Newcastle United Supporters' Trust last week publicly launched their statement of intent setting out their ambitions for Community Ownership and what it means for the future of Newcastle United.
At a conference held in Newcastle, attended by football supporters from around the country, different ownership models were discussed and the role of supporters in owning their clubs was passionately debated. The Trust has long advocated that supporters should have a greater role in the running of football clubs. We believe that Newcastle United should be a club at the centre of our community, existing for the benefit of its supporters, the City and the local community it serves. A club that values its supporters as long term custodians of the club, a club that works with our local MPs, the city council, local businesses and seeks to work with local clubs to develop and retain talent in the region. A club that strives for excellence on and off the pitch.
The conference heard Kevin Miles, Chief Executive of the Football Supporters Federation, report on what the Government's Expert Working Group had recommended. More importantly he opened proceedings by explaining that whatever legal minefield surrounds supporters buying their football club, it was recognised the world over that this is not about legal and technical business issues. There is an emotional context to the world of football that recognises that football clubs belong to football supporters.
Ian Mearns MP for Gateshead, speaking as both a Member of Parliament and a lifelong Newcastle United fan explained how he was hoping to raise the profile of football supporters as Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Football Supporter Issues. In a week when the brave families of the Hillsborough 96 had shown that the voices of football supporters can be heard above the voice of the Establishment, Ian confirmed that he would be working to help ensure that football supporter issues would not be ignored and wherever possible he will ensure access to Ministers is available.
Frank Beattie told us about the realities of having a place on the Board at Carlisle United and the lessons learned over the years as owners changed and new agreements with supporters were put in place. "Build a war chest, build bridges and work with whoever you have to," said Frank but his overriding message was... "you must work in the best interests of the football club."
We then heard about some amazing goings on at Leeds United. Howard Nelson didn't have time to cover the whole Leeds United back-story through their recent list of owners whose actions have been questionable to say the least, and continue to be so. He did list for us the ownership options that are out there and have been explored by the Leeds Fans United Consortium:
- Benevolent billionaire – few and far between and invariably bring "ego" baggage. (Don't we know it!)
- Large Corporate – "brand" issues and shareholder responsibilities.
- Leeds fan base – lacking depth of funds.
- Wealthy Leeds fan in partnership with the fans – "the dream ticket."
We may think we have problems with our current owner, part of Howards message was "be careful what you wish for".
Brian Cormack and Garry Halliday then told us the fantastic story of the Foundation of Hearts. They've saved their club from administration and have a plan for the fans to own the major shareholding in five years. Their current owner is a fan, bought the club to save it from an allegedly crazy Russian owner, and is selling it to the fans as they raise the money. Interestingly, one of their first actions was to change the club's sponsor........from Wonga!
We then heard about what is probably the most successful major sports club in the north east region which was saved by its fans and the local community, Durham County Cricket Club. David Harker, Chief Executive, outlined for delegates the journey the club had been on. They've moved from a minor county club operating on an amateur level to a premier professional club at the top of their game. In cricket, it's clear that a connection with the fans is essential even though their ongoing development has meant the introduction of different people taking the club forward with external investors now being the major shareholders.
David asked an important question which reflected much of what had gone before..."Do you need a point of crisis to create the momentum for greater fan involvement in club ownership?"
What would be our point of crisis? TV money and UEFA's Financial Fair Play rules mean there is less chance of clubs in the top levels of football facing financial ruin. Even relegation is unlikely to be regarded as enough of a crisis to require fans to become Toon saviours.
What the Supporters' Trust does want is to form an alliance of those interested in securing the future of Newcastle United as a Community Club. We believe the basic preconditions are in place and the club can be run successfully and developed further using its own income and resources. What we need is an owner willing to engage with fans and to recognise their responsibilities to engage with the local community and play a part in regenerating the city of Newcastle and the Tyneside area rather than simply showcasing the business interests of a sports retail company.
Our statement of Community Ownership sets out our vision and we will continue to work to identify those who are interested in forming an alliance to take the vision forward. Contact the Trust at firstname.lastname@example.org if you believe you can help.