One of the most intriguing elements of the minutes of the recent Supporters Collective meeting with representatives of the board of Sunderland AFC, released earlier this week, was the establishment of a working group to explore how fan involvement at the club can be pursued within the context of the government’s fan-led review of football finance, ownership and governance that is currently underway.
This is a really sensible and encouraging move; it should give both the fans groups and the club space to contribute constructively to the England-wide process, anticipate and prepare for any changes that come as a result, and get a head-start in implementing positive and constructive reforms.
The overwhelming rejection of the European Super League by fans, clubs, and (once they’d figured out the direction the wind was blowing) the government, was accompanied by a flush of interest in collective fan share ownership and democratic representation on the boards of football clubs.
It is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address the underlying issues that have plagued our club and the game in general for too long. This isn’t all about pushing for full-blown German-style 50+1 fan ownership, per se, as much as that might be an ideal outcome; it’s about people seizing the opportunity of recovery from an existential crisis to ensure proper safeguards are formalised, and that effective fan voice can translate into real fan power.
The agreed minutes of the Supporters Collective meeting provides an insight into the variety of perspectives that we should expect to hear in these debates, from the radical yet practical to the cautious and reticent.
Scepticism from within our ranks is a necessary and important break on enthusiasm and neophilia, but it should not hold us back from embracing the real transformative opportunity that the current moment of change affords us.
Half a decade and a couple of general elections ago, following the narrow vote to leave the European Union, the Conservative Party suddenly started talking about legally mandating democratic worker representation on the boards of companies, aimed at redressing the imbalances in the economy that have led to decades of declining real wages and the desolation of large swathes of post-industrial Britain.
The 2017 Taylor Review into the Future of Work conducted research, took evidence from a broad range of stakeholders from across the economy, including Trade Unions, and made a series of sensible recommendations, but ‘wouldn’t take a strong view’ on worker representation on boards, and instead advocated stronger ‘worker voice’ and active involvement of workers in decision-making, with or without Trade Unions. All very practical for everyday workplace relations, health and safety, and improving productivity – but doing nothing to address issues of power and money in the wider economy.
Nobody really talks of workers on boards now, if they ever did. It disappeared along with Theresa May’s majority, any chance of it seeing the light of legislation lost in the fog of the Parliamentary battles over Brexit. Even natural and initially enthusiastic supporters of this long-term, strategic reform to company law rapidly lost interest as the day-to-day drama of indicative votes and treaty provisions took over.
Boris Johnson’s new model Tories stand by while companies fire-and-rehire workers on reduced terms and conditions, and new trade deals threaten whole industries with little democratic oversight. But this is only to be expected – indeed it can be considered the basic function of the Conservative Party over centuries to protect the interests of capital. Shareholders will always trump ‘stakeholders’ in the end, despite the promises of levelling up.
In football, we have an opportunity to break new ground with these reforms and perhaps provide a model for how other industries can recover in a more equitable and cooperative way. The future will be mapped out by Conservative MP Tracey Crouch after her panel take evidence from fan groups across the country, who are being convened by the Football Supporters Association (FSA), and our contributions to this process will be important.
But it will also require us as citizens to hold the politicians to their word on delivering real change in football. As the country struggles to cope with the economic, social and health consequences of the pandemic, it will be very easy for any recommendations to be quietly dropped under the cover of the latest scandal or crisis.
The overriding lesson from the wider world of politics is that talk is cheap and government reviews mean nothing if legislation isn't forthcoming. Vested interests on both sides will resist, and, while voice is important, consultations only change things those in power want to change. And, most importantly, gifts and privileges granted by those with money and power, when not formalised and written into the rule-book, can be easily taken away.
The more conservative voices among fans, perhaps those with close established links with clubs cultivated over many years and multiple regimes, will see this whole agenda as an unnecessary distraction from their important work, hoping that the current wave of reengagement and the promise of ongoing consultation by Sunderland AFC and other club boards will to be enough to secure our future.
If this reaction prevails, it would take the wind out of the sails of the reformists, and fans and fan groups will be left with a voice, a little influence, but will never be able to hold actual power or take any responsibility. For that, we need fans elected to the boards of football clubs and fan groups embedded at the heart of football governance at every level.
There are certainly many unanswered questions about how precisely fans would be appointed to the board of Sunderland AFC; would it be reserved for the elected Chair of the Supporters Trust, or be a separate election amongst all fans who register, or even a specific selectorate – season-card holders perhaps? How long would the term of office be? How would the person be held accountable for their performance in the role between elections? Would they receive a stipend for their time, as would be normal for most non-execs?
While these are vitally important matters to consider and get right, some of the caution we see from supporters when faced with the unfamiliarity of it all perhaps stems from a lack of confidence. Do we have among our fanbase people who possess the resilience, let alone the skills, intellect and experience, to serve constructively as a non-executive director on the board of our club?
Should we instead be satisfied with positive engagement by Louis-Dreyfus and his team, and does asking for too much or moving far too quickly risk endangering the process as a whole?
Whilst the usefulness of ‘stakeholder engagement’ with corporate and community interests, market research through fan surveys, and expert consultant opinion, cannot be discounted, it doesn't address the fundamental problem with the model of football club ownership, governance, finance, and regulation that we have in England today.
The power of the consumer in this marketplace is unlike in any other sector. Football fans are co-producers of the product of football. We are part of it. And trust is the key to ensuring that the relationship between the supporters and the club doesn’t become abusive – on either side.
At Sunderland, the new club board has been constructed – as should be expected given UK company law – to represent and promote the views and interests of shareholders. It’s great to see that the man in charge, Steve Davison, is not just an experienced administrator and technologically savvy manager, but also a passionate and principled Sunderland fan.
But it remains that case that Madrox, through their lawyer, has more input and oversight than any supporter or fan group, and that we are still only nominally, vicariously, and tenuously represented by Sky Sports’ Dave Jones and gambling industry boss Tom Sloanes, both well known Sunderland supporters.
Real trust is built through transparency, openness and cooperation between confident and well-resourced partners. Engagement and consultation is the start, and the openness of the new ownership to working together with the Supporters Collective on this matter has been fantastic to see.
But key questions linger in the background at Sunderland AFC.
How are club shares divided between the different elements of the ‘ownership group’?
How have the Madrox loans been managed?
What are the clauses within the shareholder agreement that allow Donald and Methven – who were widely assumed to have been relegated to the realm of silent partners – input into certain aspects of decision-making at the club?
Proper supporter representation at board level is not about troublemaking or disrupting long-term plans over short-term setbacks. It’s about understanding these kinds of issues, future-proofing and protecting our long-term collective interests. It will bake openness and transparency into the relationship; currently, we wait over a year for club accounts to be published, ensuring that significant time has passed before important financial questions are even partially answered.
If the fan-led review does recommend permanent ‘Golden Shares’ with vetos for Supporters Trusts and mandatory democratic representation on boards, it’s crucial that those more comfortable focusing on the day-to-day rather than the strategic do not act as roadblocks to developments that could transform how the club is governed for many decades to come.
Disclaimer: Rich Speight is Roker Report’s coopted rep on Red & White Army Supporters Trust.