"Football is the national game, and football supporters are the lifeblood of the game".
That's the first line of the final report of the Government Expert Working Group on Football Supporter Ownership and Engagement published this week. The EWG was formed after a recommendation in the Government's 2013 response to the 2011 Football Governance Review. Initially the focus was to look at barriers and incentives for supporter ownership but the remit was extended to include supporter involvement and engagement, by the then Minister Helen Grant.
NUST have been involved in discussions through our Trust networks and as part of our participation in the Supporters Direct Premier League Trusts Group.
The report contains a number of recommendations intended to assist supporter ownership including opportunities to bid in an insolvency process, and additional funding set aside to help supporters' trusts to prepare an ownership bid. Whilst this EWG report promises progress for clubs facing potential insolvency through a number of recommendations, it is important to recognise that it does not significantly address the barriers to supporter ownership faced by supporters of clubs which are not facing insolvency. NUST therefore will continue to support the call from the Supporters Trust movement that there is an urgent need to commission a further EWG to specifically address the barriers to a meaningful supporter ownership stake at solvent clubs.
The report also covers what can, and will, be done to improve engagement and dialogue between clubs and fans, to improve transparency and trust.
The Group reported that "the Supporter Liaison Officer role, made mandatory by the Premier League in 2012/13 is developing and working well in most clubs". NUST wrote to the SLO at Newcastle United in December 2013 asking for regular consultation arrangements to be set up between him and the Trust. We have never received a reply to that letter.
The Group reported that "the majority of clubs in the Premier League hold regular Fans Forums where topical issues which are important to fans are discussed in an open and productive manner." After the first meeting of the Newcastle United Fans Forum the Trust was banned from future meetings. The Trust contacted the Club for an explanation for the ban but has never received a reply. The Football Supporters Federation wrote to the Club in November 2013 asking the Club to reinstate the Trust to the Forum but again the request was ignored.
The Government's Expert Working Group feel that there should be increased opportunity for fans to be involved in club governance. The report recommends that a level of structured dialogue on major club issues needs to be agreed and implemented and the Expert Working Group have developed a model for a minimum level of structured engagement and dialogue between clubs and fans which will deliver the commitments made by the Premier League and Football League.
Their recommendation is that this representative group of supporters should include the club's Supporters Trust. They further recommend that no individuals should be excluded from the meetings without good reason. The Trust will be contacting the club to discuss how these recommendations can be implemented, leading to a new level of structured dialogue between the Trust and senior club personnel.
NUST's "Whose Club Is It?" campaign over the last year has been arguing for closer links between the club, the local community and the fans on the basis that there is much more to a football club than acting as a marketing tool for the owners main business interests.
The Government's Expert Working Group report states their support for the general idea of greater supporter representation on club boards and states that independent non-executive directors, as they operate in other areas of business, can add value to club boards. They also believe that clubs should be required to comply with the principles of the Companies Act which states that company boards should give due regard to the interests of its stakeholders, as well as its shareholders and have due regard to the impact of the company's operations on the community. NUST applauds this idea which fits closely with our principles of a community club.
Unfortunately the Working Group report has no authority to make these changes happen and the Trust would repeat our earlier calls for regulation or legislation to be introduced because Premiership clubs will not bring about these changes willingly.
We hope to discuss these issues with Newcastle United in the near future and we will keep members up to date on any developments.