Of all the places in the world, Ebbsfleet United seems a strange club to attempt to start a footballing revolution at. But today there's much hype, excitement and general hyperbole about the future of football, as fans site myfootballclub.co.uk announce their takeover of The Football Club Formerly Known a Gravesend and Northfleet, or TFCFKAGAN for short. For those not 100 per cent au fait with the altruistic website's aims (and who can't log onto it due to the heavy amount of traffic), it can basically be signed thus. Twenty thousand plus members have all chipped in £35 with the aim of buying a club, and running it along open, transparent and democratic principles, where the fans have control and vote on all aspects of the club, right down to team selection.
Sounds great, doesn't it? The REAL fans reconnecting with a club and keeping out all those evil millionaires who so slight the Beautiful Game. Which is fantastic, but this is a football club we're talking about - a private business - not a peace keeping mission to restore democracy to Pakistan, which seems almost more in keeping with the site's mission statement.
Still, there's been a real grassroots fans movement in recent years, with Supporters' Trusts coming to the fore. Surely this is not only a logical conclusion, but good news for the game in general.
Well, in a few words, no. No it isn't.
In longer words, It’s as near to pure communism or socialism as you’re going to get in football, and while a community owning the club is, in principle, seems attractive, there’s all sorts of areas that are heading for trouble on this.
Firstly, there’s the potential for this to be a footballing version of Orwell’s Animal Farm. You’ll have some people with more experience than others, you’ll have some with better ideas than others, and you’ll have some with inflated senses of their own importance. Eventually there’ll be the realisation that pure democracy within a business such as a football club isn’t effective, and there'll be much bickering as those at the top try to convince those at the bottom that THEY KNOW BEST.
Secondly, I can’t see somebody like Liam Daish, or any other football manager worth his salt being overly happy about having his tactics and plans dictated to him by fans. These views may differ wildly and you’ll probably end up with a conservative consensus formation for most games. That may be fine for some, but on other occasions a more attacking or specific formation/tactic may be required for a specific game. That’s what scouts are for. Having fans, especially a large number of whom who’re not familiar with lower league football, and who won’t have the inclination to scout Crawley v Droylsden to get a handle on tactics, is another recipe for disaster.
You’re also going to face problems with firstly signings and secondly cash flow. I can see a vast proportion of those who’ve put money in wanting ‘names’ to sign for them and there’s a real danger they could end up signing aging pros at the end of their career on vastly inflated salaries, at the expense of gems from the lower leagues, or even the youth system.
Take Dagenham and Redbridge. Their top scorer last season, Paul Benson, came from way down the lower leagues (not much further above park football), while Craig Mackail-Smith, now at Peterborough, also came from down the lower league pyramid. My team Exeter City signed a guy called Matt Taylor from Team Bath over the summer, who is somewhat of a lower-league Vidic and has turned out to be somewhat of an inspired signing, having netted for us half a dozen times this season from set pieces, make a couple of vital goal-line clearances and is generally a defensive colossus. Again, not the kind of player a group of fans would vote on, as they’d have never heard of him. That’s the manager and scouts’ job.
This doesn’t even consider the very daft idea of transparency which, presumably, involves ensuring the balance sheet is available to all. If rival clubs know how much cash the club can spend, they’ll adjust their prices upwards accordingly. That’s not going to help Ebbsfleet.
Also, there’s the players to consider in this as well. How would they feel knowing their future ultimately lies in the hands of the fans rather than the gaffer, who’ll often see things on the training ground the rest of us aren’t privy to.
For example, last season two Exeter players – Richard Logan and Dean Moxey – were out of contract. Logan had been signed in January on a six month contract and had looked average, bar the odd spectacular goal. Moxey was a youth product who’d had an injury hit couple of seasons and appeared to have lost his way. I advocated releasing them both. Paul Tisdale begged to differ with my opinion, and those of a vast proportion of our fanbase. The upshot? Logan is currently our top scorer having reached double figures before November, while Moxey is having the season of his life and has easily been our best, most consistent player and should be the first name on the team sheet each week at the moment. Goes to show what I know.
In the short term, and with the type of cash they’ve apparently got floating around, it could work. TCFKAGAN may sign a couple of decent players for their push to the play-offs, it’ll attract interest, and potentially more cash, for the club.
