How much power should football fans have?

The last week saw another example of fan revolt, as the seemingly ridiculous rumour that Alex McLeish was to become the new Aston Villa manager actually came to fruition. Without knowing every single Aston Villa fan, it felt like they were all disgusted by the move.

A demonstration at the ground ensued, fans expressed their disgust on message boards, TV screens and with threats of non-attendance in the future. Nevertheless, Randy Lerner ignored the swell of opinion and made the appointment. Was he right to do so?

In theory, yes. Clubs are sadly businesses (not all would agree, as will be mentioned later), and like it or loathe it, those who sit on the board make the decisions, for better or worse. Clubs can’t be making player and managerial decisions on the whim of fans, as the fans can barely agree on anything anyway. It took some Manchester City fans two years to work out Nigel De Jong was a great footballer. There will never be a consensus on how good/bad Mark Hughes was, or even how good/bad Roberto Mancini is now. How can such a group make such important decisions? But fans are the lifeblood of a club, and when their opinion forms such a broad consensus as the Villa fans displayed last week, then perhaps they should be listened to. On the whole however decision-making must be in the hands of a few, as the bigger the number becomes, the harder it is to agree on anything. The world of politics proves that.

Fans’ power over player acquisitions should certainly be non-existent. In England, the almost unanimous system is one whereby the manager alone decides which players to buy (supported by his staff, especially scouts). Abroad, directors of football take up that role and the manager is more of a coach. Whichever system you may think is best, there can be no other way. Fans influencing buys is almost as bad as the owner deciding. It would only end in tears. Especially when the tears are crocodile tears because this particular player once had the nerve to play for THEM.

Of course for many clubs, fans already have a say directly in the way clubs are run, and this is a more logical route to follow. This involvement was brought home by the loss recently of funding to the Supporters Direct organisation by an offshoot of the Premier League, after some fruity tweets from its Chief Executive Dave Boyle led to his resignation and an excuse for funding to be withdrawn.

The examples of fan involvement in clubs are there domestically, though more widespread abroad. Supporters’ trusts sprung up after the 2002 collapse of ITV Digital, but while their intentions are always noble, they often struggled for success against teams with wealthy owners. And supporter-led ownership does not of course guarantee the best decisions or an imprint for success. Notts County’s supporters’ trust voted overwhelmingly in July 2009 to give away its majority stake to the Qadbak investment fund – not the best decision in hindsight. Stockport County, supporter-owned since 2005, went into administration in April 2009 and have finally fallen out of the Football League. Chesterfield and York City were also previously owned by supporters’ trusts, which saved their clubs from extinction in hideous crises, but then found they couldn’t take the club forward, and thus relinquished control.

A different approach can be found at myfootballclub.co.uk, where Ebsfleet United of the Bluesquare League are owned by the fans, as explained on the site:
Ebbsfleet United is owned by thousands of members, who each contribute small amounts annually, and vote on key management decisions like the budget, transfer deals, kit supplier contracts, kit design, election of Club officials, and even approve the Manager’s contract!

Abroad, supporters matter more. Barcelona and Real Madrid (amongst others) are fan-led in Spain. In the Bundesliga, most clubs are more than 50% owned by fans. Many a director would no doubt love to change this scenarion, with only 2 German teams owned by companies, but the fans’ power in maintaining this system has been impressive.

Back at home, Supporters Direct itself has also worked with supporters of the biggest clubs to form trusts either campaigning against damaging ownership or seeking a more active role.

And the aforementioned Dave Boyle would disagree about my earlier assertion that football clubs are businesses. He once said. “We believe very firmly that football clubs are community, sporting institutions, not private businesses.”

The thought of clubs being run by supporters is also something Uefa back strongly, as they see it as the ideal model for football clubs, and they funded Supporters Direct to extend its work to fans in other countries. This is not surprising when we consider that UEFA believe that fan-led clubs will help achieve the objective of financial fair play, where clubs do not make repeated losses every year. And anything that Uefa believe promotes their idea of financial fair play was always going to be popular. They have a point though. Whilst wealthy owners will bring a greater chance of success, and bigger and bolder buys, a club run by its members is mor elikely to be managed within its means.

AFC Wimbledon are proof of the power of fans. So too are Exeter City, rejuvenated by their own fans, and Swansea City, dying on its feet a decade ago. Swansea are still 20% owned by the supporters trust, which has an elected representative on the board.  Fans are the biggest constituent of a football club, and should of course be involved in its operation, direction, and whole ethos. But the only way to do that successfully sometimes is with direct involvement. All fans are entitled to their opinion and to demonstrate when they feel aggrieved, we are not robots or clones designed to turn up and accept whatever is served up in front of us, but it seems the route to greater success by fans can only be achieved by getting right inside the corridors of power. When Aston Villa fans allegedly caused Randy Lerner to abandon the idea of appointing Steve McClaren, they ended up with a far more unpopular choice. Most fans are simply hostages to their clubs’ fortunes, and you just have to hope for the best.

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