Direct action enables fans to make inroads

Government initiative encourages supporters to take active role in clubs but at lower level difficulties emerge once finances have been stabilised David Conn
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The Independent Football

Football fans pondering joining the movement towards greater involvement in the running of clubs were given powerful reasons to do so yesterday by Nic Coward, the secretary of the Football Association, the game's governing body.

Describing the work of the FA's Financial Advisory Unit, which has visited 83 professional football clubs in the last 18 months, Coward said a "significant number" are "technically insolvent", described setting a budget as a "novel concept" for many football club directors, and said: "Dealing with cash, counting it and banking it, is a real problem." The advisory unit, he said, was working with clubs' directors to encourage them to change and work to "best practice".

Coward was addressing a conference at London's Birkbeck College of Supporters Direct, the Government-backed initiative established in January 2000 to encourage supporters to become more involved in the running of clubs. Several of the conference delegates, who came from 56 clubs, accused Coward of not being robust enough, one saying many directors are in football not for the love of their club but "to make a quick buck". Joe Ashton, formerly a Labour MP and director of Sheffield Wednesday, described the game as: "Riddled with corruption". Coward, though, was adamant that the FA's approach, which guarantees confidentiality to all clubs and offers free financial advice from a team of accountants, is the best way to encourage directors to introduce higher standards. "Most directors are there because they were first and foremost supporters," he said.

The scheme has made rapid, dramatic progress since then. Active interest has been expressed by fans from 142 clubs at all levels in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. They even received an inquiry from the Nepal Football Supporters' Association. Trusts, until recently a relatively obscure concept of supporter mutual organisation, have now been formed at 35 clubs, including Manchester United, Aston Villa and Tottenham, whose executive vice-chairman, David Buchler, has been very welcoming. Twelve more are in the pipeline. Fourteen lower division clubs now have supporter-representatives as directors and two, Lincoln City and Chesterfield, are now controlled by their fans, following intense local dramas last season.

The new Sports Minister, Richard Caborn, himself a former director of Sheffield United, praised Supporters Direct's influence in encouraging clubs to have a "proper dialogue" with their supporters. He added that the Government is now considering extending the initiative to other sports, including rugby league and ice hockey. But he said the Government is looking to withdraw from being the sole funder of Supporters Direct when its current budget – £250,000 for each of three years – expires in 2003, and wants clubs themselves, or sponsors, to put money in. "There is an appetite for change," Caborn said. "Football has had to look at itself and how it treats the fans. But it's quite expensive and, if it's going to be sustainable, we don't want the government to be the sole funder."

That struggle lies in the middle distance, but for now, Supporters Direct is forging ahead. "We believe we have won the argument that football is more than a business, that it properly, morally, belongs to the supporters," said Brian Lomax, who will next month give up his job running a housing charity in Rugby to concentrate full-time on being the chief executive of Supporters Direct. "We're now looking to develop the initiative by providing fans with the real skills required if they are to play a part in the management of clubs."

Yesterday's conference included sessions on setting up and running trusts, holding elections, media relations and being a football club director. Next Wednesday the Chesterfield Football Supporters Society, which took over the ravaged club last April then put it into administration with debts of £1.5m, will hold elections for its officers: the first democratic process to decide the membership of a football club board. Derbyshire Police Fraud Squad is still conducting an investigation into the running of the club under Darren Brown, its former owner for a disastrous 11 months last year.

Responding to the crisis, around 3,000 Chesterfield supporters, close to the total average attendance, have joined the society. Other spectacular supporters trust launches were held last May at Carlisle, attended by around 1,000 fans and last April at Hammersmith Town Hall, which was packed with 950 supporters of Queen's Park Rangers, who had gone into administration.

The Owls Trust, which has 1,000 Sheffield Wednesday supporters as members and a full-time chief executive, John Hemmingham, has been boosted by the gift of seven per cent of the club's shares from three directors.

But Howard Borrell, a Chesterfield supporter-director, emphasised the struggle ahead for fans who take over stricken lower-division clubs in similar circumstances. "It's been an awful lot of work just to keep the club going, and we always have the fact of administration hanging over us," he said. "We still need a great deal of investment to secure the club's future as a supporter-owned institution."

Rob Bradley, the former editor of Lincoln City's Yellow Belly fanzine and now chairman of the club, also sounded a cautionary note. Lincoln's supporters were able to take their club over only after an exceptional gesture from the club's outgoing chairman, John Reames, who donated his majority shareholding, worth around £400,000, for free:

"It's exhilarating to find yourself in charge," Bradley said, "but, when that clears, you find you are in a deeply unglamorous situation. We're running a struggling business, with debts of £800,000, constantly looking for ways to save money. But we're looking to the long term, to transform the football club into a real, democratic community institution."

If this principle underpins Supporters Direct, there is also a sober realisation that widespread fans' takeovers are unlikely, given the scale and cost of football clubs, even failing ones. Crystal Palace supporters raised £1m very quickly with the aim of buying a stake in their club, which was in administration, but have since been sidelined by Simon Jordan, the new owner who bought the club for around £12m.

"We're not looking for takeovers," Lomax said. "We are encouraging supporters to join together in mutual organisations, to play as much of a role in their clubs as they can. There is tremendous expertise out there among supporters, and we're encouraging a proper partnership between them and their clubs. Clubs would be mad to refuse it."

Pressed on the value of supporter representatives becoming directors of clubs, the FA's Nic Coward said it did not fit with the "logic" of the FA's financial advisory process. "It's difficult to know how representative people are, or whether they are truly independent. We're clear that working with the current directors is the way forward. We've begun this process and we believe it should be given a real chance to work."

Christine Oughton, of Birkbeck College, yesterday presented research on the Corporate Governance of Football Clubs, following a questionnaire sent out to all clubs. Only Barnet and Manchester United refused to answer it. The report documents a quiet sea change in the football clubs' relationships with their supporters, partly prompted by Supporters Direct. All Premier League and most Football League clubs now have customer charters and fans forums, at which concerns are discussed. The researchers noted varying accounts of forums' effectiveness, from "a healthy tension" between club and fans to hostility and, at one Second Division club: "It was reported that the forum was fine until the fans' group disagreed with club policy and then communication was terminated."

Pushed by the Government, though, for whom Supporters Direct is the most concrete product of the laborious Football Task Force process, clubs and the governing bodies are recognising the need at least to be seen to be making progress towards becoming modern "responsive" institutions. Fed by supporters' deep passion and loyalty for clubs, a quiet revolution is taking place across the football nation; piecemeal and difficult, a patient battle for the benefits of common sense.