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Old 14th November 2016, 12:54   #1
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Default Supporters Direct, saviour of football clubs, faces own funding challenges

Supporters Direct, saviour of football clubs, faces own funding challenges

In his first interview since becoming chief executive, Ashley Brown says both fans and his organisation must swap idealism for realism because football has changed and will not revert

Owen Gibson
The Guardian
Sunday 13 November 2016 00.00 GMT

The new chief executive of Supporters Direct is no stranger to fighting seemingly lost causes and coming out on top. As one of those intimately involved in the rescue of Portsmouth from the damage done by the assorted fraudsters, spivs, invisible men and hangers-on who by 2013 had almost tipped the club into extinction, Ashley Brown peered over the precipice more than once before emerging victorious on the steps of the high court.

Still chairman of the Portsmouth Supporters’ Trust, which owns 48.5% of the club, and licking his wounds after a home first-round FA Cup exit that embodied the practicalities of the struggle that followed the romantic rescue story, Brown has taken on an equally meaty challenge as the chief executive of an organisation teetering on the brink. But Supporters Direct arguably needs to redefine its place in a modern game that is crying out for its influence as much, if not more, than ever.

“I’ve been a football fan all my life, a Portsmouth fan all my life,” says Brown, who reduced his role at IBM to two days a week to take on the Supporters Direct job. “I’ve been heavily involved in the trust movement at Portsmouth. A while ago I decided I wanted to get out of the corporate environment and do something I believe in. All of a sudden the role at SD came up – it was something I know, I’ve been through it, it’s a movement I strongly believe in, it’s a role I believe I can deliver in.”

The problems at Portsmouth, the details of which even now seem scarcely believable, gave Brown an insight into the speed with which a club can lose control and an understanding of the power of collective action.
Supporters Direct celebrates growing list of fan ownership success stories
Read more

At a time when Supporters Direct has slipped beneath the radar somewhat, it is worth reiterating the job it has done over the past 16 years in not only helping to save clubs from extinction but in lobbying for the kinds of rules now in place at the Premier League and the Football League that are helping to mitigate against clubs facing the ultimate threat.

Supporters Direct has helped set up more than 200 supporters’ trusts with more than 350,000 members. More than 40 clubs are now controlled by their trusts, including AFC Wimbledon and Portsmouth, but Brown acknowledges the landscape has shifted.

Fewer clubs now reach the precipice but many still find themselves at war with owners who completely fail to understand them or the clubs they own. From Charlton to Coventry and Blackpool to Blackburn Rovers, fans are being galvanised into action but crave advice and support.

Meanwhile at the top end there is a recognition that the utopian dream of club ownership is a ship that has sailed at most Premier League clubs given the huge sums involved and savvy trusts are looking instead to engage meaningfully with owners on strategic issues that go beyond the price of pies.

“It’s an organisation that needs to evolve,” says Brown, in his first interview in his new job. “It’s perhaps been in a bit of an idealistic mode for too long. If we’re realistic, the game of football has changed hugely in recent years and is not going to go back. What SD should always be about, first and foremost, is supporter ownership. But we have to look at different levels of supporter ownership. In the higher levels of the game, outright supporter ownership is probably unrealistic. Part-ownership is something that is relevant but it is has to come with a voice, it has to come with a reason.”

Then there are the swaths of clubs being taken over in the Football League by overseas investors priced out of the Premier League and speculating lower down. In the Championship in particular, this has created a potential squeeze.

“I also think SD now has to deliver more. I was part of the expert working group and we spoke a lot about structured engagement and structured dialogue at club level,” says Brown, referring to the government-commissioned review that mandated clubs to deliver meaningful meetings with fans at least twice a year. That is something SD really has to get involved in. That happens both at a national level with the governing bodies and the leagues, but also down at the club level.”

Brown has joined an organisation at something of a low ebb. Supporters Direct is lobbying for funding, as it does every three years, coinciding with the Premier League’s bumper TV contracts.

It has been offered £330,000 a year from the so-called Fan’s Fund, a pot of money worth around £3.5m a year that is filled by the Premier League from its broadcasting bounty.

That is a reduction on the £400,000 the organisation had in recent years. Brown recently submitted a revised funding application and is waiting to hear back.

Those who have previously been involved with Supporters Direct fear that if its funding is reduced it could be the start of death by a thousand cuts. While Brown waits to hear which way the funding pendulum will swing, he is clear that he wants to introduce rigour to Supporters Direct’s operations but also give it some of its swagger back.