But the BSP (or Conference to you and I) is a notoriously difficult league to get out of , and if the success takes a while in coming, I can see interest in this dwindling as all those Premiership or casual fans who’ve got enthused lose interest in a team that’s hovering around in the top-tier of the non-league and gradually start to stop paying their subs.
Sure, Ebbsfleet may pick up a few extra fans, but how many of these will be there come the end of the season, or even the following season when Fleet need to travel to Northwich on a cold, wet Tuesday night to keep in touch with the play-offs. Say you, as an Arsenal fan, put you cash into it, but the team had a poor run of form and it was a choice between stumping up a bit more cash or staying in to watch the Gunners in the Champions League on the box? Which would you choose?
Finally, I think their choice of club is a poor one. Ebbsfleet are a bit of a ‘one of those’ clubs. They periodically threaten the play-offs and have a reasonable band of support but, much like Woking, they’ve not really achieved anything in recent years and suffer from their proximity to bigger teams in nearby London. They also changed their name to an as-yet non-existent place to tap into ‘burgeoning’ support, a la Franchise FC. They’re reasonably stable, but suffer from having bigger, ex-league clubs around and other non-league clubs with sugar daddies.
Myfootballclub would have been better, and more welcome, investing into a club with history and/or troubled by debt. Someone like Halifax or Swindon, for example. In that case they’d be more welcomed by fans and there would be a real sense of ‘Hey, we can achieve something here. We can awake a sleeping giant.’
Ebbsfleet, with no disrespect, are a bit of a ‘nothing’ team. They’re not especially bad, they’re not as good as the top teams, they simply exist. It’s hard to get excited about that kind of club, just as it’s hard to get excited about Chelsea suddenly buying their way to the best manager and players in the world. To be honest, even forming their own team and working their way up through the non-league pyramid would be a better, and more satisfying idea. You just can’t buy passion.
It could give them stability (although TCFKAGAN has always struck me as a very stable club). What’s more likely is, after a good first season, the great scheme will hit a few unforeseen problems and they’ll either start running into financial and administrative difficulties, they’ll start slipping down the league, or, as is most likely, they’ll be forced to sell. I give them about 36 months before the dream turns sour and TCFKAGAN is on the lookout for new owners.
It’s a nice idea in principle, but will bring chaos in practice.
There’s actually a couple of clubs out there who operate a similar, but more practical method. AFC Wimbledon immediately spring to mind, and that’s largely because they’ve got such a dedicated and large fanbase determined to stick one to Franchise FC. And good on them. Their model works because they’ve started from scratch, everybody’s clear on their aims and objectives and they didn’t try to shoe-horn an existing reasonably-well run football club, and an idealistic fans model together.
Exeter’s the other example, with the Supporters’ Trust taking over when we were on the verge of folding. But even then, there’s the realisation that we can’t have complete democracy and transparency in everything. Our original model worked well for the first season and a half, but there was soon a growing realisation that a fan’s passion was no substitute for business nous, and we couldn’t ask the supporters to dig into their pockets every time we needed cash.
We’ve now got a clearer line of communication between the Trust board (the majority shareholder) and the club’s directors – we’ve got a more business-like, commercial operation in place and we’re one of the very few teams now in the lower leagues to turn in a profit. It’s also very satisfying to know those in charge are, ultimately accountable to us – the fans – and we’ll never again be fleeced by a couple of conmen.
That’s not to say the Trust model is perfect, and there are problems and issues I won’t go into here. Trusts such as that at York City eventually sold up. There’s also the issue of investment. If a rich Exeter supporter offered to invest in the club for a space in the board, it that would cause a serious amount of soul-searching.
Fan involvement, and money IS a great idea, and I honestly believe more clubs should have some form of supporter trust representation involved at boardroom level, if not as majority shareholder (this won’t work for everyone) then at least being a shareholder with a say in how the trust is run. I'm a passionate believer in Supporters' Trusts and think their involvement is generally a positive thing in football, even if they come equipped with their own set of problems.
But myfootballclub.co.uk? It’ll go down as a worthy and well-intentioned, but ultimately unsuccessful, footnote in the annuls of non-league clogging.
"Ultimately, this club has been sold to be the plaything of a few thousand would-be Alex Fergusons. Whether this proves to be beneficial to the club and its supporters is open to question, but one thing remains certain. Myfootballclub and Jason Botley have done very nicely indeed out of this, and would appear to be the only thing that matters to them."
UPDATE: Brian's not too impressed either.