“Anybody who knows anything about football knows that following football is not just about the football. If following football was just about the football then very few people would be following football” FCUM
If the old cliché ‘a week is a long time in football’ is true then how long must a month, a year or even a whole decade be? It does not seem that long ago when football was at the height of my interests and dominated my life, absorbing its way into most of my social agendas. At that time, it was a recreation I held in high regard and I went about my infatuation without a care in the world, regardless of the impact it may have had on others. It was a life or death interest that I believed would continue forever. I used to mock and pity the ‘once upon a time’ fans that could no longer attend matches or had fallen out of love with the whole concept of supporting. My philosophy was ‘if you can afford it and you aren’t dying then there is no excuse’ and such an opinion motivated me to attend every match I could. The blind loyalty I showed at that stage in my life was nothing short of barmy and something I would soon come to look back on with some regret. I never gave any thought to how clubs were run or how politics governed football, I just wanted to show loyalty to my team but as I got older I realised how ignorant I was to the state of English football and oblivious to its unsustainable future. Had I known then what I know now, I would have probably saved myself a lot of time, money and friendships. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
I seem to remember the back page of our local paper displaying the headline ‘Port Vale enter Administration’ and a feeling of horror and dismay swept through my mind and body. The dreaded ‘A’ word was uttered with some trepidation up until that point by all Vale fans after all it was a term that was beginning to be banded around at all levels of football. The plight of my football club seemed to be the talk of the media as Port Vale, a club who normally struggled to attract attention were now firmly on the radar for something negative rather than positive. As all Port Vale fans came to find out, the reasons behind the plight of PVFC was the financial mismanagement from a certain Chairman and local businessman, a man renowned for risky attendance announcements, money in biscuit tins and fudged accounting. How could this be happening? How could one man and his reckless financial decisions cost the supporters such strife and threaten the very existence of a Football Club? The answer was harsh, fair and very blunt; it is his football club, he can do whatever he likes.
My eyes were well and truly opened by the actions of Bill Bell and the reports of other football owners running their respective clubs into the ground and this particular event prompted me to look for answers. I wanted to know the mechanics behind football governance and its ideology hoping for some riposte to explain just how my club was allowed to get into such a mess with its supporters almost powerless to intervene. What did I find? In summary, I found that football had undergone a fundamental change in ideology and governance and that had ultimately became the root cause for the demise of football as I had come to know it. How could I have missed such a glaringly obvious shift in approach? Maybe the joys of watching football and being loyal to something acted as the blinkers required to force through such a change unnoticed? The truth is, football made a decision which would become detrimental to its hard-core supporter base at all levels. Football was now a business and run as such.
One of the main questions I have always pondered about the running of sport as a business is a simple one. What are the main goals of a business? Make as much money as possible, assemble a competitive product and most important of all, to kill off the competition. I have no qualms with the competitive aspect of football clubs, after all it is competition that is the main driving force behind the excitement of all sports and making money goes hand in hand with success of the product on the field. I think anyone can handle that assessment and would tolerate if that was where the primary goals of football clubs ended. The most worrying ideal for me and something that would in effect be the final nail in the coffin for my infatuation was the prospect of football clubs adopting the business ethic of ‘killing’ off the competition. Ask yourself the question; how entertaining would a game of football be without fair competition?
Back in the good old days of 1992, the Football Associations adoption of the current model that the whole game was based on was embodied in the creation of the Premiership. It was both a league and business model that would bring the game right up to date. Better stadia and facilities were mooted along with increased revenues for all English football leagues. The money coming in from sponsorships, television and commercial interests would ‘trickle’ down to all levels, creating healthy competition and heightened security for the future of football clubs. What was there not to like? Oh and the increase in standard would benefit the England national side. Happy days were to be had by all, it was a failsafe model. I suppose that it does not take a genius to work out that these promises never materialised.
What is the current state of play? Well, we have a dominant three or four clubs who manage to regularly represent us on the European stage. We have seen the construction and gentrification of ultra-modern football stadia, seen huge amounts of money being absorbed into the game from sponsors and owners creating supposedly superior standards of football. And to top it all off the England national team are infinitely better and have won various international tournaments… Oh wait, you are seeing through my exaggerations. To be honest it never played out like it was promised. We now see the wealth absorbed by the upper echelons of clubs, with little to no trickle down whatsoever. We see other clubs aspiring to join the elite with no realistic hope of achieving without the influence of a wealthy benefactor and inevitable financial ruin. We see football clubs owned by businessmen who would normally give a five yard penalty for offside infringements. We see clubs plunged into debt levels that will eventually become unsustainable, reducing investment in club futures, youth and community. We see a league system that rarely offers any real surprises, other than the occasional over achievement from Everton or Spurs. We see the over aggressive competition for players drive up transfer fees and wages; a burden felt by clubs at all levels of the football pyramid as they increase ticket prices to compensate. We see the construction of soul-less, all seated, off the shelf monoliths that are totally representative of the characterless and passionless ‘customers’ who are told when to stand, sit and sing. We see a national team ever declining in standard, forever struggling to compete with nations whose football leagues have a fraction of the income and reputation. Worst of all, we see supporters burdened with the prospect of their respective clubs extinction and an ‘every man for himself’ approach which leaves them high, dry and at the mercy of the FA and their owners. Click here for a critical article by ‘born offside’ blog on European football sustainability.
