Backing of the Net: The true meaning of planet football
Two months ago Ebbsfleet United shocked the football world by agreeing to be owned by an internet-based collective of 27,000 members. With the deal about to be ratified, Nick Harris explains how a small Kent club have already become a worldwide modern media phenomenon
Tuesday 22 January 2008
American billionaires, Russian plutocrats, worldwide media interest and fans tuning in via satellite television and the web from every continent. That's the everyday story of contemporary top-end English football but one club, at a considerably humbler level, has recently trumped the lot in hands-on global participation.
In the last two months, this club have been visited by TV crews from Russia, Brazil, Mexico and Sweden. ESPN are coming over from America this week, so too a channel from Germany. Al Jazeera has been once, and will return. The same is true of John F Burns, a double Pulitzer prize-winning correspondent from the New York Times, among other journalists. But it is not just the media who are flocking to Ebbsfleet United of the Blue Square Premier.
As The Independent first revealed in November, Ebbsfleet have agreed in principle to be taken over by MyFootballClub, an Internet-based collective with 27,000-plus members in more than 70 countries. Due diligence was completed last Wednesday on the £635,000 deal, triggering a "yes" or "no" poll by MyFC members to seal it. Voting closes at midday tomorrow and, while MyFC's founder, Will Brooks, a former copywriter and football journalist, is taking nothing for granted, he anticipates that members will ratify the takeover.
If they do, they will take effective full control of the club imminently. By March, after a period of "acclimatisation", members will also start picking the team on a one member, one vote basis in what will be the most radical experiment in club ownership that British football has known.
"We take great heart from the voter turnout," Brooks told The Independent last night. "We had 11,000 votes cast on the opening day, and hope members back the takeover in good numbers."
Yet even before MyFC's legion of disparate fans has actually bought Ebbsfleet, many have gone to extraordinary lengths – literal and metaphorical – to show support to a club most had not previously heard of. Josh Friedman, a 34-year-old lawyer from Boston known as "Friejose" on myfootballclub. co.uk forums, has already made three trips across the Atlantic for matches. He flew to England at the weekend to see Ebbsfleet play Histon. It was postponed. "No matter," he said yesterday. "There'll be other games."
Rob Daniel, aka "Chocmint", a 48-year-old children's author from Albany in western Australia, is coming over next month for Ebbsfleet's game with Exeter. Until now, he has listened to commentary on Radio Kent, online. Daniel's other work includes schools' workshops, and as a direct result of contacting fellow teachers via MyFC, he will tour UK schools while here, and then go to Latvia to give workshops in two orphanages.
Fellow long-distance travellers drawn to the club's Stonebridge Road ground even before ownership include Felix Ney, aka "FNEX" from Berlin, who spent five days in Gravesend to take in a few games over the Christmas holiday, and Benjamin Bild, a 20-year-old from Copenhagen, who attended the 4-1 win over Weymouth on 5 January. Hundreds of other "newbies" with no prior affiliation to Ebbsfleet, have travelled, either home or away, from across Britain.
Enthusiasm stretches beyond attendance, which, because of Ebbsfleet's location in Kent, is a slog for many, especially overseas members. One Texan member donated £500 to sponsor a player. Other members raised £1,300 within hours of an appeal for new balls and goals for the training ground. That was a one-off investment separate to their annual £35 membership fee.
Other members, marshalled by Keith Handley, a 45-year-old haulage firm worker from York, have provided football kits for a children's project in Uganda, while a junior team in Salford has benefited from fund-raising that would never had happened without individuals merging in the MyFC cause.
Of course, the core business of MyFC is and will be Ebbsfleet, managed by Liam Daish, a former Cambridge United, Birmingham, Coventry and Republic of Ireland defender. The team have won eight, drawn two and lost two games in all competitions since the provisional deal was announced in November. They lie three points off a shot at the play-offs, which might end in promotion to the Football League for the first time in the club's history. They are also progressing in the FA Trophy, which has a Wembley final.
Arguably the most contentious issue in the MyFC project is the members' right to pick the team. It caused friction with long-standing fans in particular, wary of newcomers with no knowledge of the club demanding control of who plays at left-back and whether two or three up front is the way to go. Animosity has subsided as old fans and new get acquainted. Long-standing supporters of Ebbsfleet – who were Gravesend & Northfleet until May 2007, when the name changed for reasons unrelated to MyFC – also now, generally, see the benefits of MyFC's football kitty, which stands at around £800,000, enough for buying the club, plus investment in the squad.
