replay on Tuesday as they felt a meeting between the two "Dons" would "legitimise" the League One club.
Ebbsfleet United, who changed their name from Gravesend & Northfleet in honour of the Eurostar terminal three years ago, are the club bought by ground-breaking internet venture MyFootballClub in January 2008. The 30,000-plus subscribers were told they would be selecting the team in a real-life version of the computer game Football Manager.
AFC Wimbledon are football's fairy tale. They began in the Combined Counties League with a team picked from public trials on Wimbledon Common. Four promotions in seven seasons later they lead the Blue Square (Conference) Premier, own a 6,000-capacity stadium in Kingston, south-west London, and have designs on building a 20,000-arena back in their old borough of Merton. The club is wholly owned by a supporters' trust and attendances average around 3,500, higher than some of the gates the original club achieved when winning promotion to the old First Division under Dave Bassett in 1986.
The MyFootballClub experience has been more chastening. The non-profit-making Industrial & Provident society bought 75 per cent of Ebbsfleet amid a blaze of publicity, much of it based on the prospect of picking the team via web broadcasts of matches and training sessions.
An initial 27,500 fans paid £35 to join, rising to 30,000-plus the following May as Ebbsfleet lifted the FA Trophy at Wembley. However, while members were able to vote on ticket prices and kit design, team selection remained the province of the manager, Liam Daish. Members were asked to vote on whether to sell striker John Akinde to Bristol City for £150,000 in August 2008 but recruitment, and most transfers out, remained in Daish's hands.
Unsurprisingly, many members did not renew. Membership tumbled to below 10,000 after a year and is now around 3,500. With subscriptions a key source of income the squad suffered and in May Ebbsfleet were relegated from the Blue Square Premier. They now sit just outside the play-off places in the Blue Square South, with average gates below 1,000. Plans for a new ground are on indefinite hold; instead they remain at the council-owned Stonebridge Road, much of which looks as if it has not changed since Wimbledon first visited in the Southern League 45 years ago. Tonight's tie provides a welcome boost, both in terms of profile and finance.
How serious the club's problems had become are evident when the current chairman, Phil Sonsara, says: "At the start of the season the most important thing was that Ebbsfleet United still had a club at the end of the season."
Sonsara is The Fleet's fourth chairman since MyFC's takeover. Unusually in football, the manager has survived while his chairmen have changed. A Tottenham season-ticket holder, Sonsara was in the first wave of members. He had no previous links with the club but did have financial expertise, being an accountant, and time – he had quit his job and is separated without children. A year ago he offered his services, and now finds himself trying to emulate Spurs chairman Daniel Levy's ability to produce a balanced budget.
"Spurs make money, which is unusual in football, but it shows it can be done. My aim is to make the club self-financing so any income from MyFC can be ploughed into better facilities to support the club's long term."
There are those, including ex-secretary and former director Roly Edwards, who feel the MyFC concept is, as he told the BBC, "damaging the club", but Sonsara puts up a strong defence.
"The fans are not as directly involved [as some expected] but I have met supporters from all over the world who come to matches to be a part of it. At the first FA Cup tie [12 days ago] with AFC Wimbledon there were two from the New York area, I've met fans from Germany, Holland, Norway and so on. Many people thought membership would settle down to be 2,000-3,000. At £50 a head that is still £100,000-£150,000, which is significant at this level.
"As for picking the team, I was involved at the very beginning and I never thought I should pick the team. We appoint a manager, we should let him get on with the job. I have ideas on tactics and players but even in my position I don't watch enough training sessions or matches to pick the team."
The membership has had the chance to vote for the right to pick the team, and always rejected it. Last month, however, a vote was passed to have the final say on transfer acquisitions. MyFC thought this would increase membership but Daish expressed concern and Ebbsfleet's secretary threatened to resign. As only 132 members voted, with 80 in favour, there has since been some backtracking. It now appears members will only be able to vote on transfers made with extra cash from outside the season's budget.
They may soon be poring over the website as Fleet have made £65,000 in TV payments and prize money from their Cup run so far.-Winning the replay would be worth another £90,000. Not that Sonsara intends to splash it all on a centre-forward. "It's important we are responsible about that and don't put it all into the playing budget," he said.
It doesn't sound very romantic, but running football clubs is not very romantic. FC United of Manchester rather contradicted their founding principles to accept Friday night television coverage of their first-round tie because they needed the cash. Football clubs always do. As I speak to Sonsara the ground is being readied for the TV cameras, mainly by volunteers. "There's Chris Pilkinton," says Sonsara, who himself works gratis. "Chris has been a fan of the club for years. He's been cutting ivy, now he's doing some electrical work, next he'll be ironing our new shirt-back sponsor's logo on. We couldn't survive without volunteers."
Like Ebbsfleet, AFC Wimbledon rely on a lot of unpaid labour, but such is the passion this phoenix club invokes there are 250 regular volunteers ("I wish I had 50," said Sonsara enviously). Like Ebbsfleet the AFC chairman is a financially literate professional with time to spare. Erik Samuelson is a former partner of PriceWaterhouseCoopers, now retired, with his children grown up. He is paid a guinea a year, which he does not take.
"People want to be involved with the club. It is very social," he said. Samuelson added: "Our structure means we cannot be bought, moved or sold by anyone without a significant majority of the membership agreeing.
"There are immense challenges around funding but unlike a lot of trust-run clubs we were able to start with a clean slate. We were not rescuing a club with massive debts."
MyFC were – Ebbsfleet approached them – and have found it hard going. Tonight, however, both clubs can enjoy the sort of evening in the spotlight that sustains all those volunteers and long-distance internet fans through the hard grind of non-League budget balancing. And when it is over the fans can celebrate that it was their club which won or lost, not one owned by a porn baron, transatlantic property developer or shady financier.
How the clubs compare
Ebbsfleet United/AFC Wimbledon
Gravesend & Northfleet Original name Wimbledon Old Central FC
1946 Founded 1889
2007 Reformed 2002
7th in Conference South (6th tier of English football) League position 1st in Conference National (5th tier of English football)
Stonebridge Road (5,011, 500 seated) Ground capacity Kingsmeadow (4,722, 1,265 seated)
950 Average attendance 3,400
Stonebridge Road pitch Train at King's College Sports Grounds
Clubhouse bar for home fans Ground facilities Large rooms holding weddings/parties/comedy nights
Eurostar Sponsor Sports Interactive
3,500 (paying £50-£100 per year) Number of members/Trustees 1,800 (£25 per year)
£11 Adult ticket prices £14 to stand, £16-18 to sit
Michael Gash, £20,000 (from Cambridge City, 2008) Record signing Jon Main, undisc (Tonbridge Angels, 2007)
£189-£210 Adult season ticket price £240-£340
4th Round, 1963 (as Gravesend & Northfleet) Best FA Cup finish 1988 Winners (as Wimbledon) 1st round for past three seasons