The Trust response to the fan-led review
It often feels as though time moves fast in football – the demise of Bury in August 2019 and the short-lived Super League of the spring both feel like history now. Since then, Fulham have been relegated (again) and are well placed to push for promotion (again), and the game moves on with the drama and dysfunctional nature of a bid from the biggest clubs to break English football consigned to history. At least, that is how many of those who run football in England want you to think. Move on, nothing to see here – and buy the new limited edition replica fourth shirt while you are passing.
That is what has happened each time there has been a clear demonstration of the structural problems in football, or a scandal rooted in greed and self-interest that goes beyond the pale, expressions of regret, lessons to be learnt – and then relying on it all to be forgotten while the on-pitch drama recaptures attention and focus.
However, this time perhaps might be different. A fan-led review, led by former Sports Minister Tracey Crouch MP, was promised in the wake of Bury and catalysed by the Super League debacle. Over the course of the summer, Tracey and the panel of experts supporting the review took more than 100 hours of evidence. Fulham Supporters’ Trust were part of evidence sessions with other Trusts, marshalled by the Football Supporters’ Association (FSA), and the Club’s Chief Executive was amongst the representatives of clubs who also contributed. The evidence was in confidence, but the interim report published in July and then the final report last week very clearly showed the direction of travel in thinking.
The package of recommendations – a recipe not a menu – are based on the introduction of a licensing regime for clubs in professional football, more robust monitoring and oversight of financial decision making amongst clubs and a greater say for supporters on key issues through a golden share, held by Trusts and other properly constituted supporters’ groups.
For English football, this seems radical – and compared to what we currently have, it is. But, at the same time, it is largely very similar to the type of regulation that exists in most UEFA nations, where governing bodies oversee and regulate the game, with Leagues running the competitions and selling their broadcasting and other commercial contracts. The discredited owners and directors tests would be replaced by a more transparent process, run independently of the Leagues, but significantly on an ongoing basis rather than just at a snapshot in time when a takeover is proposed. The oversight would identify problems at an early stage, preventing the slide into a crisis that has afflicted so many clubs over the last twenty years. A structured supporters voice – through a golden share – on issues such as proposals to move grounds, change names or first team colours – are about protecting the integrity of the character of clubs in a similar way to the 50+1 approach in Germany.
It is not surprising that while clubs – particularly in Leagues One and Two; the EFL Chairman; those who have previously been chairs of the FA and struggled with the way in which the supposed governing body is dominated by the Premier League; academics, journalists and pundits; and supporters’ groups have welcomed the review’s findings, and the government have committed to legislating to put the regulator into effect.
It is equally unsurprising that some in the Premier League have reacted with fury to the temerity of anybody daring to call out the serial failures that have arisen as a result of a lack of oversight and a counterbalance to the self-interest which club executives will always put first. The irony seems lost on Christian Purslow of Aston Villa and Angus Kinnear at Leeds that their clubs – and in one case they themselves – were arguing for changes proposed by the review in the relatively recent past when they were struggling in the Championship. They have both unwittingly made the case for independent oversight.
But where do Fulham stand on this? It is a good question – which we ask reasonably often – in the regular meetings we have with the Club. The responses are, characteristically, vague and non-committal. As a club currently alternating between Premier League and Championship, the short term interests of Fulham change year to year. Given the owner’s frequent statements of support for sustainability in football, perhaps there is some scope for longer-term thinking and an approach that embraces the thrust of what is now likely to be legislated for to protect the pyramid and prevent further attempted breakaways. However, football administrators operate a bit like a cabal and are not typically under-enamoured with their own abilities – so keeping under the radar is perhaps more realistic.
Fulham are better than many clubs on what in the jargon is called structured dialogue with the Supporters’ Trust – while this is technically part of the EFL and Premier League rules, several clubs ignore them or self-select their supporters to have an easier time of it. Fulham do meet the Trust regularly, and the agenda for the meeting is largely set by the Trust and our members’ interests and concerns, which mostly enables a good, constructive and mature dialogue. But the power in the relationship is with the Club – the meetings happen because they agree to have them – and sometimes it feels like we are viewed as an irritant rather than an opportunity to help those running the club take into account the interests of match-going fans.
What is proposed by the fan led review would be much more meaningful – with supporters, via a Trust, holding a golden share to protect vital characteristics of the club which are described as heritage issues.
What is proposed by the fan led review would be much more meaningful – with supporters, via a Trust, holding a golden share to protect vital characteristics of the club which are described as heritage issues. Other clubs already have something like this – Brentford, Portsmouth and others – with its origins capable of being traced back to the Chelsea Pitch Owners Association, an innovation from previous generations which has, ultimately, prevented any move away from Stamford Bridge. As Fulham supporters know as well as, if not better than, fans of any club, protecting the ground and avoiding the ownership of the club and stadium being separated is a key part of safeguarding a club.
The concept of a golden share is to provide that sort of protection – it may be there are good reasons to relocate grounds, for example (Luton, Peterborough to name a couple) – but requiring the consent of supporters through an independently constituted shareholder would both provide confidence in that decision-making process, and ensure a higher standard of dialogue if a move was being considered. Of course, some will question how representative Trusts are – indeed, the current Fulham Chief Executive is one of those who has done so.
The answer is, of course, that in any club where the prefix crisis is applied it has been the Trust (or equivalent) that has been at the fore of trying to save and protect clubs under threat. It is at those times that supporters who are not members will look to their Trust to lead, to energise and ultimately to represent the wider supporter interest. A golden share will normalise that role – so it is not just about the crisis situations – but a longer-term, more embedded, responsibility undertaken on behalf of the supporters of a club. After all, owners, directors, managers and players come and go – the supporters stay unless they are driven away by poor decision making.
The implementation of the proposals from the fan led review will be the biggest change in football governance in England for a century – while some aspects will require legislation, it is not the government taking over football as some have sought to suggest, but having in English football independent oversight and an approach that is designed to safeguard clubs, protect the pyramid and value supporters – none of which “leaving it to football” has delivered. Some of it doesn’t need legislation – clubs could get on and put a golden share and shadow board in place if they wanted to, and some will do so. All of it presents challenges to football authorities, clubs, owners and supporter organisations – but the opportunity is significant. For Fulham, and an owner publicly committed to good stewardship of what he has said he regards as an asset with history and heritage which is the property of all of those associated with the Club, then there is a chance to be at the forefront of change that is coming. It will be fascinating to see if that opportunity is embraced.