It’s a shot in the arm for the beautiful game at a time when questions of how the sport is run continue to be in the spotlight as the new club season begins.
At the top of the game, big clubs have become bigger brands and magnets for billionaires and global businesses. That has seen clubs leveraged with debt in a bid to chase on-the-pitch dreams and off-the-pitch dividends.
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Manchester United has been saddled with almost £600m in debt since the Glazer family took over in 2005 with the owners pocketing up to £11m per year while Premier League clubs have a combined debt of around £3bn.
The money-making efforts among the elite have moved the game away from fans. That was no more apparent than when the breakaway European Super League was announced and quickly shelved in April 2021.
For clubs further down the football pyramid, unfit owners and living outside of means can have ruinous consequences. Derby County are starting life in League One for the first time since 1986 after mismanagement almost pushed the club out of existence. For other clubs, like Bury in 2019, it spelled the end. Fans are the ones who suffer the most.
But for some clubs, football really is nothing without the fans. Fan ownership of clubs offers a defiant alternative to moneybags owners and overpriced season tickets. It’s a chance to start a new club moulded in a new image – an understandable reaction to the financial meltdowns that have sent old clubs to the wall.
It’s also a way to return clubs to their original purpose of serving their community and making sustainability as much of a goal as silverware.
Around 40 clubs in the football pyramid are owned by fans, including three professional clubs in the EFL: League One’s Exeter City as well as AFC Wimbledon and Newport County in League Two.
Richard Irving is the Football Supporters’ Association’s network manager for community-owned clubs. He tells The Big Issue community and sustainability are at the heart of the model.
“We want clubs to be funded by the community, supported by their community and have the heart of the community,” he says.
The government announced a fan-led review of football governance, led by MP Tracey Crouch, back in April 2021. The report recommends new tests for owners and directors as well as the creation of an independent regulator.
While community ownership didn’t factor heavily in the review, there has been a movement towards more fan takeovers, even before clubs reach crisis point.
“We are beginning to get a lot more calls from people saying: ‘We’re not in any form of crisis but we think this is the model for us. We believe that it can work in our club.’ We believe it can work at all clubs,” the FSA’s Irving adds.
“We don’t necessarily think that every football club will be community owned in the future. To my mind that would be an absolute utopia and what I would like to see happen, but the reality is very different. There will always be different ownership models, but our endgame is to make sure that the community asset that is the football club is sustainable and there for future generations.”
Here are 11 football clubs that do things differently.
1. FC United of Manchester
Famously conceived in a Manchester curry house, FC United of Manchester was set up as a two-fingered salute to the excess and greed behind the Glazer family’s 2005 takeover of Manchester United.
Fans were fed up with paying sky-high ticket prices to service debts leveraged on the club by new American owners happy to take a healthy dividend.
Enter FC United. The club has 1,120 owners with each paying at least £15 to have one vote on major decisions made democratically by the club. The club’s constitution does not allow a shirt sponsor and does not allow an individual or company to ever buy the club so “no fat-cats can get their hands on our club’s money”, as FC United puts it.
Now in the Northern Premier League, the club made it as high as the National League North – two promotions away from the EFL – in 2015 before slipping down a division in 2019.
FC United is also a not-for-profit organisation. When the club’s ground, Broadhurst Park, opened in Moston, Manchester, in 2015, it wasn’t just for matches. The club also has the mission of improving welfare and wellbeing and education and employability in the area.
The Big Issue played a small role in helping the club. The club secured £175,000 in loans from Big Issue Invest – The Big Issue’s social investment arm – in February 2019 to help pay off outstanding loans relating to community loan stock held by individuals that funded the stadium.
Danyal Sattar, Big Issue Invest chief executive, said: “This is what the future of football should look like. Grass grows from the roots and so should football. We were and are proud supporters of FC United.”
Natalie Atkinson, FC United’s chief executive, tells The Big Issue that the money paved the way for the club to support people around its North Manchester base through one of the city’s busiest food banks during Covid lockdowns.
Now FC United is focused on bolstering its community offering, which includes employment and digital inclusion programmes, with the likes of cooking classes while grappling with football’s increasingly commercial nature.
“That’s been a big move for us, having a commercial plan,” says Atkinson, who joined FCUM in March after previously working at Oldham Athletic.
