- “A high-profile club in the Championship will go into administration in the next year”
- The new Chief Executive of Supporters Direct Ashley Brown gives an exclusive first interview with Liam Buckler about his mission to get more clubs under fan owned control
- He reveals more clubs should be following the German model
- Charlton, Coventry and Blackpool have pleaded for help fearing for the future of their clubs
Back in August 2012, Portsmouth Supporters Trust launched a bid to save their club, which had been neglected by so many nomadic owners. The Trust was pleading with supporters to donate a minimum of £100 along with £900 in order to buy a share in the club.
Ashley Brown, chairman of Portsmouth Supporters Trust, recalls how Balram Chainrai, a businessman from Hong Kong who had previously put the club into administration with debts over £17million, was the administrators preferred bidder ahead of the Trust.
“There was plenty of cynicism for fan ownership in a lot of quarters, Brown admits.
“ The football authorities were cynical, the administrators were cynical, but we managed to prove them all wrong”, says Brown, with Portsmouth becoming the largest fan owned club in the country in April 2013 when the Portsmouth Supporters Trust bought the club for over £3million from the administrators.
This is precisely the kind of cynicism Brown loves to overcome with Portsmouth Supporters Trust owning 48.5% of the League 2 club.
Having to overcome cynicism will be in large supply in his new role as chief executive of Supporters Direct, where fans come desperately looking for an answer to help save their clubs from unruly owners.
“My role as chief executive as Supporters Direct is an overall leadership of the organisation, says Brown in his first interview in his new job.
“What’s important to us is supporter owned clubs are run on sound principles, to ensure they are sustainable, and supporters have a say in how their clubs are being run.
“There are too many clubs far removed from their fans. The fans are absolutely key to the success of football.”
Supporters Direct has helped set up more than 200 supporters’ Trusts with more than 350,000 members.
More than 40 are now controlled by their trusts, including AFC Wimbledon and Portsmouth; with Brown confident the model of fan ownership is one every club should follow.
“The supporters are the best custodians of the club; they understand its history and care about its future more than anyone else.”
However, with club owners becoming increasingly media shy and distant from their own supporters, Brown believes being a community run club means Portsmouth Football Club has been the most transparent it has ever been.
“We put a lot in to be an engaging club right down from the chairman and the chief executive, we are all available to meet with supporters, the manager, the players, the coaching staff are all really accessible compared to a lot of clubs.”
Alarmingly, Brown, who has reduced his role at IBM in order to take the job, has predicted a high profile club in the Championship, which is severely struggling with their finances, to go into administration next year.
“There will be some big clubs in the next year to go into administration. A high profile club in the Championship will go into administration within the next year.”
Meetings have been set up for this week for Brown to meet with supporter representatives from Blackpool, Charlton and Coventry, who are all desperate to save their clubs from unpredictable owners: “We are in regular contact with Blackpool, Coventry and Charlton, we are trying to find a way forward for their clubs and get those clubs passed onto owners who really care about the club.”
Supporters Direct has pressurised The FA in doing more for supporters’ Trusts who want to develop ways of buying their club from unruly owners.
The Government last year produced an Expert Working Group report on supporter ownership and engagement, which included the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the football authorities, Football Supporters Federation, Supporters Direct and representatives from AFC Wimbledon and Portsmouth.
The FA chief executive, Martin Glenn, supported the Expert Working Group: “Working with Supporters Direct we have created solutions that the supporter groups wanted. The expert working group has been really positive for football to work with supporter groups to develop practical ways to provide assistance for supporter trusts considering bidding with their club.”
The Expert Working Group has helped promise greater scrutiny of owners financial backgrounds, along with giving supporter owned clubs tax breaks in order to help Supporters’ Trusts bid for their clubs.
The FA, according to Glenn, believes this can only help supporters bid for their clubs in the future: “Football has changed significantly in recent years with the introduction of financial regulations and sustainability criteria which have helped ensure clubs at all levels are run more sustainably than ever and are protected for their fans and communities.”
The Football League, however, were initially sceptical of fan owned clubs, fearing many supporters would overspend and not run the club as a sustainable business, however, with Portsmouth and Wimbledon operating at a profit, they recognise the model can be successful.
A Football League spokesperson said: “We recognise that a fan-owned model can work very well for certain clubs and ultimately a large amount of work we do with our clubs relates to working towards them being financially prudent and operating in a sustainable way.
“An ownership model whereby large sums are invested is often as appealing to fans, however all clubs most operate within the framework of the EFL financial fair play requirements.”
For Ashley Brown, however, clubs should be looking to Germany’s model of ownership for inspiration.
“As many clubs as possible should follow the German fan ownership model. It is the future.”
Hannover 96, a German supporter owned club who operate under the German model of fan ownership, believe Bundelisga clubs are wary of external investment.
“In Germany many fans try to retain the tradition of their football club, admits Christoph Heckmann, director of media.
“We are scared of foreign investors who buy the club as a hobby and nobody knows what is going to happen if they lose their interest in the club, which is happening too often in England.”
Borrussia Dortmund, one of the leading clubs in Germany for fan ownership, believes the English game values money over success, according to Peter Flore, editor in chief of fan engagement.
“It is not all about success, we are a family and we are all in this together. In England this is forgotten because of greed.”