Non League Daily

Supporter Ownership: Giving the game back to those it belongs to

As a child growing up it's a safe bet you dreamt about scoring the winning goal in a cup final for your club. Maybe you dreamt about being manager one day.

But what about going that one step further and actually owning the club that you support?

That is no longer a dream scenario for a whole host of supporters at, amongst others, Dorchester Town, Chester FC and Wrexham as they have all become Supporter Owned clubs.

In going through that process they have enlisted the support of Supporters Direct, a body set up in 2000 to provide support and assistance for member trusts to secure a greater level of accountabililty and deliver democratic representation within football clubs.

Ahead of "Supporter Ownership Week" Supporters Direct Chief Executive Robin Osterley insisted that, no matter what level a club is functioning at, the game will always belong to the supporters and that is what the organisation prides itself on maintaining.

"We have 180 member trusts, 40 of them are majority shareholders in their clubs, the remainder of which are working alongside their clubs in a number of different ways. What their task is ensuring they have a measure of influence and control at the club for the supporters to give them a voice, it is an enormously variable picture admittedly.

At Premier League level you might have a trust that are a critical friend of a club, rather than aspiring to take control with a significant amount of shares. You might have supporters as directors or working in roles at the club, you have partly owned clubs like Swansea City. There is every concievable scenario and our job is try and redress the balance as bit.

It is fantastic that the Premier League has injected so much money into football. The question is if that money is being spent as effectively as it could to help the people for whom the game really exists and that is the supporters, the people who go and support their clubs by going to watch matches"

Far from being purely about success on the pitch, Osterley believes that the biggest attraction for supporters looking to own their club is down to one thing, "sustainability". A number of clubs have gone out of business, as owners chase an impossible dream, leaving supporters to sift through the wreckage long after an owner has moved on.

With supporter ownership comes a more robust style of management, something Osterley believes supporters value amongst anything else.

"The attraction is there because it offers a sustainable approach so if you club is set up properly by a supporters trust, in line with our model, the whole unpredictability that can occur if you have one or a small number of people in control of your club doesn't happen. There is more resiliance, there is more openness and there is more transparancy so supporters and the community in which the club is operating can see exactly what is going on.

You won't get a situation where you wake up one morning and find your whole club has been sold or the stadium has been sold for example. None of that sort of stuff will happen. They are ran as non-profit organisations so you can see the club could be more financially sustainable, you aren't operating purely to turn a profit. The primary reason for it is to be happy with the way it is running and not to make money out of it"

So what of the process? How does Supporters Direct help a normal match-going supporter become a part-owner of the club they love? Far from being a short-term support, Osterley explained that the organisation's backing stretches far beyond the date a takeover is complete at a club.

"We will help a club through the entire process. They will be supported through setting up an investment vehicle, which is called a supporters trust, that is a body of supporters which is set up to be controlled by a democratic set of principles and with certain financial safeguards involved. If people invest in it they know there money won't be ransacked and used to buy a glamorous new player, there money is safe.

It will be used to the benefit of the club. That is the first stage and basically to get the supporters organised in a sensible and democratic way. Then we help them with negotiations with the current owners, help them with fundraising with things like a community share offer for example and we help them through the whole legal process.

Probably the most important thing about it is the supporters confidence, to be honest it's not any different from owning any other type of business. But some supporters don't feel it is something they can do so quite a lot of what we do is put them in touch with other people who have been through the process to show you don't have to be a brain surgeon.

Most clubs are ran by normal people who are lifelong supporters, who have decided this is what they want to do, so that can help instill some confidence"

There are many success stories at supporter owned clubs. Only this week Merthyr Town set the seal on promotion from the Evo-Stik Southern League Division One South and West league title, a feat that one of the more high-profile supporter owned clubs, FC United of Manchester, seem set to match in the Evo-Stik Northern Premier League.

An honest Osterley admitted that whilst there is pride in seeing success on the pitch at clubs Supporters Direct have supported, success comes in many different forms for those clubs who have been through the process.

"There is pride there, absolutely there is. Success on the pitch is massive and hugely important for any club. But it is worth saying that some clubs that aren't find they are successful in lots of other ways. If you are undertaking a large community involvement, if supporters are happy and enjoy going to games, that is really important too.

That is particularly true further down the pyramid. They are places where people go to meet their mates in the community and to have a happy time, although obviously promotion and success is important, they aren't the be all and end all of supporter owned clubs"

Starting on Monday 11th April is Supporter Ownership Week, an initiative set up by Supporters Direct to raise awareness and funds to help them provide more Trusts with the opportunity to own their clubs.

A Crowdfunder account has been set up to take donations and Osterley believes the week can be a success in a two key ways, something that has received the backing of clubs the organisation has helped in the past.

"Supporter Ownership Week is about awareness but we clearly hope our Crowdfunder will be successful. We want to raise £20,000 to push the boat for supporter ownership, so it is a two-fold objective for the week, to raise money and to raise awareness of supporter owned clubs and those potential supporter owned clubs. It seems to me there is more interest in supporter ownership and it seems like a really good time to be doing this"

The clubs we have supported through the process are supporting us next week, both financially and by putting on events. There are a whole host of activities taking place throughout the week, for example on Monday night we are doing an interview at Waterloo in London to celebrate the success story at Portsmouth and hopefully we can have a lot of people there to support and celebrate what they have done there"

During 'Supporter Ownership Week' will be showcasing five different clubs and looking at how supporter ownership has helped them develop.

If you want more information on Supporter Ownership Week then click here

And to donate to Supporters Direct "Crowdfunder" account click here

Interview: Mark Carruthers
Image: Supporters Direct

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