“Because FC United is a football club that didn’t want commercialisation because of what was happening at United. The world has changed, we have to change with it.
“That doesn’t take away from why the reasons the club was set up and our purpose. We have strategic goals to deliver that community value and the club still being very much at the heart of the membership and it belongs to every single member.”
2. AFC Wimbledon
Perhaps the most successful fan-owned club on the field, AFC Wimbledon was set up by fans after Wimbledon FC was pulled out from underneath them and moved 67 miles from south London to Milton Keynes.
The long road back up the divisions began in 2002. The club began in the Combined Counties League before six promotions made them the first club formed in the 21st century to make it to the EFL in 2011. They finally moved into a new stadium at Plough Lane in 2020, just yards from their original home.
It’s now 20 years since more than 1,200 Dons fans crammed into Wimbledon Theatre and voted to create The Dons Trust, the not-for-profit supporter’s trust that owns the majority share in the club.
The Dons continue to operate democratically with 4,400 members and still live up to their Crazy Gang ancestors from the 80s – this year the club unveiled a home kit and an away kit in near identical shades of blue.
3. St Mirren
Scottish Premiership side St Mirren have been fan owned since the summer of 2021 after the ‘Buy the Buds’ campaign put fans in charge.
The St Mirren Independent Supporters Association (SMISA) now own 51 per cent of the club with a further 27.5 per cent owned by social enterprise Kibble.
Not only does that bring two Paisley institutions together, it also helps the club take advantage of Kibble’s expertise in helping kids in care to access job, training and sporting opportunities.
As Kibble CEO Jim Gillespie put it: “This partnership will help change the lives of some of the most vulnerable young people in Scotland.”
4. Newport County
The Welsh side went bust in February 1989. In June of that year the club was reformed by 400 fans and elected to the Hellenic League (at the time, four divisions below the Football League. They became known as the Exiles after being denied permission to return to their Somerton Park home.
The reformed club powered through the leagues and now competes in League Two – the fourth tier of professional football in England.
The club’s supporters’ trust maintains the majority stake in the club backed by membership tiers between £5 and £50 a month. Each fan is given a vote on big decisions while some tiers even have access to open training sessions.
The money raised through the fundraising also helps the club in the transfer market – an increase in subscriptions funded the signing of Joss Labadie back in 2018.
5. Exeter City
The Grecians are top of the table when it comes to fan-owned clubs, having been promoted to League One last May with AFC Wimbledon going the other way.
That means the club will be taking on clubs with much greater pedigree – and stories of boom and bust – such as Bolton Wanderers and Sheffield Wednesday, while sticking to an ownership model that requires sensible control of the purse strings.
“We can’t suddenly say let’s try for the Championship. We will be doing our best! But our playing budget probably suggests that’s out of our reach at the moment,” says Exeter City chairman Nick Hawker.
“But who’s to say in a few years’ time we can’t do that? You could look at the model and say it’s unlikely to be successful, even in League Two, but we keep proving people wrong.”
The Exeter City Supporters’ Trust became the majority shareholder of the club after it slipped out of the EFL in 2003 and chairman John Russell and vice-chairman Mike Lewis were arrested over allegations of financial irregularities at the club.
That left supporters with the task of rebuilding the club in non-league and tackling extensive debts of £4.5million as a result.
That debt was successfully cleared in 2005 – thanks in part to a lucrative FA Cup draw with Manchester United in 2005 that led to a reply and income of £1m across the two games.
Exeter returned to the EFL in 2008 backed by 2,500 members with supporters continuing to donate £100,000 to the running of the club each year. The club has come top of the table in the Fan Engagement Index – a yearly measure comparing clubs based on dialogue with supporters – over the past two seasons.
“Getting supporters more involved is a good thing because you are bringing on board a dose of common sense,” says Hawker.
“The supporters understand that fuel’s gone up, that food bills are higher. They understand that there are a lot of problems in the world and Exeter City exists in that world. Not in a slightly bejewelled world where everything’s a bit fantastical and people live the dream without quite knowing how much it’s costing.
“There’s definitely room for supporters to have the opportunity to say, “We want our club to be here in 10 years’ time. And if that means not winning the league next season, so be it.”
6. York City
The new kids on the block when it comes to fan ownership, York City Supporters’ Trust only took over the National League club last month.
