Webbsfleet revisited

It’s official – Ebbsfleet are now in fantasy land. Earlier today nearly 96% of myfootballclub.co.uk members who voted to purchase a 75% stake in the club, while a similar number of members who logged onto vote also gave their go-ahead to allow manager Liam Daish to strengthen his squad during the rest of the transfer window. Now begins the interesting part in what could be a make-or-break 19 months for the Kent club. If, and it’s a big if, things go well Ebbsfleet could become more than just a curious footnote in football ownership. Daish strengthens his squad, Fleet make a charge towards the play-offs (they’re too far behind to take the Blue Square Premier title this season) and the momentum they build up this season, plus a rash of new members enamoured by the concept, but who were holding off to see what could be achieved sign up, and Ebbsfleet continue their push towards league football. That, at least, is the best case scenario.

But there are still a number of questions and issues that still need to be overcome if MyFc is to become a success. The concerns I had over the transfer dealings when the deal was first announced still stand, so I won’t revisit them, bar a few quick notes.

Firstly Liam Daish sounded a note of caution earlier this month when he said he was still unsure what his role would be. Reading between the lines, it seems like a polite if firm message to MyFC members not to do anything too daft too quickly and to clarify uncertainties. I’d imagine there’s also a note of frustration here about being hamstrung in the transfer market while the takeover was approved, although in that respect the situation is no different to any other manager at a club in the midst of a takeover. But it would have helped the club if MyFC had completed the process sooner.

Secondly, given the current climate and penchant for manager sacking, Daish has every right to be nervous over his position. What if Ebbsfleet go through a mini-slump, fall short of fan expectations or simply commit the crime of playing unattractive football?At what point through lean, or not so lean times, will the members lose patience?

Finally on this front, there was a rather unhappy letter in this month’s issue of When Saturday Comes (sorry, no link) from a MyFC member in response to their article on the (then) proposed takeover, which made the point that while you’ll get a few muppets supporting every club, the majority would be taking an active interest and balance out the more irrational decisions. Wisdom of the crowd, if you will.

But it’s worth repeating that not every fan (and this includes long-time Ebbsfleet fans) will have knowledge of the transfer market or the state of the team. If Liam Daish wants to sign a promising unknown, who’s to say the members won’t reject this in favour of an aging journeyman because said journeyman is more of a name with a proven track record? As for team picking, well, go back and read my original post on this. In football, given an experienced manager with a good track record or a huge collective of football fans with varying degrees of experience and opinions, I know which one I’d trust every time.

For me, there’s fresh questions over the long-term viability of the MyFC vision. In the short term, as excitement grows there’s bound to be an upsurge in membership (and that’s happened today), but the real question is how long the members are signing up for. If Ebbsfleet wants to be sure of a stable financial footing, they need to be tying existing members into two or three year subscriptions minimum and get them to extend those subscriptions at the earliest possible opportunity.

The danger, as I’ve stated before, with this type of model is members getting bored or going elsewhere. If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Ebbsfleet supporter, then of course you’ll be there for the long haul, just as the majority of supporters’ trust members will carry on saying their subs no matter how lean the times are on the field. But take ‘casual’ fans, those viewing it as a novelty, an interesting experiment, or who just fancy having a second team. It’s a lot easier for them to walk away from this. Who’s to say that after a couple of years they’re not going to decide the £35 could be better spent elsewhere?

Or perhaps they get frustrated with how MyFC is run. Already we’ve now got thepeoplesclub.co.uk, which appears to be the Talksport to MyFC’s 6-0-6 and run by an even more demanding and hysterical bunch (and say what you like about MyFC, at least they’ve sounded reasonably balanced and grounded throughout, even if the ideas may not be). The People’s Club were turned down after they approached to buy Kidderminster Harriers, but suppose they pick a more attractive team than Ebbsfleet, or their team starts getting better results than Fleet. It’s not inconceivable the more fickle MyFCer will take their membership elsewhere. After all, both businesses are targeting similar types of fans.

What is concerning for MyFC, though, is the number of people who simply didn’t take part in today’s vote. This was the big, important vote that would determine the course of the organisation and out of 27,278 members, only 18,112 actually bothered to cast their vote. That’s just under a third of paid-up members. If they can’t be bothered to vote either yes or no to actually buying Ebbsfleet, are they really going to be on the terraces week-in week-out?

Indeed, you’d have thought that given all the hype and press coverage surrounding MyFC’s takeover, and you’ve got over 27 thousand members, that Fleet’s attendances would have swelled. In reality, they’ve remained firmly entrenched in the high 900s, which is about par for a club of their level. Again, this should set alarm bells ringing, and goes back to the point of picking the team. If just a small percentage are watching the game each week, how the hell can they make an informed opinion on the team. Ok, so MyFC will make prozone stats available for all members. That’s still a poor substitute for watching a game.

[And as an interesting aside, the statement on their website about the takeover is timed at 11.15am, when voting was meant to finish at midday. A small point, perhaps, but a curious one nonetheless].

Finally, onto the statement they released ahead of the vote, which is a curious mixture of legalese likely to go over the average fan’s head, promotional puff and the odd nugget that is useful for making an informed decision. Tom Dunmore at Pitch Invasion found it baffling and cast a ‘no’ vote on the basis of it, while 200 per cent had many concerns, which I share. Rather than repeat them here, go and read his whole post, although I’d like to emphasise the part where MyFC claim their new stadium could be built free of charge. I’d be really curious as to how exactly they aim to achieve that.

As with when MyFC first made their announcement, there’s as many questions as there are answers, and many of those answers spawn new questions. Maybe these concerns are being dealt with, but it’s difficult to tell.

As before, I maintain MyFC will probably be a success for MyFC in the short-term, and no doubt the site’s evangelists will take delight in pointing this out. But will it still be a success 36 months down the line? If MyFC do succeed, I’ll happily doff my hat to them and admit some of my concerns were ill-founded. But for the time being the nagging suspicion remains that this odd, if worthy, project won’t last the course and it’ll be the real long-term Ebbsfleet (sorry, Gravesend and Northfleet) supporters, who’ve followed the club through the best and worst of times, who will be the losers.