Sleeping with the enemy

The relationship between football supporters and the game itself has been somewhat bizarre for many years. There’s been a romantic notion that clubs belong to the fans, and that without the many thousands who flock to grounds each week there would be no beautiful game. As the seasons play out, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

TV money rules. The Premier League has pulled clear financially, but at all levels the lure of ownership continues to see businessmen (and women, like Delia Smith at Norwich) flock to the board room table promising passion, fancy plans and, crucially, cash. Some deliver, others deceive, and many gamble and lose everything, leaving themselves and the club concerned in the mire. It’s a lucky dip for supporters who don’t even pick the ticket, and yet the promise of success is usually enough to hoodwink most into trusting another shiny suit with a briefcase often packed with nothing more than stale sandwiches.

Many of the mega clubs are now owned by oil families or insanely rich individuals backed by corporations. They are largely anonymous faces coining blue chip salaries, hatching deals more appropriate to London’s square mile. At Manchester United, a supporters’ trust backed by several wealthy fans failed to regain control of the club a few ago when they were priced out. Figures quoted to secure the Old Trafford keys topped the billion pound mark. Not bad for club once located amid rows of terraced houses and factory chimneys, with crowds fresh out of a Lowry painting wearing flat caps, scoffing meat pies and noisily shaking rattles. A dreamy image, but I wonder how many would welcome a return to such times?

At some clubs the trend has been bucked, but it’s no surprise that the bulk of fan-owned (or at least clubs where supporters hold a sizeable stake) can be found in the lower reaches of the Football League. Even then they have little power. Worse still, when times have been hard their own fans have been known to turn on them, demanding a return to the perceived normality of having a sugar daddy at the helm. Unfortunately, higher up the greasy pole there’s money to be made, and in come the suit-clad vultures with pristine club scarves hiding corporate ties and cuff-links.

Fans - Chester promotion day, 1994

So do fans hate the people who run “their” clubs? Initially, no, especially if games are won and trophies lifted. But when the coffers run out, players walk away and relegation rears its ugly head the natives become restless. However, cries of “sack the board” usually fall upon deaf ears, as supporters rarely find themselves in positions of sufficient power to even cast a vote in the board room. As fans we are impotent. Bouts of bravado like threatening to boycott games soon fade as matchday approaches. We are brand-loyal, and we even pay for our loyalty cards!

In my idyllic football world clubs would be owned by supporters. There would be no dividends paid; instead any profits would be reinvested in the team, supporter facilities and community training pitches that would ultimately feed the club with gems. League members would adhere to sensible financial rules; players would don the shirt with pride, not with half an eye on their next transfer. Prices would be affordable. Wages would never again be allowed to rise unchecked, perhaps tagged to inflation just as mine and yours are. I know, I’m deluded.

So can supporters and business types co-exist as contented bedfellows? Grudgingly, I suspect such sleeping arrangements will persist as marriages of convenience until the revolution. That or when the SKY/BT-TV funding bubble bursts, and revenues from broadcasting rights drop into the realms of reality. Perhaps then genuine football fans might be able to get a financial slice of the action, ultimately taking collective control of what really should be community assets.

We live, sing and support in hope!

2 Comments

  1. Matt Boston

    I’ve often wondered if it would be possible to run a club in a truly sustainable manner. In other words, the players contracts would be written so that the players would never get paid more than the club could afford to play, but conversely would automatically get rewarded if the club found themselves in a position to pay more. I’m sure there must be players outside the elite who would except that on a longer term contract if they felt that they had a stake in the club rather than just being a commodity.

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  2. Jules Hornbrook

    In effect, reward for success. I think most fans would agree. Keep club in top third of league and they receive more. However, if in bottom third they drop to lower wage. But would that be an incentive to play better, train harder, or would they just take the money and quit at end of the season? Ideally, I’d love to see more home-grown players wanting to play for their home town club. But, with greater riches elsewhere (and not necessarily in a higher division) it’s not hard to see why players want to switch and follow the cash. Ultimately, fans love seeing players wear the shirt with pride. Hence why players that achieve ten years at a club receive a testimonial and are cult figures on the terrace.

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