The trust previously held a 25 per cent stake in the club but purchased the remaining 75 per cent to buy out owner Jason McGill in July.
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A former EFL side, York had spent five years languishing in the National League North – the sixth tier of the football pyramid – after successive relegations in 2016 and 2017 until promotion to the National League last year.
Now the club, which moved to a new council-owned stadium last year, is tackling its first season under fan ownership with the mantra: “We are a united York City tribe and can achieve anything when we all work together”.
7. Bury AFC
The high-profile demise of Bury FC in 2019 highlighted the damage unscrupulous owners could do to clubs.
Since then, Bury FC’s Gigg Lane ground has played host to Boris Johnson more often than football matches. The prime minister visited the ground in April to announce the government’s reforms to football governance.
Bury AFC formed almost immediately after Bury FC was expelled from the EFL to keep football going in the town and the new club is now in the Northern Counties League Premier Division.
Far from the financial mismanagement of Bury FC owner Steve Dale, the club operates a membership model with each member paying £5 per month.
Now the community benefit society behind Bury AFC, The Shakers Community Society, is working on a merger with Bury Football Club Supporters Society to bring football back to the club’s “spiritual home” Gigg Lane.
Enfield Town has been fan-owned longer than any club in the UK – it’s now 21 years since the trailblazers broke away from Enfield FC.
That was a “scary” proposition at the time, according to Enfield Town chairman Paul Millington, when supporters chose to start afresh after their club had been left with no ground and playing outside the London borough.
“It was all done in a very short period, so it was a manic time but an exciting time as well,” says Millington.
The club founded two decades ago was built to last and still uses the same model, with more than 300 members each having a share of the Enfield Town Supporters Society that owns the club.
The club secured its own ground, the Queen Elizabeth Stadium 11 years ago, and now plays in the Isthmian League Premier, the football pyramid’s seventh tier.
It’s been hard work “maintaining the impetus” of the club’s early years, says Millington, but he takes pride in the club’s role as a trailblazer.
“It could have crashed and burned but what I feel particularly proud of is the fact that it didn’t, it’s been very successful,” adds Millington. “I hope it has encouraged other clubs to take the same route. The idea that supporters don’t know how to run their football club is just a nonsense.”
9. Dunstable Town
“On your head!” doesn’t just mean winning a header at Dunstable Town – mind matters are part of the club’s ethos.
Playing in the local Spartan South Midlands Premier Division, the club became a Community Benefit Society in the summer of 2021 and now chairman Andrew Madaras, a retired psychiatric nurse, has set about making the club a champion for mental health issues.
Now Dunstable Town operates walking football teams, addiction recovery support groups and sessions to tackle loneliness after years of carrying mental health charities as shirt sponsors at no charge.
Madaras says the shift in focus to fan ownership has seen the club go from the point when they faced voluntary relegation after its owner and benefactor walked away five years ago to increasing attendances, volunteers and sponsorship.
“Monday to Friday the club’s activities are concentrated on community work and then on a Saturday, it’s back to playing football,” he said.
“I want our community activities to have equal value, equal importance and equal exposure with the football club. I want us to be known as, not just a football club, but as a proper social enterprise.”
10. AFC Liverpool
The A in AFC Liverpool stands for ‘affordable’ with the ‘Non-League Reds’ set up in 2008 to offer people priced out of Anfield a chance to keep football in their lives.
The semi-professional side play their football six promotions from the EFL in the North West Counties First Division and while the team might not be able to match Jürgen Klopp’s side, the club’s connection to the community is just as eye-catching.
AFC Liverpool goes to great pains to state that its existence is not an attack on Liverpool FC or a rejection of the Premier League club. “We believe that football should not be a TV show and exclusive to those who can afford it,” as they put it.
11. Lewes FC
Dubbed ‘Equality FC’, Lewes became the first – and, so far, only – professional or semi-professional football club in the world to treat its women football the same as its men.
That means both teams get the same playing budgets, pitches and training facilities at The Dripping Pan with the club arguing it makes “business sense” to invest in each side equally. England’s success in the Women’s EURO 2022 can only strengthen their case.
Arguably the move could only be possible at a football club that is 100 per cent fan-owned and not-for-profit. Lewes became a community benefit society in 2010 after six supporters calling themselves Rooks125 took over the club in a bid to beat financial troubles.
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