With the 48-hour debacle that surrounded the European Super League, the matter of football club ownership came under scrutiny once more.
While the ESL was enough to drive even fans of neutral clubs to despair, there are those who suffer with questionable ownership week in, week out – the Glazers at Manchester United, for example, are so despised by supporters of the Old Trafford club that they set up their own ‘phoenix’ outfit, FC United of Manchester, in protest.
There is a feeling that overseas billionaires see football clubs as asset-packed brands to invest in, rather than what they are – a mecca for people of all ages and genders come Saturday afternoon. It’s not just foreigners either, talk to a Newcastle United fan about Mike Ashley for reference, and there is a fear that football is a sport in danger of becoming wholly privatised and taken away from the working man and woman.
Naturally, there is an interest in club ownership models from around the world by way of comparison, and Germany is held up as the gold standard.
Their 50+1 rule ensures that members retain the majority of shareholding, and so even clubs like Bayern Munich and Wolfsburg – who have major brands like Allianz and Volkswagen in their corner – remain in the hands of their fans.
It’s interesting that so few British clubs have adopted a similar outlook. Portsmouth, at the time, were the biggest Football League outfit to be fan-owned in 2013, however that situation changed when they sold their majority stake to former Disney and Paramount Pictures supremo Michael Eisner in 2017.
Today, just two Football League Clubs are supporter-owned, and only a couple in Scotland are too. You wonder if that situation will change as a direct response to the fear caused by the European Super League….
It’s amazing to think that in 1981 Newport County reached the quarter-finals of the Cup Winners’ Cup.
That was arguably the highlight of the Welsh Club’s existence, and it wasn’t too long before they fell into financial peril.
Newport dropped out of the Football League pyramid in 1988, and with debts mounting they were forced out of business with American owner, Jerry Sherman, essentially washing his hands of the club.
They are, consequently, a sort of phoenix club that has risen from the flames, although they have retained the same identity as before their downfall in the late 1980s.
A group of supporters got Newport County back together in 1989, and their nickname of ‘The Exiles’ is a nod to the time they spent playing their home games in Gloucestershire during this period.
Today, Newport are still owned by the Supporters’ Trust after buying back the club from former majority shareholder Les Scadding in 2015.
A tale involving fraudulent trading and a spoon-bending TV psychic saw the formation of the Exeter City Supporters’ Trust.
Former chairman John Russell and vice chairman Mike Lewis were accused of being less-than-above board in their dealings at the club, and in fact the former was eventually jailed for 21 months for his fraudulent activity.
Uri Geller, the TV star friend of Michael Jackson, had contacted the police to inform them of the irregularities, and he would later step aside to allow the Supporters Trust to garner control.
The group parted with a cheque for £20,000 to take control, and they immediately entered a Company Voluntary Agreement to restructure the £4 million debt hanging over the club.
In the happiest of coincidences, Exeter were drawn against Manchester United in the FA Cup in 2005, and after drawing 0-0 at Old Trafford the tie went back to the Grecians’ St James’ Park ground. Those two games almost singlehandedly wiped out the club’s debt.
In 2012, Exeter returned to the Football League and membership of the Supporters’ Trust had reached 4,000 people.
In 2016, Motherwell became the first top flight fan-owned club in the United Kingdom.
And the terms of the deal were extraordinary – the former owner Les Hutchison selling his majority share to the Well Society for just £1!
Unusually in such cases, there wasn’t any particular bad blood towards Hutchison – he took on an enormous amount of debt to keep the club afloat, and the Well Society has been repaying the interest-free loans he was forced to take out with donations and transfer fees.
With the club in dire financial straits, the Russian-Lithuanian businessman Vladimir Romanov rode into Tynecastle promising a return to the club’s halcyon days.
He acquired an 85% stake in 2005, but some of his financial dealings quickly became a cause for concern – he moved the club’s debt from UK banks to his own financial institutions, and by 2010 Hearts were struggling to pay their players and being threatened with administration.
By November 2012, a hefty unpaid tax bill forced Romanov to sell the club after a winding-up order was issued, and after the Jambos entered administration a consortium called the Foundation of Hearts – essentially a supporters’ trust – lodged a successful bid to take on ownership.
Bidco 1874, fronted by Ann Budge, took control of the club while the Foundation of Hearts built up their cash reserves through donations and fundraising, and at the time of writing they had raised more than £11 million to put towards their eventual ownership bid.