Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Run Your Own Football Club

Following on from yesterday's article on Peter Ridsdale, it is time to look at the exact opposite of one person owning lots of different football clubs. The idea of thousands of people owning one football club is not a new one. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, I still part own a football club. Somewhere in a dusty cardboard box is a certificate showing that I own one share in Newcastle United. Many fans up and down the country own something similar. In practice I am not naive enough to think that the certificate gives me any say in the running of the club. Quite simply - it doesn't!

There are exceptions. I still remember the story of two of my friends attempting to attend a Rangers Football Club annual general meeting many years ago. They were both fans and both wanted into the building. They were also both fond of a drink and so headed straight for a quick pint as soon as they got off the train rather than straight to the meeting. On arriving at the building they were both told that all spaces were taken and that they couldn't come in. For one this meant a wasted journey. The other, however, reached into his coat and produced a certificate which he waved at the security men. In his most businesslike and authoritative voice he pronounced, "I am a shareholder of this football club and I am entitled to a say in how my club is run. I demand you let me in!" And they did. The exception rather than the rule.

Sometimes fans get together and form supporters trusts or similar bodies. Their aim is to form enough buying power through their combined purchasing ability to buy the club and run it for the supporters. The catalyst for these trusts is often an unpopular owner or chairman, but most never achieve their aim. Some do and experience different levels of success. Running a football club is always easier over a pint than it is in a boardroom. Reality is usually very different to ideals and dreams.

A few days ago I received an email from a group called Run The Football Club.

    RunTheFC is giving anyone the chance to have a say in how a REAL Football Club is run. The official launch date is yet to be confirmed, but a mailing list, twitter, facebook, google+ & blog has been set up. Also by signing up to the mailing list, you will receive a copy of the 1 page RunTheFC Manifesto which explains the concept in a bit more detail.

Being the curious type (ok nosey) I decided to reply and find out more. I subscribed to the mailing list and received a copy of their manifesto. The aim appears to be to gather a large number of participants to contribute a small amount towards purchasing a real league team and running the club as a consortium.

    RunTheFootballClub.com (aka RunTheFC) has set an ambitious goal of finding 50,000 people to Pledge £20 plus a £2 monthly recurring membership fee to raise funds to purchase a Football Club in the English Football League System.

An interesting, if by their own admission not original, concept. Should Run The FC manage to secure enough subscribers then the bought club would be run on a one person one vote system. A club run by fans for fans. Democracy at work in football. That is the big question though. Does democracy work in football?

I mentioned earlier that I own a share in Newcastle United. It doesn't take a genius to work out that, unless I had really cruel parents who enjoyed getting me unwanted Christmas presents, I am a Newcastle United fan. As well as being the easiest example for me to draw upon, Newcastle also provide the antithesis of democracy at work in Football. Mike Ashley, owner of Newcastle United, is never going to win any popularity competitions in the city. The decisions he has made during his tenure as owner have more often than not resulted in widespread discontent among the Newcastle faithful. I have to hold my hands up and confess that I was one of those 'widespread discontent.' I have been a huge critic of Mike Ashley. I was furious when Chris Hughton was sacked, perplexed when Alan Pardew was appointed, disillusioned when Andy Carroll was sold, downright confused when three more of our best players were allowed to leave and livid when no striker was bought in the summer. I was not alone. Neither am I alone in being both delighted and surprised that, rather than struggling against relegation, Newcastle seem to be having quite a good season. How can this be?

If Newcastle had been run as a democracy, with each of the 50,000 fans voting on club policy, then this season we would undoubtedly be watching Joey Barton and Kevin Nolan playing alongside a £30 million striker bought with the Andy Carroll money, and doing so under the watchful managerial eye of Chris Hughton. The question is, would we be watching them in the championship - or worse still reading about the bailiffs knocking on the door of St James' Park (it wouldn't be the Sports Direct Arena in a democracy)? Reading this you may dismiss such possibilities as being the work of 'deluded' Geordies. The truth is though that the Geordies are no more 'deluded' than supporters of any club. Did all 50,000 fans at the Emirates support Arsene Wenger's transfer policy at the start of the season? Not the ones phoning 606 and talking about relegation being a possibility. How many fans of any team can look back honestly and say they have not complained about a decision only to admit later they were wrong? Sometimes the popular decision is not always the right one. Would it be taking things too far to say that the popular decision is usually the wrong one?

Football fans do not always know best. Come to think of it, football fans don't even always know what they want. Even on a footballing front, football fans often do not have enough in depth knowledge to know what is best. Add in the fact that football is now a business, and like it or not it is, and not many football fans - myself included - have enough knowledge of running a large business to know what is best in the long run. We're not programmed to think long term. Our mates at work do not make fun of us because of what will happen next season or five seasons time. They make fun of us because we lost on Saturday. We want success now.

The concept of 50,000 people running a football club by popular consent is fraught with problems from a practical point of view. There is also a deeper issue, a moral one, with the idea behind Run The FC's manifesto. The idea of what a football club is all about.

    RunTheFC wants to revolutionise the world of Football. Can we collectively run a Football Team that was never going to get anywhere and turn it into a powerful force capable of bull dozing it's way to the top of the Premier League through sheer determination, relentlessness and hard work from not only the players but the members of RunTheFC pooling their ideas and strategies?

"A football team that was never going to get anywhere...bulldozing it's way to the top of the Premier League." All 92 league clubs have a history. They all have a loyal fan base and they are all part of a community. They are already somewhere. You cannot take over the identity of a club for the sake of a project or an experiment. The consortium who took over Wimbledon tried that. They moved the club to Milton Keynes to take advantage of an unused catchment area. They stole the club from the fans though. The MK Dons experiment may be working, but we should not be under any illusions that this is the same club or that they have taken Wimbledon on a new journey. The Wimbledon fans started their own team and have now re-earned the right, that was stolen from them, to support a league team by working their way through the pyramid system. If the Run The FC project is successful in attracting the backing it is looking for then it will need to be very careful of how it uses that backing. True success is measured in more than league position. Fans of clubs outside of the Premier League love their clubs just as much (perhaps even more when you take into account glory hunters) as Premier League club's fans. If they wish to take over a club rather than nurture the heritage of an existing one then it may be an idea to earn that right with a new club rather than 'bulldozing' the history and identity of a club with an existing fan base.

I may sound like I am being extremely negative about this proposal. However, I actually think there is a lot of merit in the idea. Many of those 92 league clubs, with all of their history and heritage, are struggling to survive. Football finances are on a knife edge and if £1 million can be brought into the lower leagues from money that would not otherwise have been in football then that may not be a bad thing. Nobody likes to see a football club go to the wall, and if this project can prevent one of them from doing so then that can only be good. Any problems with the idea proposed by Run The FC are not so much about the sentiment behind it, rather the means to get there.

Every owner of a football club, whether that is a single person or a consortium of 50,000 members, should want their club to be the best it can be. I don't know if Run The FC will be successful in gathering 50,000 active participants. I have my doubts as these are not easy times. If they do though, they should recognise that success should not be judged on bulldozing a team's way to the top of the Premier League, something that requires much, much more than £1 million anyway, but rather on establishing the long term existence of a club with the potential to be the best it can be - whatever level that best is at! This is a very good idea, though one that will not be easy to achieve. I for one wish them every success. However, more than that, I wish them a wise and generous outlook. If they are successful in achieving their goal they will be taking on more than a project. they will be taking on the hopes and dreams of a long established community.

To find out more about the Run The FC project, and to receive the full manifesto, you can visit their website or email them on info@runthefootballclub.com


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