In the past four years the number of supporters’ trusts in  the lower divisions has rocketed. As Matthew Brown reports, eyes are now cast higher, for fan involvement even at the FA

Supporters Direct is the government-funded body that helps establish supporters’ trusts. Its annual conference at the end of October was hailed by its organisers as a moment for celebration. When it was set up four years ago only a handful of trusts existed and few had any real influence in their clubs, let alone board representation. Now, there are 122 supporters’ trusts at clubs in England, Wales and Scotland, 59 of which hold equity. At 39 clubs trusts are represented on the board and at eight (two in the League and six non-League) supporters have ownership or control.

According to deputy manager Dave Boyle, trusts have helped to save at least 19 clubs, bringing some £10 million into the game and involving more than 85,000 fans. Kevin Rye, the organisation’s development officer, says: “The growth has been so phenomenal it leaves you speechless. We’ve shown that we’re not just a load of loudmouths saying, ‘We can do this better than you’, we’ve proved we can do it better.”

SD emerged from the fall out of the Football Task Force, set up by the new Labour government in 1997 in res­ponse to an ever-increasing series of scandals engulfing football – bungs, racism, club mismanagement, rising ticket prices, the growing influence of the media – and the growing pressure for change from fans themselves. The task force produced four reports – on racism, disabled supporters, the “community”, and “commercial issues”. SD came out of the third report, approved in 1999 by Chris Smith, then the secretary of state for culture, media and sport.

It was funded to the tune of £250,000 a year for three years by the Football Foundation (and has just been granted another three years funding by Sport England). “For the first time the government put taxpayers’ money into a fans’ organisation,” says Boyle. “The culture in football was still hostile to fans. Directors thought we were all idiots who didn’t care about the long term and couldn’t be trusted. Fans couldn’t possibly be on boards and certainly not in­volved in owning or running the clubs. Now, whenever a club’s in trouble the role of the supporters’ trust is always mentioned. That’s a fundamental shift in how fans are perceived.”

To some, however, SD was a bit of a sop to fans, whose representatives on the task force were pushing the government to set up an independent statutory regulator. This pro­posal, supported by the majority, was fiercely opposed by the Premier League, the Football Association and others, who convinced Smith to go with their proposal for a commission set up and run by the authorities themselves. Interestingly, Smith’s special advisor at the time was Andy Burnham, now an MP and chair of SD, something which has been criticised by more radical fans’ groups.

Boyle rejects the charge, pointing out that SD was announced before the task force’s final report was published in December 1999. “It was never seen as a kind of trade-off,” he says. “The fourth report dealt with the fundamental issues – that caused the split. Trusts represented a better way of doing things than the divisiveness that had existed between clubs and fans.”

Nevertheless, the trust movement is still regarded, by some, as the “soft edge” of fan activism, palatable to a government that’s reluctant to challenge big bus­iness directly and acceptable to the Premier League and FA because of its limited influence among rich clubs. SD, on the other hand, regards trusts as a step along “a traceable direct line” from the fanzine writers and the Football Supporters’ Association of the 1980s to the Football Supporters’ Federation and independent supporters’ associations today. In fact, Boyle is on the FSF’s national council and the FSF is represented on SD’s board. But while Rye admits that “there’s lots that FSF and ISAs do that we can’t”, he also comments: “It’s easy to be critical and an angry voice. Trusts have to prove they are more businesslike.”

Boyle accepts that the spread of trusts among lower-division clubs was triggered largely by financial imperatives following the collapse of ITV Digital. “Nothing makes people jump at new ideas more than desperation,” he says. “But we were in position and now fans are chairs of clubs and proposing motions at the League AGM. We’re on the inside.” He points to the League’s introduction of a fit-and-proper-person test for club directors as a sign of their influence.

That SD hasn’t yet given fans a greater voice at the top of the game is merely proof that the battle is not yet won. “Through trusts we’ve proved that supporters should be involved at club level, that the sky doesn’t turn black if supporters are on the board. We have to do that now at national level.” Boyle believes the forthcoming independent inquiry into the FA will be an opportunity to “gain a voice at the top table”.

“The time is right for fans to have real power on its boards and committees,” says Boyle. “The game is still badly run, the Premier League still takes too much money, the FA has still not got a grip. All the issues that prompted the Football Task Force are still there.”

As Boyle admits, there are “fundamental political and ideological issues” that go beyond football, about “business versus the wider public interest”. SD is clearly about what Boyle calls “the classic British gradualist approach”. “We could call for a law to make all clubs community co-ops,” he says. “But that kind of revolutionary gesture isn’t going to happen. Trusts are the way to get where we want to be – to make clubs run as democracies for the benefit of their communities. Four years ago, what we did was dangerously radical; now we are almost respectable.”

He admits that at Arsenal, say, worth £400 million, “it’s going to take years”. “But if someone had started it 30 years ago then supporters might be near to ownership by now,” he says. “What’s more, I believe the Premiership will have its ITV Digital moment. The bubble will burst. And we are ready.”

From WSC 216 February 2005. What was happening this month

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