By Dr Chris Porter
What do you think about when you hear the term ‘supporter ownership’? Does it excite you as a fan, or perhaps just stimulate the more scholarly or intellectual parts of your interest in football? Not that the various ways we interact with the game need to be wholly discrete, but we all surely experience a certain amount of conflict, contradiction or ambivalence as we variously play, watch and study football. For me, the phenomenon of supporter ownership – through its successes and failures – stands as a testament to the complex, often uneasy, intersection of our social, cultural and political selves as football fans in the early twenty-first century.
As a fan who’s seen my club run in ways that made me uncomfortable, embarrassed and depressed, while at the same time giving me some of the best experiences of my life, I’ve got used to switching between different ways of relating to my club and football in general. I think that’s the same for most fans, and certainly for those who also study football and fandom – a necessary strategy of selectively moving between modes of fandom, allowing us to cope with competing and conflicted feelings while continuing to invest emotionally and intellectually in our football clubs.
Beyond the supporting, the researching and writing, and the campaigning and protesting, I also some years ago found myself wrapped up in starting a new supporter-owned ‘breakaway’ club. This meant helping in my own small way as it struggled to establish and grow, surveying the pitfalls, the disappointments, becoming embroiled in political conflict, worrying about crowd numbers and finances. Perhaps above all, we worried whether we could ever feel as deeply about a new self-made club than we did about the team we grew up supporting without having to think about it. So that concept whose mention seems to annoy some academics – cultural authenticity – remains a constant concern for fans who disrupt football’s traditional relationships, no matter how unhealthy those relations have traditionally been.
I was always fine with the politics of supporter ownership – it made sense; football belonged to us (in our minds at least) and only the fans had the long-term interests of our club, and the game, at heart, so who better to be in charge? There are plenty of examples of fans taking charge of their clubs, with varying degrees of success, and in a range of different local contexts. Some supporter-owned clubs, like mine, started as new entities at a time of supporter disillusion and disenfranchisement (or some other word beginning with dis-); while others were reborn as so-called phoenix clubs after the legal form of the club had been wound up.
Other groups of fans managed to save their ailing clubs from speculators or liquidators and took on whole or part ownership stakes. Subsequent chances of success have often rested on the state of whatever discarded pieces the new fan-owners were able to pick up. The legacy of mismanagement from previous private owners would typically include debts, costly grounds and facilities that were neglected, crumbling or badly planned, as well as poor relationships with important stakeholders like fans, local communities and authorities. Usually it has been all of those things.
Whichever route or form fans have taken into supporter ownership, and whatever levels of political radicalism they might have carried into their endeavours, their clubs continue to exist within an environment not exactly nurturing of the idea of collective, democratically constituted and community-focused fan ownership. This brings inevitable tension. Not only are supporter-owned clubs often left behind by privately-funded competitors, but some supporter owners have become so disenchanted with the adventure that they have voted their democratic power away in return for the (often dubious) promises of private investment.
No one ever said it was gonna be easy, but a constant source of help for fan-owned clubs and supporters’ trusts has been Supporters Direct (now controversially ‘merged’ with the FSF). Providing advice and support on how clubs and trusts can be constituted in order to preserve their collective, democratic and sustainable ethos within the challenging environment of English football, SD has been a real force for good in fans’ battles to keep a meaningful foothold in the game they fear is being taken further away from them.
As tempting as it may be however, we can’t only blame the rapacious, free market environment for the problems supporter ownership has encountered, and the lack of traction it has garnered within broader football supporter culture. The SD-prescribed approach to supporter ownership has itself produced its fair share of disillusion and disenchantment, as differing sensibilities have rubbed up against each other at the awkward junctures of culture, politics and economics. That friction in itself is to be expected, but it is in the responses to conflict that more telling and damaging characteristics and tendencies have emerged.
What my book attempts to capture are those cultural-political points of conflict and contradiction. That broader context of the English game’s free market logic remains a structuring reality within which supporter ownership struggles on, and the ways in which football supporter culture responds to those realities, and the institutional forms the fan ownership movement has taken, is the prime focus as a number of indicative case studies are explored. Despite what may seem the negative character of that focus on supporter ownership’s faltering early steps, the book is keen to stress the positives, both to date and in looking to the future of fan ownership.
The problems that spawned the supporter ownership movement aren’t going away, so as the book concludes the concern is that the same mistakes aren’t repeated as more and more fans of English clubs weigh up their options to wrest some control away from those running their clubs. The book is, unfortunately, priced quite steeply but if you are an academic you may be able to ask your library to order a copy, or you might be in a position to order a free review copy (there’s an option to do that in the link below).