People power triumphs as Bournemouth and Lincoln celebrate survival

Third division: Two clubs brought back from the brink of extinction by supporters' trusts prove there is a viable alternative to big business
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Tony Benn, who became interested in football when the club in his constituency, Chesterfield, reached the FA Cup semi-finals in 1997, has a favourite quotation from the Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu. "The best leaders, people do not notice," he would say between sucks of his pipe. "When the best leader's work is done, people say: 'We did it ourselves'."

Those who gather in the Millennium Stadium for today's Third Division play-off final between Bournemouth and Lincoln City, two clubs salvaged from financial oblivion by their fans, can say the same. They have done it themselves.

Bournemouth were the first to create a supporters' trust, a form of organisation which has embraced Port Vale, Chesterfield and York, and which may yet take over financially stricken rugby clubs such as Bristol. In the year when Mr Benn was enquiring about the offside rule, Bournemouth faced a bill of £2m, mainly from the Inland Revenue. A wave of local action raised £150,000 while 15 benefactors put up £500,000 to create a new institution, AFC Bournemouth Community Football Club, whose first chairman was Trevor Watkins, now a director of Supporters Direct, a government-funded body which encourages fans to take a stake in their clubs.

Bournemouth differs from Lincoln in that it is not a direct democracy. The trust has a 51 per cent "golden share" in the club and fans are allowed two elected places on it. The trust elects three representatives to the board.

"The trust does not interfere with the board. It is like a watchdog, safeguarding the club's interests," Watkins said. "Last year there was a big debate as to whether we should sell our ground and lease it back. Because of its golden share, the trust was able to block the move."

The idea of every rivet of a club being owned by the local scrap-iron magnate now seems utterly dated, but Watkins argues that Bournemouth could not have survived into the 1990s without these people. "It was only when football had a very sharp financial reality check a few years ago that things changed," he said.

Bournemouth's new three-sided stadium at Dean Court needed substantial investment from the club president, Stanley Cohen. Lincoln's trust would not have come into being without John Reames, who ran Sincil Bank as his fiefdom for more than 15 years, once appointing himself team manager, handing over his controlling stake, worth £400,000. Reames, who ploughed the bulk of his private wealth into Lincoln, now pays at the gate.

His successor, Rob Bradley, used to edit the club fanzine, Yellow Belly, and his board is made up of local businessmen who have invested and fans who have been voted on via the trust. "Whatever happens to us on Saturday, there is an open-topped bus booked to take the team through the High Street," Bradley said. "They have set the city abuzz. Twelve months ago I was in the High Court, arguing for the club to stay in existence. On Saturday, I will be in the royal box, trying to keep my emotions in check again. This is a total community club. People have become involved because they love Lincoln City; there's a synergy at work."

Lincoln, however, had to endure administration before the trust could take over after raising £200,000. In Reames' final two years, the club had lost £657,000 and had debts of £1m. It was a period in which the players were not paid for two months and their manager, Alan Buckley, was dismissed because the administrators decided his wages could not be afforded. Buckley's assistant, Keith Alexander, who had played for and, briefly, managed Lincoln a decade or so ago, was promoted in the bleakest of circumstances.

It is probably just as well they declined the chance to be "saved" by John Russell, a convicted fraudster, who had already taken Scarborough into the Conference. Spurned at Sincil Bank, he took over and relegated Exeter, and has since been arrested. "He just didn't sound or feel right," is Bradley's understated verdict.

Reducing player costs by getting rid of those on higher wages was one of the more painful tasks of Bradley's board. Half of Alexander's side, which won through to Cardiff via the Lincolnshire derby with Scunthorpe, came from non-League football, notably Simon Yeo, a former soldier and postman, who scored three times in a 6-3 aggregate victory. "Managers who manage with millions get the spotlight, but those who manage with pence deserve more praise," said Bradley, a former architect.

Watkins sums up this afternoon's encounter as "a celebration of two teams' survival," adding with a laugh, "but, of course, we want to win."