The Supporters’ Summit is an event organised jointly by Supporters Direct (the organisation which supports Trusts) and the Football Supporters' Federation. We had attended the event last year in Wembley for the first time; this year it was in Manchester, so Steve Clarke and Richard Hunt packed their brollies (never actually needed) and headed North.
Overall we found it a very rewarding event. We had decided to use it to put forward our issue over the Olympic Stadium, and our handout card presenting the case was very well received and helped us make useful contacts. But we also learnt a great deal about the work of Trusts and fan groups who have been active and achieved great things, some recently, some –like FC United – stretching back 15 years. We were very much the new boys on the block.
Friday was Trust day, and we became acquainted with some of the big battles fought and won in the last year; Cardiff’s Back to Blue, and Hull’s fight against the Tigers renaming. Chris Cole of Hull City Trust made some memorable remarks, warning of the dangers of owners who put in the “big” money in the form of loans, on which they charge interest. It was noticeable though that both in that specific session about “resolving conflict”, and more generally, most of the big stories are about Trusts/fan groups vs club owners . It was noted that our Olympic issue was unusual in that it was about a Trust taking on an outside organisation, in support of its club.
Another common theme was that these Trusts and fan groups often had difficulty engaging the rest of the fan base. Cardiff was a classic example where initially many fans were ready to go with the change to red because they thought Tan would give them a glorious new future. The tension was such that Trust members received threats of violence from fans who thought the protest about the change to red threatened that glorious future. It was only –surprise surprise – the reversal of fortunes on the pitch which concentrated the minds of those supporters and made Back to Blue a strong movement supported by the majority.
On a related point, it was emphasised fans need to be alert to the significant difference between 'owners' buying equity in their club, i.e. putting money into shares that could only be taken out later if someone else was prepared to buy that share in the club, and those who merely provide substantial loans. In the latter case, these are often at interest rates we would be thrilled to receive from our banks, and run the risk of being called in at any time, potentially crippling the club's finances.
Saturday was FSF day and this brought discussions which were more outward looking. We had a good discussion about FIFA, with talk of Kofi Annan leading an international review of its operations. The discussion about TV money turned out to be more about using the TV money to subsidise away fans. The excellent Kevin Miles (CEO of FSF) was a bit taken aback to face a mini –rebellion led by Brentford and us calling for a more fundamental discussion about who actually controls the TV money. (It received a big round of applause, but not much discussion!)
In the session, 'Tales from the Terraces' supporters from Hull, Cardiff, Bradford and Scunthorpe discussed their varied experiences in managing relationships with their clubs and fellow fans. As might be expected, the theme of active engagement was common with the growing message that football needs to pursue effective fan involvement in the running of clubs. This can maximise the potential resources fans have to offer, and ensure that our heritage is respected and protected.
We also learnt that there is an Expert Working Group formed by the government to consider how there can be greater collective ownership (or other engagement) by supporters of their clubs. It was easy to understand how patient Kevin Miles and his colleagues have to be to make progress, and that such progress has to be about a series of small victories. Kevin made the important point that there will not be a one-size-fits-all solution. While ownership is clearly a possibility for smaller clubs, the valuation of clubs in the top two divisions makes it look very difficult. Indeed, said Miles, a Newcastle fan, if Mike Ashley offered supporters a 10% stake, at his own valuation, why would you bother to even try to raise the money?
A 'Pride in Football' session focussed on the efforts to promote equality in the game, in particular within the LGBT community. There was a lively discussion about bad experiences at matches and the impact of comments or chanting that some might believe innocent, but that others find offensive. As ever in our recent history, Charlton has been at the forefront of promoting equality in football, with the excellent work of Proud Valiants commended. One of the most telling comments was from one fan who looks forward to the day when he does not receive puzzled looks from LGBT friends for even going to watch football.
Easily the most inspiring speaker over the two days was Andy Walsh, CEO of FC United of Manchester. He was, he declared, forever a Man United fan, and had been at the forefront of the fight to stop the BSkyB takeover of United, but as the Glazer regime alienated more and more fans, both his son and his father said “that’s it, I am not going anymore”. That was when he decided that he would lead the effort to start again and build a club from scratch. FC United had just moved in to their new stadium, having raised £6m to build it, and played an opening friendly against Benfica.
Equally valuable as the formal sessions was the opportunity to meet and build links with other Trusts. Last year we had met the Standard Liege Socios. This year, on the back of our Olympic lobbying, we have established links with Spurs, Chelsea, Brentford and Fulham. There were so many smart and committed people there, and tribal rivalries were firmly left outside the door. We were glad that we followed Barnie and Ken’s example from last year and supported the event. We are sure we will reap the benefits in the coming month.
Footnote 1: a more detailed report from Supporters Direct , with photos, is available here.
Footnote 2: delegates were expected to pay their own travel and accommodation costs. Steve and Richard elected to meet those costs personally, rather than at CAST expense