The idea of a club owned and operated by the fans is quite the fantastic concept. At first glance it allows for some pretty intensive daydreaming about the honour of holding that responsibility, the solidarity of sharing it; I'm sure for every one of us past what we'll call the point of no return - too old or unfit to ever really pursue a career in the beautiful game and too poor to consider being a club owner – can relate to the daydream of that elusive win on the Euro Lottery, of walking through the doors of the Stadium of Light and declaring “Right, this is mine now, let's do this properly!”
We are, after all, armchair pundits and more power to us. But what if that idea was a distinct possibility? What if you could become a director of your beloved club, what if you had a say in recruitment, in marketing, in representing this thing you love on the national stage, in the boardroom looking dapper, overseeing the hustle and bustle of a multi-million pound franchise? Well for some that is a dream that can come true.
Fan-owned football clubs tend to arise when the team follows a rather distinct trend; typically with owners and financial backers at the end of their tether, with the whole club wallowing in debt and disappointment, the result of years of neglect and mismanagement.
Almost sounds familiar doesn't it?
The only real difference between a club like ours and one that's fan-owned is size. For the most part you have to take a trip down a fair few levels of the English leagues to find a club with the kind of low-value assets (facilities, stadiums etc.) to get to this relatively new arena of public pride, but that does nothing to dampen the excitement and most importantly the legitimacy of fan ownership.
Firstly I should point out the importance of differentiating between the various types of club that can come about through this method and why they exist. We're specifically speaking today about clubs that have been acquired as a result of a supporter buyout but there are others that don't fall neatly into that category, so let's look at some here.
Phoenix Clubs (or Protest Clubs)
The rather wonderfully named Phoenix club, titled for the mythical bird that rises from the ashes of it's predecessor to obtain new life in glorious flame, is arguably the most romantic method but it generally involves such a chasm between the original club and fanbase that the differences have become irreconcilable. Formed in protest against ticket prices, seedy ownership or the imminent dismantling of a once proud team the realities however are not so romantic as the concept. A fine example of this is FC Manchester of United, formed in protest at the ownership of Malcolm Glazer. Retired legend and master tactician Sir Alex Ferguson had this to say about them:
I'm sorry about that. It is a bit sad, that part, but I wonder just how big a United supporter they are. They seem to me to be promoting or projecting themselves a wee bit rather than saying “at the end of the day the club have made a decision, we'll stick by them.” It's more about them than us.
It's with no small amount of controversy that such a club was formed and Fergie certainly wasn't the only person to take aim at the 'upstarts', with many Manchester United fans questioning the loyalty of this former part of their fanbase. Indeed, as the novelty wore off and the taxing demands of League football became more and more apparent, more controversy was sure to follow.
Clashes with founding members, over the perceived loss of the ideal that drove the formation in the very beginning, can be considered the expected result of these rigours of modern, corporatised Football. A photo op with a Conservative Party politician was found to breach their rules of non-politicisation, the programme editor resigned as a direct response to increased programme prices and most recently boardroom heads rolled as the fans invaded the pitch in 2016 to protest the lack of transparency from the club.
Even the infamous Eric Cantona is said to have offered his services to the club should they need him and stated his hopes for the club to become great in fifty years time. Perhaps too generous a timeline, all things considered.
AFC Wimbledon, too, had the spotlight on them as embittered fans resolved to forge a new club after a task force commissioned by the Football Association opted to relocate the original team to Milton Keynes, nearly sixty miles and quite a bit farther than “just up the road” north of their home town. Things like this happen in some sports, most notably those in the United States, but it is rare indeed that the fans of a club will support the move and rarer still to find an Englishman that won't kick off about it.
To date there are more than a dozen teams like this playing at the feet of the true titans of English football and with understandably varying degrees of success, because the fact is that fans that make this decision to form a Phoenix club have to make huge sacrifices, both of their time and their money, with very little promise of reward. Grounds have to be located and sustained, administration requires an infrastructure, fees paid and security of fans, catering, travel and accommodation for the squad and its back room staff – none of this comes cheap. Businesses and other local investors that sponsor these teams are often making a rather large commitment for comparably little return and it doesn't always work out; the path to glory is built on the bones of the fallen. Many clubs have disappeared entirely: merging with larger clubs where the protest was too feeble or the project too massive, too expensive, to surmount.
But those with the iron stomach for the challenge are giving themselves something incredibly unique in this dystopian era of the unfathomably rich and faceless corporate owners – these good people are creating the opportunity to dream anything. Unlike most of us slumbering in the terraces of the upper echelons of English leagues and knowing what to expect, realising those expectations on an annual basis, asking for the fabled anonymity of mid table and the lowly bronze medal of stability and still getting shafted – these others are pilgrims in a different frontier. When you've poured your heart and soul in to the creation of something wonderful the sky is truly the only limit.
