Tim Hillyer discusses the ongoing debate at The Football Supporters’ Association about the distinction between ‘supporter-owned’ clubs and ‘community-owned’ clubs.
Recent developments at Wrexham and Cork City have thrown supporter ownership of football clubs into question. Is this the latest in a pattern of trust-owned clubs selling out to private ownership, following Portsmouth and others? Is there a limit to the progress of fan-owned clubs?
News that 98.6% of Wrexham trust members had voted to sell their club to a couple of American actors came as a huge surprise. There seems to be zero connection between Hollywood actors, Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, and the town of Wrexham, let alone the sixth oldest football team in the world, the third oldest professional club and the oldest in Wales.
“We don’t see why it can’t have a global appeal. We want Wrexham to be a global force” said Reynolds, quoted on the BBC Sport website. He and McElhenney plan to make a documentary series about the club.
They have guaranteed that it will not be “relocated, renamed or rebranded”. The lure of the promised £2 million investment appears to have swayed the vote. For how long can the interest of distant owners be maintained? It remains to be seen what changes will be affected, and whether the focus will be short-term progress on the field by increasing the playing budget or long-term sustainability.
Cork City had been seen as the leading example of a supporter-owned club in the Republic of Ireland. However, relegation in October and hefty losses before and during the pandemic led to a desperate approach to Trevor Hemmings owner of Preston North End.
The initial contact was built upon discussion over the sell on clauses of a couple of young players, Alan Browne and Sean Maguire, whose initial transfers had saved the club previously. It became clear though that a takeover by Hemmings’ company, Grovemoor, was the only hope and the fan owners voted to sell by a simple majority.
In England and Wales, supporter interests are coordinated by the Football Supporters’ Association (FSA) which incorporates the activities of Supporters Direct (SD). Fan-owned clubs are included in a network described as ‘Community-owned Clubs’.
There are three elected representatives: Neil Le Milliere from the trust at Exeter City; Nick Duckett from FC United of Manchester; and Tim Hillyer from The Dons Trust. Andy Walsh, previously General Manager of FC United, and the Head of Supporter Engagement and Governance, Ashley Brown, previously CEO of SD and ex-Chairman of Portsmouth Supporters Trust, both work full-time for the FSA. Recent activity has centred around the situations at Bury and Macclesfield Town.
There are currently 43 clubs run by their supporters. AFC Wimbledon is currently the highest-ranked in the pyramid. During 2020, five clubs joined the network, which lost Wrexham recently and Wycombe Wanderers last year (also to a US-based investor). However, there is another model which is gaining momentum and offers an alternative route.
Both Exeter City Supporters Trust and The Dons Trust allow corporate membership. The Dons Trust gives companies the same rights for the same annual cost as an individual, i.e. one man, one vote for £25 pa. In contrast, Exeter City offers benefits in exchange for a greater level of subscription.
By comparison, Chesterfield FC, the fourth oldest football club in the country, is now owned by the Chesterfield FC Community Trust. Their most tangible presence is at the stadium where The Hub is open every day of the year (except Christmas Day and New Year’s Day). Their main focus is health and education. Instead of being an independent charity or trust, the Community Trust took over the club with the help of the county council and the local authority.
Another example is Wythenshawe FC which is formed as a Community Benefit Society. They are community-owned and raised a significant sum by issuing community shares to improve their facilities. Crewe Alexandra also recently raised £1/4 million to buy a stake in their club.
Are these distinctions important? Possibly, but only in how the fans, the wider community and the football club interact in each instance. Those relationships are governed by relative levels of ownership and the constitution. There is no one perfect model. Each situation demands its own solution.
Next year, The Dons Trust will be reviewing our own Constitution. As part of the process, we will be looking at how other clubs have resolved their own problems, looking for examples of best practice, and develop our own version. That starts at the forthcoming AGM, at which a paper will be presented for member approval.