Roger Titford looks at the progress of Supporters Direct, the government scheme set up to help fans play a role in running their clubs 

“Who rules the game?” In an attempt to answer that age-old question, here are two extracts from the leading football fanzine of the day. “It is clear where the way to democracy lies but it will only be followed as part of the road to socialism as a whole... Eventually I would like to see democratic supporters’ associations withdraw paying support at the turnstiles in order to force financial crises on the boards until democratic control is handed over to them.”

And, from the blue and claret corner, the legendary Burnley chairman Bob Lord: “We don’t recognise any supporters’ associations. We never accept any money from them, they hand you a couple of cheques for a few thousand and the next thing they are de­manding a seat on the board in return. My ambition is for the club to func­tion com­pletely without any money coming through the turnstiles at all.”

The fanzine was FOUL!, the date March 1974, perhaps the most politically charged year in post-war Britain. With a neat dialectical sidestep between these opposing views, we arrive today at “the third way”, the current wave of supporters’ trusts, of directors willingly taking democratically elected fans into some boardrooms.

Supporters Direct is a government-funded unit based at Birkbeck College, London. Its principal role is to enable the formation of democratic, representative supporters’ groups or trusts that will take part in the running of football clubs. It supplies grants and, more importantly, expert advice. Trusts are a step up in terms of seriousness and responsibility from the traditional supporters’ clubs and ISAs. They have greater legal and financial responsibilities and need to be prop­erly registered, safe and secure institutions. Supporters Direct was fully under way in September 2000 and its progress has surprised its own staff. Trusts are now established at 29 clubs (they anticipated ten) with another 11 in the pipeline. Supporters Dir­ect has links with fans at 82 of the 92 senior English clubs and another 35 in Scotland and non-League.

The question now is whether these trusts will make a real difference to the life of their clubs. The obvious headline case is Chesterfield, where a meeting of 22 fans went on to form a trust and take the club over 39 days later. The trust at Lincoln City has had a more measured evolution over two years. It holds a “golden share” in the club and a trust member is now the club chairman. Mem­bership stands at an impressive 750 (City’s average attendance is less than 4,000), though it is linked with season ticket holding.

Rick Keracher of Lincoln’s Impetus Trust says there is still a lot of disbelief about supporters being able to run a League club. “My personal opinion is that all smaller clubs will end up in a similar position if they are to survive,” he believes. “There are not enough millionaires out there to go around.”

At Leyton Orient the trust has just become the most significant shareholder outside the boardroom. At Sheffield Wednesday the trust has picked up a nine per cent share of the plc and at Tottenham the new trust is in dialogue with the club in a way that the old fac­tions found impossible. The size and strength of a trust are often proportional to the scale of the crisis at the club. The Tigers Co-operative at Hull recruited 1,600 members at £15 each in three weeks this spring. One of the most dramatic examples has been at Crystal Palace, where 4,000 people raised £1 million and the trust was instrumental in introducing Simon Jordan to the club. The relationship between the trust and Jordan didn’t work out, but the trust still exists and is still well funded if the mom­ent of need comes again.

Of course there will be other unhappy endings or, at least, unhappy passages. Talking to ordinary sup­porters at two non-crisis-ridden Second Division clubs, some felt it was just the same old faces in a new talking shop. Perhaps to create something on a rad­ically new scale there has to be a burning cause to gal­vanise the support and generate the interest.

Some organisations are set up as true trusts, others as companies limited by guarantee but the most fav­oured model of late is the rather arcane-sounding “industrial and provident society”. At Hull there is a genuine co-operative. At Aberdeen the trust has ev­olved from the old shareholders’ association, at South­end from the old supporters’ club, in many other places from a coalition of existing groups – which often con­tinue to carry on an independent existence too. In this first year of Supporters Direct many different formulas are being tested and lessons learnt. For in­stance, there is now a recommendation that annual membership costs no more than attending a home game.

Supporters Direct’s funding runs for two more years, by which time it is likely that trust-type organisations will be in place at most clubs. From the club’s per­spective it is surely better to step with the times and deal with a single fans’ organisation that is legally con­stituted, financially res­ponsible, media-conscious and sometimes more professional and better re­sourced in terms of per­sonnel than the club itself. Dave Boyle of Sup­porters Direct says: “The only resistance has come from clubs where there is some­thing to hide.”

In the longer perspective, it is interesting to note that the driver behind the trust movement is portrayed as economic rather than directly political; it is the shortage of mil­lionaires rather than the overthrow of millionaires that is seen to be at the heart of today’s progress. Compared with 1974 this is a more kindly third way. But there is an underlying political point in the trust movement, namely that clubs are assets to be stewarded by the community rather than owned and traded by individuals. How this sits alongside the duties larger football plcs have to their shareholders will be an interesting discussion for the future.

From WSC 173 July 2001. What was happening this month

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