Makes grim reading if you ask me, and is something that looks set in stone for the foreseeable future unless something happens within football that brings about a fundamental shift in governance and ideology. What could I be implying? Anyway, back to the main essence of this post. At this very moment, it is just another case of history repeating at Port Vale, although the ‘A’ word has not been confirmed as of yet, the club’s losses make for disturbing reading and heighten the very possibility of financial ruin in the not to near future. There has been a board in place for the last decade who have used their motto ‘for us all’ to baffle, confuse and deliver their own agendas, all to the detriment of the football club and its supporters. By persuading supporters to part with their money in exchange for shares, the current administration failed to deliver on their promise of giving supporters their say in the running of their football club. Coupled with consistent denial of future investment and decrepit financial management we now see owners that resemble the person that what was once the scourge of the football club; William Bell.
As with many other clubs, it is the supporters who are affected and made to pay the cost of administrational incompetence and lack of regulatory approach from the Football Association. Be it Manchester United or Chester City fans, discontent is rife throughout football and there are examples already in existence where supporters have drawn the line beneath the unsustainable future of the game and decided to take direct action. Such football clubs have recognised the need for supporter involvement and as a consequence have written fan ownership and participation into their constitutions effectively destroying the necessity of pandering towards a wealthy benefactor. Many people have questioned how this approach can work in the football league; my response is for supporters to open their eyes to the growing list of case studies from around the UK.
“We need fans to see this would be a better way for them and you don’t have to wait until your club is on its knees” Tom Hall, Supporters Direct
Port Vale FC is now at a crossroads in its existence with a very uncertain future lingering around every corner but some encouragement for a brighter future has since risen to the fore in the shape of the ‘Black & Gold until it’s sold’ campaign. The vitriol and disenfranchisement amongst their supporters for the current administration had given birth to an identity; a protest group whose main aim was the expulsion of the current regime through collective demonstration, strategical transparency and intense politicisation. The ‘Black & Gold’ identity gave Port Vale supporters the opportunity to develop fervour and facilitate change within the club, returning the passion, dedication and excitement that was once a normality at Vale Park. It was an opportunity to deliver a true statement to all prospective buyers of PVFC that the fans will settle for nothing less than significant involvement in the running of the football club and give powers to a possible independent supporters trust. More importantly it was a chance to look long term for the aspirations that the club deserved and bring a sense of supporter ownership and pride to Vale Park.
In light of recent events with the group’s alignment to private investor Mo Chaudry, what has transpired is a commitment to the complete antithesis of the protest group’s original constitution. By primarily backing a single investor, the positive momentum created through collective protest against the current administration has been divided and is in danger of petering out. It was quite obvious from the start that many supporters were interested in administrational change at Port Vale but also glaringly apparent was the differing factions within the group who all preferred a different conclusion for the future club ownership. In effect, by openly supporting a single outcome the support for change through direct action and collective ideals has effectively been fractured. Such a decision has seemed to strengthen the ever weakening support for the current board who are the ‘apathy’ brigade who are in themselves blissfully unaware of how their actions are contributing to the death of Port Vale FC. In summary, what have emerged are two prominent, rival factions who ultimately believe in the same outcome; let someone else sort the problems out.
Surely the promises from private investors or Trojan horse, pseudo ‘fan ownerships’ must be wearing thin amongst the supporters?
Placing the future of the football club in the hands of the supporters, many clubs have experienced renewed vigour and heightened aspirations. Exeter and Brentford are both now enjoying the fruits of fan ownership; both operating in higher divisions to Port Vale and I’m sure it won’t be long until AFC Wimbledon makes the step up to compete on an even playing field. With the number of clubs harbouring uncertain financial futures forever increasing, I predict more and more clubs adopting fan ownership models and having a greater voice in the running of ‘their’ football clubs. Supporters have come to realise that it is us, the fans that have to pick up the pieces and resurrect our clubs after severe financial and administrational mismanagement. There must be a threshold to the amount of times supporters will be willing to foot the bill? I believe the time has come for supporters to do it for themselves as the game is continually alienating the ‘die-hard’ supporter at all levels of professional football. Consequently, this is the fundamental reason why I feel totally disenfranchised with Port Vale FC as I have come to realise that fans’ general consensuses are to either maintain the status quo, ignoring the inevitable death of PVFC or go ‘cap in hand’ with a begging bowl to private investors who will yet again put the opinions and requirements of the supporters behind their business interests. Neither outcome will strengthen the possibility of greater supporter influence through board representation or the creation of an independent supporter’s trust. Maybe Port Vale fans do not care enough? I hope I am incorrect. Football is nothing without fans and all club owners should be made to appreciate this.
The chance is here for all football fans to act against the growing commercialisation and make meaningful statements to club owners and the Football Association. The primary goal of all supporters should be to force changes for the better by making football entertaining, affordable and sustainable for the future. Fans should be asking challenging questions of a system that has ultimately delivered little to no benefits to the game since its forced inception all those years ago. Where better to ask those questions than at your respective clubs? Please utilise the links in this article and to the right. Please visit ‘twohundredpercent’, ‘Football Supporters Federation’, ‘Supporters Direct’ and ‘Co-operatives UK‘ to keep up to date with the plight of the English game and lookout for yet another example of fans sowing the seeds of change in the UK. Please also avert your attention to AFC Wimbledon FCUM and other fan owned football clubs as they both fly the flag for real change in our game.
Some extra reading for you;