You would be hard pressed to work out what a gnome dressed in a Mansfield Town home kit has to do with former Stoke and Swansea striker Paul Connor. Saying that, the link between Oxford United's Jake Wright and a crested mug could be considered to be equally confusing. But both footballers have been direct recipients of creative financing as fans turn to new and increasingly innovative methods to fund players' salaries.
Mansfield Town's business development manager, Paul Nyland, is also the administrator of the club's 12th Stag fund."I'd come across the 12th Man group at Oxford United and had been keeping an eye on its success," he explains. "In March 2010, I suggested to the directors at Mansfield that we ask fans to support players' wages and they were delighted, as was the manager at the time. And after the first month of collecting for the 12th Stag, we realised we were onto a good thing."
Mansfield supporters raised funds through a range of events and merchandise – including those hand-crafted gnomes. In return, the 12th Stag donated funds to pay part of Connor's wages, and ensuring he could be signed from Lincoln City. The fund went on to raise over £21,000 that season alone, while new signing Connor finished the season as top scorer, with 11 league goals.
At Oxford United, the group that inspired the 12th Stag's creation have enjoyed similar success with their 12th Man fund. Formed two years ago, the group have raised nearly £40,000 to ensure manager Chris Wilder has extra monies available in a "ring-fenced transfer fund to be used to sign players, pay wages [and] bring in emergency loan signings". Badges, mugs, bracelets, special edition prints and manager masks have been sold, bringing in cash and helping to ensure the arrival of new players – including ex-Brighton defender and current U's captain Wright, who has gone on to make 36 league starts. Plans are now afoot for a speciality beer to be brewed, while 12th Man jewellery is also soon to be available.
One level further up at Exeter, fans have been paying part of the wages of the player in the No 31 shirt since 2009. The 1931 fund, named after the side's run to the sixth round of the FA Cup, is run by Alan Crockford. "It seemed natural, after promotion to League One, to launch a little scheme where fans were able to pay £19 extra a month to get a player who we know is directly paid for out of our money," he says. "It's just a nice way of doing that bit extra for Exeter City and getting something vaguely tangible out of it."
The link to players seems to have been a major factor in the scheme's success. Many of those who contribute to the 1931 fund are Grecians living out of town, donating what would be their match ticket money. The fund's latest contribution ensured that ex-Southampton midfielder and current No 31, Callum McNish, signed in July.
Like the Exeter fans, members of the 12th Stag have no input on player signings, "though I'm sure they'd like to" adds Nyland. He is also confident that the close relationship between general supporters' groups and more specific funds can continue: "I have a great relationship with the other fan groups, because we're all working towards the same thing. For example, we've got a derelict stand which is boarded up and has a hole in the roof. A supporter said to me that we should run up a list of donors willing to contribute if the ball ever made its way through the hole during a match. Some pledged £20, there were tenners here and there. One bloke said he'd donate £500 each time the ball went through."
By the end of the season, three balls had made their way through the hole at Field Mill – and raised the club in excess of £3,000. Which brings us back onto the black depths of football finances. Nyland admits that fans shouldn't need to donate further to pay player salaries, but says that the current funding structure, particularly in the Conference, makes groups such as the 12th Stag a valuable addition. And when the gnome in your front garden helps to pay for the winning goal on a wet Saturday afternoon in Mansfield, everybody's happy.
From WSC 296 October 2011