Trust in me

For clubs in trouble, bringing the fans on board can help stabilise a crisis and renew confidence. Ken Gall reports on the experiences at the Sixfields Stadium and Tannadice

In a world of Russian billionaires, Franchise FC and “living the dream”, it’s not hard to see why greater supporter involvement in the boardrooms of UK clubs is to be desired. The rise of the supporters’ trust move­ment and the arrival of fans – elected or otherwise – as directors has been a wel­come development and one of the few beneficial consequences of the financial shambles that is UK football.

So anyone whose club is threatened with extinction, administration or re­moval to a far-distant hockey sta­dium could do well to study the advice offered by two of the pioneers of the movement, North­ampton Town, who had the first such trust in the UK, and Dun­dee United, which had one of the earliest in Scotland.

Tony Clarke combines his day job as MP for Northampton South with a post as the elected supporters’ representative on the Cobblers’ board, while Derek Robertson – now an (unelected) director at Tannadice Park – was one of the instigators in United’s version, the Arabtrust.

“When the Northampton trust was formed, the club was faced with extinction, and we worked with the receiver to get supporter representation on the board,” says Clarke. Northampton’s fans have endured some near-chaotic changes of fortune – a dizzying array of chairmen and managers in a 12-month period, as well as proposed investments from a John Fashanu-fronted Nigerian consortium and the controversial Italian lawyer Giovanni Di Stefano, coincidentally now at Dundee’s Dens Park – but stability now seems secured.

Clarke is sure that the involvement of the trust has played a part in steadying Northampton’s ship. “The trust has a strong relationship with chairman David Cardoza,” he says. “The fans are now better versed in the way the club is run and are not so reactive.” The sense of Northampton as a “community club” has also grown over the period of the trust’s involvement.

Dundee United’s position was some­what different when the Arabtrust was formed. Al­though not faced with im­minent financial collapse, the club was stagnating under chairman Jim McLean, who ran the club at times as if it were his personal property. Indeed, says Robertson, Mc­Lean came up with the deathless com­ment that he was in favour of the prin­ciples and objectives of a supporters’ trust “so long as that did not include a share issue or supporter rep­resentation on the board”. This, of course, was rather like claiming to be a Christian so long as that does not include adhering to the Ten Com­mandments.

Alas, McLean’s near-legendary altercation with a BBC TV journalist led to him selling his majority position in the club to local businessman Eddie Thomp­­­son, whom the Arabtrust had backed as an  alternative to McLean. “Access to shares is crucial,” says Robertson and – at some cost to himself – United’s new chairman has pledged to make a healthy quota of shares available to the fans. In doing so, one of the primary aims of the Arabtrust – that of opening up the club to the supporters – will be achieved.

A recognisable and acceptable structure in terms of elections and votes is also an imperative for aspiring trusts. Clarke is the second elected representative at Northampton and stands annually for election; his Westminster experience is probably useful.

Both men agree on some of the fundamentals for new trusts. First, professionalism is a must. “Respect must be earned,” says Clarke, adding that “force of argument and not the passion” of a fan must win the day. With that, however, must come “the management of expectation”, as Robertson puts it. One would like to think that greater supporter involvement would have prevented Peter Ridsdale from making some of his more notorious gaffes at Elland Road, but “the fans’ representative may be only one out of a board of five, seven or more”, says Robertson.

Perhaps the most positive aspect has been the  fans’ growing awareness of their own power. “No  club could afford to turn away an investor offering to put in £1 million a year,” says Robertson, “but that is precisely what supporters do, year in, year out.” The clubs sur­vive thanks to the fans; some representation in the decision-making process would seem a fair  quid pro quo. Although more than 100 trusts are now up and running across the UK, the movement is still in its infancy, but there are undoubted successes; clubs such as Morton and Exeter would surely no longer exist were it not for their fans’ trusts. As the financial position of more clubs deteriorates, the work of fans and trusts is going to increase in importance if others are to survive.

From WSC 203 January 2004. What was happening this month