Simon Menary discusses the future of Supporters Direct in the wake of unfortunate publicity and threats to their funding
Supporters Direct (SD) has been briefly reprieved after an unfortunate series of tweets from its former chief executive nearly killed it off (as referred to in the editorial in WSC 294). But its long-term future remains unclear. In May, chief executive Dave Boyle celebrated the elevation of fan-owned AFC Wimbledon to the Football League with a Twitter rant at those responsible for the relocation of the original club to Milton Keynes.
No one at the Premier League initially noticed, but director of public policy Bill Bush was alerted. The Daily Mail then got on Boyle's case. A few days later a driving force behind the trust movement – and a Premier League critic – resigned from his job. That was not enough for the Premier League. Annoyed by SD's initial response to Boyle's outburst, they threatened to pull £1.5 million of funding for the organisation over the next three years, money that was channelled through the Football Stadia Improvement Fund (FSIF).
Opprobrium followed to such a degree that Premier League head of communications Dan Johnson commented on a David Conn piece about the furore on the Guardian's website. "Many of you have posed the question why SD is funded by the Premier League," wrote Johnson. "The simple answer is no one else wanted to. Not even the last Labour government whose policy commitments gave birth to the organisation."
During this row SD kept a low profile, not speaking to the media for fear of inflaming the situation. All three political parties came out in support of SD, however, and an Early Day Motion was tabled in the House of Commons on June 13 opposing the Premier League's move. After talks between SD's new chief executive, Brian Burgess, and the FSIF panel, a £268,000 grant was agreed on the eve of the SD's annual Fans' Weekend in Chester on July 15. That leavened what would have otherwise been a gloomy occasion, but the future remains uncertain as SD heads into what should be its best season yet.
Swansea City are about to become the first club with a significant trust stake – of nearly 20 per cent – to play in the Premier League. Exeter City continue to prove in League One that a trust can successfully operate a reasonably sized professional side, while AFC Wimbledon are now just a division below their nemeses from Milton Keynes.
With all this to celebrate, there is much to fear. Talks over SD's new funding had been delayed even before the Twitter saga and the group's cash reserves have been hit. Major cuts are not practical at an already lean organisation that only has 11 staff. Six SD employees cover England and Wales, two staff work on European initiatives and Scotland respectively, and one more covers rugby league, a sport with growing interest in the trust movement.
Last season, the Premier League funded SD to the tune of £610,000, so the current grant will not last long. Despite all the evidence of what fans working together can achieve – 170 trusts formed, more than 50 clubs saved – SD needs more help.
Long-term grant applications were made to FSIF a long time ago. Unless those grants are now approved, the prognosis for SD is dire. The three-man FSIF panel chaired by Bush that agreed the recent grant meets again in late August to discuss the tranche of applications that would secure SD's future for the next three years. What will happen before then is the much-delayed publication of a parliamentary select committee report into the governance of football.
One of the questions that the committee sought to address was: "What are the main pros and cons of the Supporter Trust share-holding model?" The members of parliament on the committee took evidence from fan groups, including SD, and also Exeter City, but the publication of the report has been delayed by the phone hacking scandal currently engulfing the country.
The MPs were due to meet on July 19 to sign off the report, but that meeting was postponed and publication is now scheduled for July 29. What if that report advocated greater supporter involvement just as the Premier League had pulled the plug on funding for the main resource to achieve just that? That would surely prove particularly embarrassing for BSkyB at a time when the organisation's main shareholder was already the subject of intense public scrutiny.
From WSC 295 September 2011