In the words of the poet William Butler Yeats:
But I being poor have only my dreams,
I have spread my dreams under your feet,
Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.
Now this is a different kind of beast. For some fans of the game the concept of supporter-ownership isn't that much of a novelty. In Argentina, for example, they have a completely different outlook on the sport, one might even say a very progressive and noble one: under Argentinian national Law, specifically “asociación civil sin fines de lucro” or civil association, restricts football to a something of a community activity that is conducted for the benefit of the people and their culture, with nationalism at it's core. As a result all Argentinian football clubs are owned by it's members as not-for-profit organisations.
Here though in the heartland of Capitalist industry, money talks.
Perhaps one of the most recognisable clubs in this category is Wycombe Wanderers. In 2012, under a transfer embargo and facing administration, the Wycombe Wanderers Supporters Trust dove in to the stormy seas of uncertainty with a life raft. The books were balanced and while the baby steps of that season were anything but steady they managed to bring in former club captain Gary Ainsworth, first caretaker and then permanent manager, to revitalise the club and bring new hope to their efforts. They survived relegation that year as a result and there can be little doubt that the commitment of the Supporters Trust fought their corner admirably.
Newport County are also a fascinating example of the lengths fans will go to to support the club they love. In 1988 they were bankrupt and relegated from the Football Leagues following a remarkably bleak financial storm that had battered the club to it's knees. Exiled from the upper rungs inhabited by their peers, they then failed to meet their fixtures and were expelled from the Conference. Dark times indeed.
But again, in the darkest of hours - a spark of hope. Four hundred supporters led by David Hando, a man now recognised by the Queen for his contributions to football, stepped up and took control. The club was reformed in 1989 and now find themselves in an envious position for a team that came so close to falling by the wayside with the rest of the bones, once more plying their trade in the Football League, albeit dancing with relegation in League Two.
But enough about the trials and tribulations of other clubs – is such a tale ever at risk of being told at Sunderland AFC? Well the reason I mention all of these valiant supporters and their respective journeys is in the hopes of searching for some kind of blueprint, some kind of map that will lead us to the treasure.
Unfortunately the reality for us is sobering. In order to judge if a group of Sunderland supporters could come together and plant their own flag in the soil of the Stadium of Light, we merely take the challenges and adversities faced by the fellows above and multiply it a hundred-fold. Because the reality is that, for all our failures and wasted ventures, for all the vitriol given to us for our daring to dream, we're the big boys here. Sunderland AFC is not a small club and perhaps our only currently redeeming features are our assets, name and fanbase. The valuation of a club this size is somewhere close to £200,000,000 and it's potential profit margins travel far beyond that. With such a large catchment area we fill the stadium on a regular basis, we produce the occasional rare talent (see Henderson, Pickford, boo hoo) that we gain large if unsubstantiated profits from and that stadium we fill every other week is one of the largest and in the country. Our facilities are premium and any potential investor (or shrewd owner) knows this.
So there would be no avail to a whip-round of the working classes that make up so much of our legion. In order for Sunderland to ever become a realistic purchase to people like you and I a veritable shitstorm has to hit us, the likes of which we've never seen and hopefully never will. Though our financial predicaments are easily described as dire at a glance, the debts in comparison to the size of the club and it's assets are relatively small and by no means insurmountable for the filthy rich consortiums we can expect to scrabble for ownership.
While we can't feasibly dream of a time then when we can walk through the doors as owners or even shareholders of the institution we are all so much a part of already, we can at least take solace in the knowledge that as bad as things have been and as grim as our future has looked at times, we are nowhere close to a scenario where we ourselves need to step forward and shoulder that burden.
Make no mistake though – Sunderland fans would make wonderful Sunderland owners and there are arguments to be made for other ways of running this club, other means of engagement and solidarity that could be considered if only the realms of Football weren't stalked by the ever-present corporate beast that seeks to eat money and spit out disappointment. Perhaps though we should be grateful in a way that there is a buffer there that allows us to relax, to sit back and accept that whilst things may be going wrong on and off the pitch, we won't ever fall by the wayside because we, as a club and as a whole, are simply too strong.
The truth is though that football is at the heart of the people and everyone, from groundsman to ball boys to footballers themselves can relate to this overwhelming passion and idealism that has driven them to become prominent in the sport. Every club is, at its heart, a community of football fans. Owners and Chairpersons and Directors – we blame them all for the mistakes they make and rightly so, but in the end we're the lucky ones. Our heads won't roll when we get relegated and we won't pick up the tab of bank debt or failed transfers. So we can take some comfort in the fact that when it comes down to the headline-producing, coronary-inducing stresses of owning and operating a club of this size, it's really not our problem.
It’s probably for the best really because all things considered, I don't see there being much fun in owning Sunderland AFC.