Inside Football - Cobblers model for supporter power

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The Independent Online

NESTLING AMONG grand claims for the Millennium Dome and "something of the night" jibes against the Conservatives, Chris Smith's speech to last week's Labour Party Conference contained a solid nugget for football fans: backing for the principle of supporter ownership of clubs.

NESTLING AMONG grand claims for the Millennium Dome and "something of the night" jibes against the Conservatives, Chris Smith's speech to last week's Labour Party Conference contained a solid nugget for football fans: backing for the principle of supporter ownership of clubs.

"Professional football is in danger of losing touch with its roots," said the Minister for Culture Media and Sport, in a surprisingly fierce denunciation of those running the game. Calling for a return to "community values" and "social responsibility", the Minister announced the formation of a dedicated unit at the Football Trust to advise and provide administrative help to supporters to buy and hold shares collectively. The idea, promoted as part of the "New Mutualism" movement by the Co-operative Party, is backed by preferential banking offered to supporters by the Co-Op Bank.

Applauded warmly by Tony Blair, presenting himself yet again as a Newcastle fan, Smith's announcement joins other recent initiatives beginning now to form into a coherent Government approach to football as a community activity. The new unit will offer supporters dedicated advice, forms of model constitutions they may wish to adopt, and "modest" financial help with start up costs. With the Football Trust having all but completed post-Taylor Report ground rebuilding, it is likely to be reconstituted after 2001 into a new body. It will be made up of this new unit alongside administering the cost of public football pitches, developing professional clubs' community activities and providing help to clubs in financial crisis.

"We are not providing huge funds," a spokesman said, "and the onus is on supporters to work hard to take advantage of the help on offer. But this is the first time any Government has practically assisted supporters to get properly involved in running their club and the game itself."

The claims made for the initiative must now wrestle with the hard facts of football club ownership. For the whole of this century, clubs have mostly been owned by local businessmen, subject to FA financial restrictions. After the Hillsborough disaster, the Football Trust handed out £200m in grants of public money to clubs, without seeking any complementary reforms. Had supporter involvement been promoted then, they might have been able to buy substantial stakes in the clubs. Instead, the 1992 Premier League breakaway and subsequent satellite television-fuelled commercial revolution have increased the value of clubs beyond the reach of most fans' pockets.

Nevertheless, supporter groups have welcomed the initiative, pointing to possibilities at both ends of football: Manchester United and Northampton Town. At United, the successful campaign against BSkyB's bid earlier this year is being followed by a call from the club's Shareholders United group for greater recognition and involvement. Northampton, England's unsung hero of supporter involvement, is the only League club to incorporate a democratically elected director, a position filled for seven years until March this year by Brian Lomax.

His journey from disaffected Cobblers fan to the vanguard of Government thinking began with a post-match grumble with three fellow supporters in the Brewers Arms in Northampton in December 1991.

They formed a trust, 600 people turning up to a subsequent public meeting pledging enthusiasm and cash. When the club lurched into administration in April 1992, the trust played an important role in its recovery, paying £60,000 for an eight per cent stake and having it written into the lease of the new council-owned Sixfields Stadium, that the club must have an elected supporter-director on its board.

Since then, some improvement on the field - although the club was relegated last year - has been matched by a rebirth of community spirit and award- winning initiatives in equal opportunities, anti-racism and disability access. Lomax, 51, the chief executive of a Rugby-based charity for the homeless, is a passionate advocate of supporter involvement.

"The trust has helped to make the club accountable, to supporters and the whole community. I believe football clubs are collective endeavours, where people come together to experience a sense of community, loyalty, passion. I have always believed clubs should embody that ethos, not exploit it, and that is what we have tried to encourage here."

Chester City will shortly join Northampton in English football's small enlightenment enclosure. Terry Smith, a former American football player and coach, has bought the club out of administration, backed by his father, Gerald, a Florida-based businessman. The Smiths have agreed to give Chester's Independent Supporters Association 35 per cent of the shares, and the right to elect three directors, for the £130,000 raised in appeals to save the club.

"A football club should not be owned by one person," Smith says. "This club has been part of the city for 114 years. Ultimately it belongs to the supporters and the people of Chester."

Such attitudes are painfully rare elsewhere: Bournemouth and Charlton incorporate limited forms of supporter involvement, while at Lincoln, the chairman, John Reames, has offered supporter group Impetus a directorship if they can accrue 500 members. The experiences ofNorthampton and Chester suggest substantial supporter ownership has only been possible where a smaller club has gone bust, and, crucially, where it does not own its own ground, making the club more affordable.

Professor Jonathan Michie of Birkbeck College, chair of Shareholders United, disagrees. In two Birkbeck conferences this year and dedicated academic work, Michie has pushed strongly the potential of supporter ownership, even at plcs such as Manchester United. Shareholders United have found that as much as 23 per cent of United is already owned by small shareholders, most of whom, Michie reckons, are supporters. He believes company searches may reveal similar positions at many clubs.

"Fans even at the bigger clubs may be very surprised at how much of the club they already own. If they act collectively, they could wield a great deal of influence," he said.

The idea of mutual ownership is not new, indeed it represents a return to founding principles, when football clubs were formed last century simply to play the game, before the onset of professionalism. As long ago as 1968, Sir Norman Chester suggested in an official report that clubs should have supporter representatives on their boards. In 1991, the FA cited this approvingly in their Blueprint for the Future of Football. Until now, nothing practical has been done.

Supporters could justifiably protest at the hard work expected of them, battling, in their spare time, to nibble at multi-millionaire Premiership company owners. But the reconstituted Football Trust, and Government support, may at least represent a first step on the road to a more progressive way to run the game and its clubs. Brian Lomax, who dedicated years to Northampton with little recognition, wholeheartedly welcomed the initiative this week. He said: "Northampton has proved that supporter ownership works. Now we have to move to spread the message across football, encourage other fans to do what they can, to bring a sense of accountability and social responsibility, into their clubs."

Supporters interested in mutual ownership of their club can contact Jonathan Michie on 0171 631 6761 or on email: j.michie@bbk.ac.uk

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