Those same fans, many now MyFC members, will abstain from team selection if the view of Mark Neilson, 40, is typical. A Fleet fan since boyhood, he says: "I have no interest in picking the team because at the end of the day, what do I know? Liam is and always will be manager."
Some "newbies" concur. As Keith Handley says: "At the moment I do not have the depth of knowledge to pick the team."
Other members see team selection as key to a project originally sold on the slogan: "Own the club, pick the team." Rob Daniel is among them. "Voting for the team is one of the fundamental ideas of the whole concept," he says. "Without it, what would be the point? It's new, it's different. If people want it to stay the same then why join?"
Sarah-Jane Bennett, a 20-year-old sales assistant from Fife, who is also a qualified referee, is in the middle ground. "Picking the team is important," she says. "I wholeheartedly believe in the wisdom of the crowds theory. However, saying that, my choice will be heavily based on what [Daish] says about the players in training."
So how will it work, this team selection by 27,000 bosses? Will Brooks expects it to begin in March, after members have spent time studying the detailed ProZone stats that will be available on every player, and watched regular games – or highlights on the website. Members will vote on formation, then "drag and drop" players into place, with the majority view implemented.
Daish, 39, a self-confessed "old school" manager, has every right to shudder at the prospect, but he was relaxed yesterday in telling The Independent that he is taking a "suck it and see" approach. "But, ultimately, team selection will be the members' choice, that's part of the deal," he added, insisting that "properly informed decisions" would be the key. "Hopefully, it will work out."
Team selection has provoked fierce debate among members, but so too has whether free- range chicken is a viable food choice, and whether kits should be sourced only from "ethical" manufacturers. MyFC's members, its most vocal at least, are a politicised bunch, and not afraid of dissent.
A minority have made public their "no" vote on the grounds that MyFC is a "flawed model" and the £635,000 Ebbsfleet buyout is poor value. Most of the cash will go to creditors, including the board, in return for 75 per cent of the shares. MyFC will not own the stadium, although there is a guaranteed 18-year lease at peppercorn rent on the current ground, or training ground. The club are also losing between £26,000 and 28,000 a month. On the flip side, many clubs from League Two downwards lose that much money, and have bigger debt, and would have cost £1m or more to buy. "If we had 200,000 members and £5m in the kitty, we'd have had more choice," Brooks said. "But this, I honestly believe, is the best deal, and a good one."
Josh Friedman agrees. "I've blown 70 bucks on worse things," he said. "At least with this I'm now involved in English football. I could've been fey and said 'Hey, I'll support Liverpool'. Instead, I've taken a real, meaningful interest in a community club, and I take that seriously."
Supporters' club: A snapshot of MyFC members from a global following
Name Josh Friedman, aka "Friejose".
Age, occupation 34, trial attorney.
Lives Massachusetts, US.
Other allegiance Boston Red Sox, NE Patriots.
Why MyFC? "Buying a sports club gets you closer to the fans, by being a part of it. In America, communities do not have the same connection to sports clubs as they do in England to football."
Matchday experience Three trips from America already.
Name Keith Handley, aka "Yorkfox".
Age, occupation 45, road haulage office worker.
Other allegiance Leicester City.
Why MyFC? "I joined out of curiosity, then Ebbsfleet were chosen. They are within distance of the Football League, and if we help them get there, it will be dream come true."
Matchday experience Already attended home and away games.
Name Sarah-Jane Bennett, aka "Sarah-Jane".
Age, occupation 20, sales assistant/football referee.
Lives Fife, Scotland.
Other allegiance Cardiff City.
Why MyFC? "The opportunity we have is to revolutionise football for the better. Fans are increasingly secondary considerations for clubs; as fan-owners, we can change that. The biggest thing for me has been the community we've formed."
Matchday experience Planning a trip in March.
Name Mark Neilson, aka "DA11".
Age, occupation 40, advertising manager.
Lives Northfleet, Kent.
Other allegiance None. Fan since 1973.
Why MyFC? "I joined MyFC the day after they chose Ebbsfleet. I couldn't understand how people with no connection could, overnight, have feelings for the Fleet... but those I have met have a real love for football."
Matchday experience Lifelong fan anyway.
Name Rob Daniel, aka "Chocmint".
Age, occupation 48, children's author/schools' workshops presenter.
Lives Albany, Australia.
Other allegiance Chelsea.
Why MyFC? "It has the potential to change something and "move the goalposts". The excitement of being involved and meeting like-minded people from around the world."
Matchday experience Booked a trip for 9 February game versus Exeter.
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