Fans find their voice as 20,000 people become part of an internet revolution, reports Vince Taylor
It’s only natural that Ebbsfleet United’s supporters should feel apprehensive about the impending takeover of their team by MyFootballClub, and a visit to the organisation’s website will do nothing to allay their fears. Invited to part with £35 and in the process become the owner of a football club, would-be investors are reminded that this is no more than the cost of a computer game. With a proud history going back to the 19th century, have Ebbsfleet United unwittingly turned themselves into a real-life version of Championship Manager?
The MyFootballClub.co.uk website was set up by journalist Will Brooks in April 2007, who was of the opinion that when it comes to running football clubs, the views of ordinary fans are far too easily ignored. If 50,000 people could be persuaded to stump up £35 each, enough money would be raised to buy a stake in a club, but that was not all. Members would be given the opportunity to vote on team selection and tactics, and also offer suggestions about who to buy and sell.
Earlier this season there was speculation that Leeds United were the preferred choice of the organisers, but, somewhat anticlimactically, especially for the those members not au fait with English non-League football, the Kent-based Blue Square Premier club Ebbsfleet United won the day. Having already accumulated 20,000 paying members from all corners of the globe, enough money has been raised to allow MyFootballClub to purchase a 51 per cent controlling interest in Ebbsfleet, with the option to buy the remaining portion. The sale is expected to go through in the New Year, once due diligence has been completed.
A moderately well supported club for their level (average 1,165 last season), Ebbsfleet United have particularly deep roots in the riverside towns of Northfleet and Gravesend, which are located on the southern banks of the Thames, around 25 miles to the east of London. Before the change this year to reflect the post-industrial regeneration that is going on in the region (taking on the name of the new Eurostar station), the club were known as Gravesend & Northfleet, the antecedents of which go back to the 1890s.
Though Ebbsfleet United’s players will only be a click of a mouse away from being dropped, they will be performing on a football ground that has been around since the reign of Queen Victoria. A ground less hi‑tech than Stonebridge Road it would be difficult to imagine, but, right down to its 1914 wooden grandstand and old-fashioned terraces, it is a wonderful throwback – somewhat at odds with Ebbsfleet’s newly adopted computer-age image.
MyFoootballClub, set up as a not-for-profit trust, is certainly not going to make its members millionaires, even if Ebbsfleet do win promotion to the Football League and the riches that lie beyond. The annual fee of £35 does not attract any dividends – any profits are ploughed back into the club and the only reward on offer is the satisfaction of seeing one’s chosen team doing well on and off the pitch. Those already running Ebbsfleet will continue to do so in a non-executive capacity, and team manager Liam Daish has accepted a change of title to team coach.
Solid performers in what was until this season the Conference, the extra funds that have been made available could propel Ebbsfleet into the Football League and it seems that both the club’s board of directors and the supporters’ trust view MyFootballClub’s involvement as a lucrative sponsorship deal rather than a fundamental threat to the club’s independence.
Last year’s Conference champions, Dagenham & Redbridge, achieved the feat with a squad that cost around £3,000 in transfer fees. Having a big budget is fine in principle, but producing a winning team at non-League level has much more to do with having a manager with good contacts and an able scouting network. One has to ask whether a far-flung cast of thousands, many of whom will never see Ebbsfleet play in person, will be in an ideal position to second-guess a coach standing a few feet away from the action. And when it comes to recruiting new players, it’s a fair bet that a former big-time performer down on his luck will garner more votes than an eager young unknown, irrespective of who will do the best job for the team.
Though one suspects that having 20,000 people pick a football team is computer interactivity gone mad, the league table will tell its own story at the end of the season. Whether it’s right and proper that a club built on the sweat and tears of generations of supporters should be reduced to the status of an internet plaything is another matter.
From WSC 251 January 2008