Can Supporters Trusts Work At The Highest Level?

Time for Glazers to leave Manchester UnitedFootball: it’s our game. Nobody else’s. It does not belong to the overweight, ill-fitting suit wearing cats at FIFA or UEFA, nor does it belong to the overweight, ill-fitting suit wearing mercenary owners of many a club in the Premier League era. Though it may sound a touch contrived, football is the possession of the fans, and the fans only.

The game has tilted back and forth throughout history, swinging between distinct eras of ownership trends: from the post-war rise of the local businessmen at his local club through to the monumental wealth and global composition of today’s Premier League, football clubs in England have generally been in the hands of those with little experience of what it truly means to be a football fan. Recent years, however, have witnessed a noticeable shift in this pattern. Supporter’s trusts are increasing in prominence, whilst the emergence of clubs such as AFC Wimbledon and FC United of Manchester detail the willingness of fans to actively engage in the operations of their clubs. Are we seeing a new era of fan ownership surfacing, and is it sustainable in an era of football as the embodiment of a globalized, capitalistic environment?

The Glazer’s recent decision to partake in a partial flotation of Manchester United on the New York Stock Exchange was met with cautious skepticism, yet recognition of opportunity by the Manchester United Supporter’s Trust (MUST). Initial media reaction seemed to suggest that this was a chance for supporters to purchase shares and become greater involved in the democratic process at the club, but such optimistic forecasts were wide of the mark. MUST responded to the announcement by stating:

“our aim is to provide Manchester United fans with the opportunity for mass supporter participation in ownership of their club. This could well be the precursor to such an opportunity.”

Evidently, MUST are eager to initiate a process whereby Manchester United supporters are able to acquire greater control over the club, yet are strangled by the commitment of the current hierarchy towards the outright maintenance of power. What the Glazers are essentially asking is for others to shoulder the burden of their mammoth debts whilst they themselves retain ultimate authority. The endeavours of MUST are commendable, yet they face a gargantuan monster in the shape of the Glazers. It is a monster susceptible to slaying, but one that will not go down quickly. Perhaps it is too soon for the fan ownership model to prevail at the highest level; further down the ladder, however, success stories manifest a little easier.

Swansea City’s story is one which offers glaring hope to disenchanted fans of Premier League clubs. Falling helplessly into the football wilderness at the end of the 2002/2003 season, the club’s recent exploits as upholders of footballing virtues in the top flight owes much to the astute operations of the Swansea City Supporters Trust. Backed by a consortium of local businessmen, the Trust gained ownership of the club in 2002, with Swansea wading deeply amongst a severe financial tide. Yet within nine years the club would be playing in the Premier League, a testament to the pivotal values of stability and sustainability and sensible management that fan involvement can bring. As current Swansea chairman Huw Jenkins surmises:

“It is mad for the football authorities not to encourage supporter ownership more – the game is about supporters.”

Most recently, Wycombe Wanderers became the latest Football League club to be taken over by their Supporters Trust, joining Exeter and AFC Wimbledon as well as Wrexham and AFC Telford in the Conference. In these existing cases, the takeovers have brought with them much needed security after years of financial peril. Reformed clubs Wimbledon and Telford have seen a rise back up the pyramid after the existing clubs disbanded, whilst Wrexham were brought back from the brink of extinction and only narrowly missed out on promotion back into the Football League last season.

These models work as they operate within a more compact, less magnified world as that of the upper levels of the Premier League. Clubs who run on limited resources and work entirely within their means are still able to attain success: in the Premier League, however, the gargantuan sums needed to acquire the trophies necessary to appease fans are beyond the limits of Supporters Trusts. Swansea have built their lot through a process of gradual development and have survived their first season with ease, but how long can their model persist in the Premier League?

The dream of top clubs being run by supporters is achievable, but a long way away. The insatiable power hunger of those at the highest level must first cease before action is possible. Unfortunately for fans of top clubs, the money men are a little more stubborn than anticipated – they are firmly wrapped up within the chains of greed.

Do you believe supporter operated clubs are a a realistic proposition? Tweet me @acherrie1