At first sight, it might seem like an idea for a new comedy. A football website buys a controlling interest in a serious football club, promising the 20,000 fans who have each put up £35, not only joint ownership, but an equal say in team selection, player transfers and the running of the club. “Own the club and pick the team”, says the website.
A closer examination of the project reveals a wonderful experiment in democracy and co-operative decision-making, made possible by the internet. Football at the top end, of course, like everything else, has been sucked into the orbit of big business and the exceedingly rich dilettantes, oligarchs and billionaires who control it. It has been turned into a capitalist industry with the primary purpose of making money and satisfying the egos of the owners. Many fans have been excluded by soaring ticket prices from even watching their teams.
It couldn’t be more different at Ebbsfleet United (formerly Gravesend and Northfleet FC), in North Kent. Proposals from the new owners are not only designed to give the fans a voice and a share of the club, both on and off the pitch, but also to stop any possible takeover or abuse by one or more individual interests. It is open to all to pay the £35 (less than the cost of a ticket to watch many premiership matches) and become a voting member, including those living overseas (which will help the club’s scouting network, says the site), but nobody is allowed to buy more than a single share. “All profits generated by the club will be re-invested in the club, meaning members will not be paid a dividend or share of these profits… There will be no shareholders who take money out of the club.”
How will the team be picked? “The head coach will brief members online. This will include a review of the previous match, reports from the training ground and views on the forthcoming opposition. He will also give his thoughts on players, their form and fitness, as well as possible selections and tactics. Members will then submit their preferred 11, formation and tactics. A database will calculate the most popular choice. This will be handed to the Head Coach to instigate.” The manager (to be re-named head coach), the players, the full-time employees and everyone involved are all supporting the takeover of Ebbsfleet United, currently 9th in the Blue Square Premier League and only one promotion away from getting into the Football League proper.
The plan is unheard of in football; in fact it is rare outside the game. Several clubs have been formed by supporters trusts, but none of them have this level of input and control by members. Wimbledon AFC in 2002 and FC United of Manchester in 2005 were both set up as not-for-profit trusts by fans infuriated at decisions taken, with money and profit in mind, by the directors of Wimbledon and Manchester United.
Both these new teams are doing well and regularly get gates of between 2,000-3,000 at home matches, far larger than any of the other teams in their league. Soon after the takeover of Manchester United by the Glazers, one of the fans of the new club, FC United, Martin Howe, said: “The excitement is back in my football life. The banter with the fans, the quality of the football, the pricing and , best of all, the feeling of being part of something that is not funding unscrupulous men in suits, but is ours, it belongs to all of us”.
Developments like these at Wimbledon and Manchester, and now at Ebbsfleet arise from a powerful hostility to the commercialism rampant not just in football , but in all sport. And they point the way to new forms of ownership and co-operative working in the wider world beyond sport.