“Football without the fans is nothing.” – Jock Stein.
Football without the fans is nothing. A statement that resonates with fans of the game all across the world. Forget TV money. Forget sponsorship deals. Forget the hyperbole of the transfer window and the fees that follow players and managers around. At the end of any given day, it is the fans that matter in our game. Without fans, there would be no game.
I recently wrote an article about the worry I had for many clubs in the UK out-with the Premier League’s financial monopoly. The examples I used to highlight my concern were Bury and Macclesfield.
Macclesfield Town football club founded in 1874. Bury Football Club founded in 1885. The Premier League founded in 1992.
Two historic footballing institutions: Macclesfield – formed by volunteers enthused by both rugby and football in their town and Bury – formed local footballing enthusiasts with links to church football with the aim of creating clubs that a community could follow and support for generations to come. The other – The Premier League – a modern phenomenon founded by television executives and elite club chairman and chief executives with the aim of maximising financial rewards from television to aid the progression of the beautiful game.
Fast forward 145 years since the formation of Macclesfield, 134 years since the formation of Bury and 28 years since the dawn of the premier league and football has reached what feels like a cautionary time. 28 years in the premier league has 20 clubs within it who share the spoils of £5.14bn of income from television alone. The EFL on the other hand has just agreed a £595 million tv deal to be shared between 72 clubs over the next 5 years. With such a cataclysmic gulf in finance and marketability of EFL clubs compared to their fellow English – albeit world renowned Premier League – clubs, it is no real surprise that the reality and future for fans of football league clubs compared with those of the premier league paint a stark contrast.
Bury football club were expelled from the English football league due to financial complexities in 2019 and go into the new 2020/21 – whenever that will eventually be – having formed a phoenix club – Bury AFC – who are will play in the tenth tier of English football after applying to join North West Counties Football League. Meanwhile, Macclesfield plagued by financial worries in recent years languish towards the relegation zone in the Football League with concerns over what relegation could mean for them.
So what is the way forward for clubs well outside the elite and the holy grail of guaranteed millions even for finishing bottom? For me in the case of many clubs competing in the tiers below the elite the answer in has to be some form of fan ownership.
The two examples close to my heart are Chester Football Club and Greenock Morton Football Club.
Chester FC are fully fan owned by the fans group City Fans United. I am a part owner of the club through my membership of City Fans United as I like many other followers of Chester contribute at least £12 a year for membership of CFU which in turn grants us voting rights at the club, access to important board/club meetings and crucially a say in the day to day running and future of the football club.
To quote City Fans United “Chester Football Club is founded upon the Club motto, ‘Our City… Our Community… Our Club…’ Having a club that is a cornerstone of our community is of paramount importance. This not only includes working with local schools but also embracing the local footballing community and reaching out to the wider community.”
This sense of community has seen the club rise from the ashes of the old Chester City FC to become a sustainable club currently in National League North with aspirations of returning to the Football League in the years to come.
Greenock Morton on the other hand are not a fan owned club. However, that may change in the future due to the work of an independent fan-led group called ‘Morton Club Together’ that works in partnership with the football club. They formed in 2019 and their vision is ‘to contribute to the delivery of a viable, sustainable, successful Greenock Morton Football Club into the long term future, both on and off the park, for and with the Morton community.’
So far they’ve been a success in the sense that they’ve now got over 400 members contributing financially to back their vision and in partnership with the club they now contribute just over £7,000 per month to the clubs wage budget. This is something that has been acknowledged by the club on numerous occasions – namely in the case of new signings and contractual renewal agreements for players currently at the club – therefore, it is clear that the relationship between the club and MCT is strong and united.
Ultimately, the aim of MCT is to make fan ownership of Morton a reality. However, it may also – unintentionally – have shown another way in which football can became sustainable outside of the elite – through a hybrid ownership model.
Rather than have an all encompassing owner who runs the club on their terms, is a structure that fans can have a credible voice in as well as a financial stake in the way forward? Time will tell of course. However, it is my personal view that fans need to have far more of say in their football clubs whether that be through direct fan ownership, a hybrid model of both a benefactor working in partnership with a fans group or by having members of a supporters trust on the board with the duty of representing fans and reporting back to them on all key matters to ensure transparency in how their football club has been run.