Today’s General Election is obviously a momentous occasion in that it will (hopefully!) establish which party or parties will run our country for the foreseeable future. It also has significant connotations for football supporters and supporters’ trust members up and down the country. Should they be elected, the Labour Party has committed to legislating to provide that all supporters’ trusts will be entitled to have at least two directors on the board of their club. Furthermore, in the event that 30% of the shares in a club are transferred, 10% of those shares would have to be offered to the club’s supporters’ trust by the purchaser at average sale price and the trust would be afforded 240 days to raise sufficient funds to complete the purchase. Should the Conservative Party retain power, or a coalition government be formed, it remains to be seen whether any similar provisions would be put in place.
The aim of the proposal is to provide supporters with a greater say in the way in which their clubs are run. This comes at a time when protests are occurring at clubs across the country, with fans venting their fury at ticket prices, kit colour and the purported greed of their club’s owners. Certain season tickets at Arsenal now cost in excess of £2,000, whilst Vincent Tan recently changed the colour of Cardiff City’s kit back to blue after outrage at his decision to make the team play in red. A perceived lack of willingness to spend money and poor performances on the pitch has led to increasingly widespread protests at both Newcastle United and Blackpool, and even led to the abandonment of a Blackpool match last weekend. The idea of the new proposals is that fans will be able to clearly express their views on club governance and ensure supporters’ interests as well as business interests are borne in mind. Supporters’ trusts have been successful at clubs such as AFC Wimbledon, Exeter City and in particular Swansea City, who have risen all the way through the leagues to establish themselves as a strong Premier league presence.
On the face of it the proposal appears beneficial, but there are drawbacks and complexities. For one thing, Labour’s proposal is merely a commitment to legislate and nothing concrete has been drawn up at this stage. If Labour were to enter a coalition, it is possible that this manifesto pledge could fall by the wayside. The legal issues and complexities that are thrown up are also interesting. The idea of taking shares away from private owners is unlikely to go down well with many, and it is possible that the ruling may deter potential investors, taking money away from the English game. This may upset the Football Association, who incidentally already has their own rules on the ownership of football teams. Just ask Massimo Cellino, the former Leeds owner who was barred from ownership of the club after failing the FA’s ‘Fit and Proper Person’ test. The FA can argue that the immense popularity of the Premier League, and the fact that supporters are willing to pay the high prices to be involved, suggests that changes are not necessary. But there is surely a limit to how much fans will take. That said, fans may be even more concerned if their club, and in turn their trusts, begin to lose money.
The German Bundesliga operates a model whereby supporters must own at least 51% of their clubs (with the exception of Bayer Leverkusen and Wolfsburg, who owe their existence to Bayer and Volkswagen respectively) and is often cited as a good structure to follow, with ticket prices much lower than in England. Whilst this is not about to happen in England, 10% and two directors is a start, although critics will complain that the ability to impact on a club’s affairs will be limited. If the legal and logistical complexities of implementing Labour’s proposals are ironed out, the idea of guaranteed fan representation is surely a positive one.