Ebbsfleet make fantasy football a virtual reality

Fans in over 70 countries will make key decisions at the Blue Square Premier club as internet project MyFC takes over the running. Nick Harris reports
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The Independent Online

"Own the club, pick the team."

That was the slogan, coined in April this year, that launched MyFootballClub, a groundbreaking internet-based project with the stated aim of buying a football club and transforming its fortunes.

The cost? £35 a year. The philosophy? Members would vote on every key decision – from picking the side to signing players to ground improvements – hoping that "the wisdom of crowds" would propel their team to previously unimagined glories.

The reaction? By August, more than 50,000 people from Motherwell to Melbourne, Sydenham to Sydney and all points in between had registered an interest. Already around 20,000 people, in more than 70 countries, have actually paid up.

Members voted on which club to try to buy. Most leading choices – Leeds, Nottingham Forest, Cambridge United, Accrington Stanley, Halifax – were discounted by MyFC's organisers. Not for sale. Too expensive. Too much debt. Not enough potential.

Then clubs began to approach MyFC, rather than vice versa. Nine have been considered, from League One to the Blue Square Premier (aka the Conference) and below, all wanting to be taken over. As The Independent exclusively revealed yesterday, one has now been chosen.

Hence the Kent-based Ebbsfleet United, ninth in the Conference table and with a half-decent chance of a stab at promotion to the Football League for the first time in their history, are about to become the epicentre of the most extraordinary – and controversial – ownership experiment in the game's history.

Forget "in the net", think internet. Forget offside, think online. Forget fanzine, think forum, and far-reaching. Even before yesterday's announcement, MyFC had more than 10,000 paid-up members based in Britain and Ireland, 1,400 in the US, 500 in Australia, 366 in Norway, 281 in Sweden, 75 in the Netherlands, 25 in Japan, and others as far afield as China, Vietnam, Tonga, Qatar, Malawi and Panama. The 21st-century model of club control has arrived.

Now here's the rub. Liam Daish, Ebbsfleet's manager, is self-confessed "old school". The former Republic of Ireland international defender, 39, whose clubs include Birmingham and Coventry, has had managerial mentors from Barry Fry to Ron Atkinson to Jack Charlton. It is hard to imagine Fry or "Big Ron" or Charlton being told on a Friday that a web-based poll had concluded 4-1-3-2 was the way to go on Saturday, and here's the personnel, and would you have a think about your blog follow-up while you're at it? Actually, it's hard to imagine them fathoming a web-based poll or a blog at all.

Speaking exclusively to The Independent yesterday, Daish explained how he thought such managers might view MyFC, and its stated policy that members will pick the team. "The old school would turn their back on it, think it's a negative idea," he said. "And I see myself as old school."

And yet, incredibly, Daish has given his pivotal backing. "I'm not going to lie and say there's no trepidation," he said. "But [MyFC] is an exciting thought. Totally new. I'm looking forward to where it can take us, hopefully in the right direction. This isn't just some off the cuff idea, it's totally revolutionary. I might be old school, but I like to mix in new ideas."

Daish and MyFC's organisers – including its founder, Will Brooks, a former football journalist – stress that the project, by its very nature, will be a "work in progress". But the members, after a "bedding-in" period, will each vote for 11 players to play each match, and MyFC's computer will calculate the XI for Daish to field. Daish will pick substitutes, and make all in-play decisions.

Members will suggest transfer targets. Club executives will negotiate deals but members will ultimately get a "yes" or "no" vote to sanction them. A vote to rubber-stamp the takeover itself is expected to be a formality.

After due diligence and legal work, the takeover should be complete by Christmas. MyFC will take an initial 51 per cent controlling stake with an option to buy the rest later. Ebbsfleet's current owners, led by the chairman, Jason Bottle, will not profit directly from the sale. Rather MyFC's cash will be used to clear some debt and the major shareholders will pass over a large chunk of their holdings in exchange. All current staff will keep their jobs, and the directors – unpaid – will remain as part of the set-up, with no executive powers. All major decisions will be made by MyFC members on a one-member, one-vote basis.

MyFC already has a kitty of more than £700,000. It is thought that somewhere between £250,000-£350,000 will be used initially to secure the controlling interest (through debt clearance) and pay legal fees, with more due later. Daish could theoretically have as much as £250,000 to spend in the January transfer window, on fees or wage commitments, which would be huge in a division where transfer fees are rare and a player's pay is typically £300 TO £400 a week.

Daish only informed his players about MyFC yesterday. He got a "positive" response. "I see more positives than negatives. The players' profile will increase. People around the world will know who they are. The players can dismiss it, or embrace it – and I think they'll embrace it, all of us in this together."

Daish admits that the financial windfall helped to sway him. "It gives us the chance to compete," he said. "We've tried everything to improve attendance, profile, fan base. Unless there was some Russian guy turning up with millions, we needed something different. This is different. This is all about shared responsibility from the top of the club to the bottom, not just team affairs. It's about what to do with the training ground, whether to get a new roof, anything and everything. It's more than just picking a team on a Saturday."

Ebbsfleet, who changed their name from Gravesend & Northfleet in May – for reasons unrelated to this project – play at Stonebridge Road in Gravesend. Average home gates are around 1,000. The club is sponsored by Eurostar, which will use the new Ebbsfleet International station, due to open next week. The club's existing Supporters' Trust backs the MyFC buyout. To judge by fans' forums yesterday, some supporters are wary, most are cautiously optimistic.

Daish wants no division between "old" fans and "new". "I want people to come to games, whoever they are," he said. "This shouldn't be like Monty Python, with the Judean People's Front, the People's Front of Judea, the Popular Front of Judea and that nonsense. I want participation, interaction."

Ebbsfleet's next game is at Oxford, on Saturday. The club should be under full MyFC control by January.

Fans picking teams An idea that has never managed to be successful in Britain

* ISRAELI EXPERIMENT

A sixth-tier Israeli amateur team, Hapoel Kiryat Shalom, began an experiment last month where the fans pick the team. But the club is not owned by the supporters. The venture's founder, Moshe Hogeg, seeks "democracy" for fans, and merchandise sales to recoup his costs, estimated at £250,000.

* YOU'RE THE MANAGER

The only precedent for fans picking a team in England was a Channel 4 documentary, You're The Manager, in which fans were supposed to select Stevenage Borough's side in the Conference in 2002. The project never got off the ground.

* COPYCAT WEBSITES

Since MyFC launched in April, it has spawned several copy-cat websites. These include myBUFC.com, which aims to run the minor non-League side Biggleswade United, as well as fledgling sites in Denmark, America and France.

* FAN POWER IN BRITAIN

The supporters' trust movement is the main way in which British fans have a say, usually limited, in the running of their clubs. The first trust was at Northampton, in 1992, where the pioneering campaigner, Brian Lomax, helped to popularise the model. There are now 100 trusts at clubs in Britain, but only four trust-owned League clubs: Brentford, Chesterfield, Bournemouth and Stockport.

Nick Harris

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