“We need to properly represent the supporter movement on all aspects of the Whole Game Solution,” he says, referring to the debate that has been kicked off by the Football League about radical changes that could see 80 teams in the EFL and a winter break introduced.

“We need to re-energise the trust movement in general. We’ve got some fantastic staff at SD, they’ve been tremendously overworked and we need to take a step back and take a bit more of a holistic view. Get everyone working in the same direction and use our network better.”

Meanwhile, two of the clubs that have become pin-ups for the trust movement at different ends of the pyramid – Swansea City and FC United of Manchester – have been mired in problems.

Swansea had been hailed by even the Premier League chief executive, Richard Scudamore, as perhaps the “ideal model” but now the trust is at war with its own representatives and the club’s new owners.

“It does seem to be a shame what is going on there,” says Brown. “Hopefully the trust can strengthen their position and we can go back to them being seen as the ideal model. But there’s some work to do there.

“Hopefully the new American owners will see the benefit of working with their trust and see the benefit of them all sitting around the table and speaking to them soon about how they can all work together.”

FC United, the club founded out of the righteous anger of Manchester United fans disenfranchised by the Glazer takeover, has been enduring its own internal battle.

“You need strong leadership. You don’t need dictators, but you need strong leaders. People who have the ability to bring people together around a table. That’s the most difficult thing in football,” says Brown.

“All the FCUM fans want a successful club. But they need to get behind a leader and a small group of people and trust them to do that.”

At the same time, some have also started to wonder aloud whether there is any longer a need for two organisations representing the interests of those who fund the game, whether through their ticket and merchandising revenue or their TV subscriptions.

The Football Supporters’ Federation won deserved plaudits for its “Twenty’s Plenty” ticket price campaign last year, which resulted in Premier League clubs agreeing a £30 price cap for away fans and has become the more visibile of the two organisation funded by the Premier League. But Brown is clear that both have different roles to play.

“I see SD as very much the strategic organisation,” he says. “We’re looking at governance, at sustainability, at the long-term success of the game at both a national level and clubs at an individual level.

“I see FSF as the campaigning, tactical organisation – for example the great work recently on ticket pricing, the work that Amanda [Jacks] does on supporter representation, or the matchday experience focus. There is a clear separation there.”

But he concedes there is also overlap and pledges to work more closely alongside Kevin Miles, the FSF chief executive who has been keener to work with the Premier League rather than railing against it.

“There is also a chunk of stuff in the middle, responsibilities that SD and FSF share. There are two things that need to happen – one, we need to carve a bit more of that up. The second is to make sure that we collaborate properly on the shared topics to ensure we are joined up. I’ll be speaking to Kevin Miles on a regular basis so that we can both make sure that happens.”

Some have been wondering out loud whether the two organisations could not at least share back-office costs in order to keep costs down. Others fear that would be the thin end of the wedge towards a full-blown merger and a means to neuter the campaigning zeal of both.

“I’ve also heard a suggestion that some people have an appetite for one national supporter organisation,” says Brown. “Coming in new to SD I’m completely open-minded about that. If the people who fund us want us to look at that, of course we’ll look at it.

“The separation and differences of present responsibilities means that we would still require the same people focused on delivery. If it were to happen, it could be complex and I don’t think it’s something that can happen overnight nor do I think it would achieve a huge amount of savings.”

He also wants Supporters Direct to redefine its relationship with the game’s leagues and governing bodies, putting it on a footing that is professional but not afraid to ask the difficult questions.

“We’ve got to build that relationship and get them to see us as a critical friend, someone who they want to pick up a phone to any time they are thinking of doing something in the game,” he says. “Everything they do has an impact on the supporters.

“Then there are the political stakeholders. We’ve got to work with government and civil servants to make sure we are seen as the two organisations that represent fans.”

Successive select committees and sports ministers have expressed support for fan ownership but have not always backed up those warm words with action. Brown says he is on a mission to prove that Supporters Direct can still play a pivotal role in the modern game.

“Prior to taking this role I’d been asked to speak at various trust events because of what we did at Portsmouth. One of the things I’ve found myself saying is that supporters have so much power but the main thing that stops them is being able to join together with a single voice. Everybody at a club wants the same thing – they want a successful club that doesn’t go bust and plays at the highest level they can. The time you really see fans coming together is in crisis. If only we could find a way for clubs and fans to work together and build behind something, they’ve got a powerful voice.”

If Brown has his way, it will be a voice that will be impossible for clubs and the game’s powerbrokers to ignore. But first he must safeguard the very existence of an organisation that needs to reassert its worth but is needed more than ever.

Still, he has been here before.
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. Martin Luther King
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