The alternative to a new foreign owner: let fans run your club

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The Independent Football

Not every fan dreams of a foreign billionaire buying their club, some of them want to run it themselves and, at a growing number of clubs, they are.

While Premiership clubs are being hawked around the globe Notts County, the oldest club in the professional game, are on the brink of becoming the latest to be taken over by their own supporters. They will become the sixth such club in the Football League and 15th in all. This may not seem many but when clubs are disappearing into the portfolios of unaccountable individuals, it is an encouraging trend.

The development was highlighted at the recent conference of Supporters Direct, the body which guides and promotes the supporters' trust phenomenon. The first arose from a parochial campaign in Northampton in 1991. There are now nearly 150 whose combined membership of 115,000 has put more than £10m into football and has boardroom representation at 46 clubs.

Indicating its growing influence was the presence, at the conference, of Uefa's William Gaillard and Richard Caborn, the minister for sport. Caborn was there to announce an increase in funding of £1.8m over the next three years. Gaillard revealed Uefa was to investigate rolling out the concept across Europe.

In the chair was the man who kicked it all off, Brian Lomax. Fifteen years ago, Lomax had a daughter who was a dedicated but disgruntled Northampton Town supporter. The club was a mess, deep in debt, poorly run and playing at a rusting joke of a ground. When he realised the club had been reduced to paying players from gate receipts - "you'd see the captain walking through the bar after games with a sack of coins like Father Christmas, doling out the wages" - Lomax knew a crisis was approaching and called a public meeting. Six hundred turned up including players.

Lomax then worked for the Mayday Trust, a charitable organisation housing people with disabilities. He formed a supporters' trust along the same lines. Although ineligible for charitable status, trusts have the same principles: transparency, democracy, unpaid administration and a not-for-profit status. Not exactly widespread values at traditional clubs.

Northampton soon slid into administration. The trust worked with the administrators in rescuing the club and raised £60,000, enough to buy a stake in the club and two seats on the board. The council then provided a smart new ground, Sixfields.

Word got around. Kettering and Darlington led a clutch of imitators and soon the new Football Task Force recommended funding. Thus was born Supporters Direct.

There are some caveats. The movement's impact in the upper echelons of the League is restricted by cost. Taking over Brentford is one thing, finding £300m to buy Aston Villa is something else. "It is harder as you go up the League," said Lomax. "With effort and diligence the figures are achievable up to League One but at larger clubs trusts have to settle for influence rather than control."

It might be thought that putting fans in charge would lead to reckless spending, as with Leeds under Peter Ridsdale and Crystal Palace under Mark Goldberg. But clubs which come under Trust control have usually been to the precipice and have no wish to return. The downside is they can struggle to succeed on the pitch, especially as some of the tax and accounting laws are against them vis-à-vis clubs which are part of conglomerates and whose losses can be offset. York and Rushden & Diamonds both dropped out of the League under Trust control and subsequently reverted to private ownership, albeit York's owner is heavily involved in the trust. "The trust there did its job," said Lomax. "It raised £1m in nine months to save the club." It also kept the team at Bootham Crescent, which had been separated from the club and sold for development, and still retains an influential voice in the club.

Saving clubs in crisis has been the most significant achievement. Partnerships like that at York may be the way to bridge the resource gap between fan collectives and Premiership costs. Another template is at AFC Telford where a partnership with the local authority has led to the club becoming a "community hub" providing healthcare and education services.

It makes a change from megastores, restaurants and night-clubs at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge.

Fan power Supporters' clubs

* FOOTBALL LEAGUE: Bournemouth, Brentford, Chesterfield, Lincoln City, Stockport County.

* NON-LEAGUE: AFC Telford United, AFC Wimbledon, Cambridge City, Enfield Town, Exeter City, FC United of Manchester, Newport IoW, Runcorn Linnets.

* SCOTLAND: Clydebank.

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