'When lives are being threatened, football isn't fun any more'
Hatred, antipathy and even death threats - what it's really like to be a committee member of a club's supporters' trust.
Guardian UnlimitedOctober 23, 2006 02:42 PM
When I was little, Saturdays were the highlight of my week. My dad and I would leave our house at 1.30pm, with me all bundled up - even in the spring. We'd buy sweets from the confectioner's, and I'd scurry to keep up as we headed to the ground. I'd get a programme and would carefully remove the staples from the middle so I could put the poster of the featured player on my wall later. Whatever the result, I'd be looking forward to next time.
More than 20 years on, I dread match-days. My innocence has been shattered by my bitter experience of football from the inside. Since becoming a part-owner of my club - as part of a supporters' trust - I've come to realise that football fans can be lazy, ungrateful and downright nasty.
The idea of supporters' trusts is a sound one: it allows fans to have a democratic say in the running of their club. There are now over 100 supporters' trusts across England, Wales and Scotland, with 61 holding equity within their clubs and four League clubs - Brentford, Chesterfield, Rushden & Diamonds and Stockport County - being run outright by supporters. The admirable Supporters Direct has also saved some clubs from severe financial straits - 13 by their reckoning. However, in the four years since I became a prominent trust committee member of my club, there has been far more frustration than elation.
You'll notice I haven't mentioned my team. That's because I'm too afraid to.
Like all trustees, I got involved in my club because I loved it and wanted what was best for it. Since then, however, I've been subject to accusatory howls from other fans of slanderous charges of corruption and nepotism, freeloading (merely for being seen at the club) and lying (whenever someone doesn't like what you're saying). Some trustees have been threatened with violence and even death. I know because I'm one of them.
The club don't always do things the trust agrees with. Yet it's the trust, and the trust board members personally, who take the flak for unpopular decision. "You should be doing more," is the gist of most of them - although there's usually a swear word or two thrown in - yet most fans don't realise we don't have much day-to-day influence. Our only strength lies in numbers, and our membership is dwindling as the crisis that created fan unity fades into history.
And our club is far from alone. Take trust-owned Stockport County - their ticket prices have been criticised by fans, but how else will they make any cash? Even at AFC Wimbledon, a fine example of fan democracy in action, there's been unrest amongst the supporters. Still, if anyone thinks they can do a better job, they're welcome to try. The democratic structure of a trust means that the membership's opinions are gauged on crucial matters, and the yearly elections mean that any member can stand for the committee and get involved.
That doesn't happen. Lazy fans sit back and wait for someone else to do all the leg-work, then they gleefully criticise. Most fans only like democracy when it works in their favour. As in any ballot, only those who vote get their voices heard. To sit back, revelling in apathy, and then boast about your commitment to the principles of the silent majority isn't good enough.
I've never met anyone involved in the trust movement who hasn't been hard-working and conscientious, with their club's interests entirely at heart. That's why our trust board now consists solely of old-stagers who have been there from the start, people who couldn't take the guilt if they resigned now and the trust folded. Three-quarters of us have season tickets we don't use because it's not particularly enjoyable to spend your Saturday trekking to a stadium where you have to put up with all kinds of abuse from the people who are supposed to be on your side.
It's easy to mouth off about how things would be if you were in charge. It's much more of a challenge to work within a society's rules, to broker and maintain a good relationship with club directors and staff, to fund community development projects, to feed back to fans on sensitive matters while preserving confidentiality - all at the same time as balancing your family life and full-time job.
It can be rewarding, but is it worth it? When the majority of football supporters are happy to abdicate responsibility for the love of their lives to faceless businessmen, can supporter ownership in this country ever truly succeed? When lives are being threatened and football isn't fun any more, the question must be asked - is any club worth this hassle? Right now, I'm not sure it is.