Vote of confidence

When Ebbsfleet were bought by 32,000 fans last February it was heralded as real-life fantasy football. A year on membership has fallen dramatically. Gary Andrews ponders the future

It’s unlikely any champagne corks would have popped at the headquarters of (MyFC) on the anniversary of their takeover of Conference side Ebbsfleet United. For a start, they probably wouldn’t have been able to afford it given their membership – and with it the cash that kept the project going – had just dropped from 32,000 to under 10,000.

When the internet site announced its intention to buy Ebbsfleet in February last year many media commentators pondered if, by putting the fans in charge, this was the ultimate reaction to the Premier League experience (never mind that fan-owned clubs such as Stockport, Exeter and AFC Wimbledon had been doing just fine). Fleet fans, on the other hand, reacted with a mixture of confusion, cautious welcomes and, in some cases, outright anger.

The idea behind the project was straightforward, the execution less so. MyFC members paid £35 a year (cash that went towards the club and the upkeep of the website) and in return they got to own the club and vote on everything from budgets and kit right through to transfers and team selection.

It was the latter that has proved most problematic. Many fans, sold on the idea of playing fantasy manager for real, signed up only to find a pick the team option wasn’t available. A vote on whether or not fans or the coach, Liam Daish, should pick the team only crept in earlier this season, and this goes some way to explaining why so many have chosen not to renew.

At the start, though, MyFC achieved success of sorts and without the cash injection from the website, Ebbsfleet would have struggled to continue as a full-time club with play-off aspirations. The membership rose to around 32,000, and they became the first club to let the fans vote on a transfer. The sale of teenage striker John Akinde to Bristol City netted the club £150,000. Earlier this year, the fans voted again on a transfer, saying “yes” to buying Darius Charles from Brentford for £25,000.

MyFC members also voted to freeze ticket prices and this season’s playing budget and, last May, around 26,000 Ebbsfleet supporters saw their side defeat Torquay 1-0 at Wembley to lift the FA Trophy.

But if it all seemed like a perfect real-life simulation of fantasy football, the numbers told a different story. Of the 32,000 members, only 18,112 voted on the takeover of Ebbsfleet itself – the first and probably most important vote in MyFC’s short history. That was a record high. 7,452 voted on the John Akinde transfer, 6,757 voted on season ticket prices and just over 3,000 voted on the signing of Darius Charles.

The members also came incredibly close to picking the team for their postponed league game against Wrexham in January. The difference in votes between whether Daish or the fans should pick the team was just 38, but that was from a total number of just 492 voters. Or, to put it another way, just 1.6 per cent of the total membership cared enough to vote on one of the key selling points of the website. And with 227 members voting to pick the team, the issue of the starting XI could have been decided by less than 0.8 per cent of the membership.

MyFC’s owner, Will Brooks, has said that the project needed 15 to 20 thousand members to renew to keep the project on track. At the end of February the membership stood at 9,500, although around 4,300 of these joined after February 2008 or had signed up for more than one year, so their money would have either been budgeted for or spent.

What this means for the future of Ebbsfleet isn’t clear. Although MyFC are around £343,000 short of the total they’d hoped for, there should be enough cash to see out the rest of the season. After that, part-time status seems a probability, assuming the website doesn’t decide to cut its losses and sell up. If MyFC stay the course, the coming seasons are unlikely to be easy for them.

Meanwhile, the membership has broken down into those who still passionately believe in the project and those who feel let down, and in the middle of this are the Ebbsfleet fans who didn’t ask for the takeover and haven’t joined the scheme. If Ebbsfleet come unstuck due to MyFC, it’s this group who will have to pick up the pieces.

From WSC 266 April 2009