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Dublin: 13 °C Tuesday 2 September, 2014

Column: Football fans are taking back control of their clubs – and it’s working

This year’s League of Ireland has shown that supporter-run clubs can be successful. But it’s about much more than results on the pitch, writes Kevin Rye of Supporters Direct.

Kevin Rye

Shamrock Rovers and Cork City won the Premier and First Divisions of the Airtricity League in the past week.

Both clubs have come through some turbulent years – at times flirting with extinction – but are now owned by fans’ groups.

UK-based Supporters Direct, a sports fan organisation, believe this model is the way forward for clubs in Ireland and throughout the world. Here’s why.

SUPPORTERS’ TRUSTS AND ownership by the fans is not a new phenomenon in the League of Ireland.

Shamrock Rovers, as you will all know, is the most prominent example of ownership by supporters, and the recent resurgence of Cork City under a similar model is another cheering story. Lesser known is the long road being travelled by the Galway United Supporters Trust (GUST) in their restructuring of the financial mess at the club; pretty much the singular reason for their dire league season.

Pleasingly, coverage in England of Shamrock Rovers’ Europa League group match against Spurs was liberally peppered with references from the commentators to the club’s ownership by the fans, and moreover, having rebuilt it, their determination is not just to stand still but to keep running the club properly – doing all in a sustainable manner – and achieve further, without putting it at risk again.

This is probably in part because the media in England have seen 11 years of supporters’ trusts, framed in the ever-increasing debt, bankruptcy of over 50 clubs in the top four divisions since 1992 – including even Premier League clubs. Alongside the rise of clubs like AFC Wimbledon and Exeter City under ownership by the fans – and even the promotion of part-fan-owned Swansea City to the Premier League, they can in all seriousness no longer pat us all on the head when we say fan ownership not only works, but can be successful. It’s an alternative vision of how football can be, and they have to sit up and take notice.

Although Shamrock Rovers’ results have largely placed them in the public eye, specifically their Europa League qualification, results are still fleeting. We all know that one week you can be flying high, and just weeks later, struggling in mid-table. But ask the people at Rovers, and I’d be very surprised if they tell you that short-term results are the point of what they do.

In my experience, too many football clubs – and this applies across Europe – have all too often been looking exclusively for the next day’s headlines, or worse still, the next day’s planning applications or bank lending rates, rather than whether the club has a strategy for long-term player development, whether the latest marketing campaign has yielded any improvement in income or whether the volunteers or the kids at the club are being properly looked after.

I recently visited a club – somewhere in these Isles is all I will say – where an individual, under his own steam, had established a youth side, which he did with the support of the club, with little or no financial assistance. It brought under the club’s wing a group of youngsters playing in the club’s colours, which could ultimately help to feed the development of a conveyer belt of talent. Yet importantly it also meant that parents, other family members, friends and the wider community would have a connection with the club, as well as all the benefits those connections entail in terms of growth in the long-term.

A few short years later, with little or no notice, the youth team was ditched by the club with no good reason, dumped in a suburb miles away, with the individual concerned left to pick up the pieces. What’s remarkable is the youth side still plays in the colours of the club, and if the regime changed, would be back like a shot, because the value of this association is clear to them.

Cultural shift

And that’s where this new(ish) movement in Ireland is not simply about having a fan on the board to make everyone feel better about themselves; it’s about a fundamental cultural shift in the relationship between those who run football clubs, those who follow them, and the local communities in which those clubs are based and which sustain them.

It’s also about doing business better. At Supporters Direct we’ve long since ceased fearing the word ‘business’ when it comes to football clubs. It’s not as if a majority of football clubs even generally grasp the principles; despite the claims to the contrary, too many privately run football clubs don’t even do that bit properly; just one look at the balance sheets, the borrowing, the poor commercial and marketing work of football clubs, tells you all you need to know.

We pride ourselves as a movement of not just being more open, transparent and of being democratic, but also of knowing through a combination of instinct and hard work just what a specific kind of business a football club is and how to run it.

We all know football clubs are special; they’re not simply places we head to week-in-week-out for entertainment – ask the fans of Galway United!

As these fans themselves know, a football club is a living institution, more important to its fans and community than simply the 90 minutes each week, or the current manager, players – even directors and officials.

It’s a collective enterprise. It’s a community thing.

  • Kevin Rye is Network Development Manager with Supporters Direct, a football fans’ organisation that has helped over 180 fans’ trusts.

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