The following article appeared in issue 219 of the Leyton Orientear fanzine, and is reprinted below with their kind permission:
Leyton Orient Fans' Trust has been active for over a decade, with a basic mission to maximise supporters' influence over the running of our football club, promote community ownership, plus provide independent scrutiny of the match-day experience and off-field strategy of the owner: ensuring fans' views are heard.
There are currently 170 Supporters' Trusts in Britain, wielding varying degrees of influence. All the Trusts operate under the umbrella of Supporters Direct, which was set up in 2001 as a result of growing concerns about the stewardship of the game and the questionable activities of businessman owners of clubs - many of whom seemed hellbent on marginalising the fans from having a say as, in far too many cases, they either asset-stripped or hopelessly mismanaged.
Over the preceding years, crucial decisions were forced through that changed the way football operated in this country, with an explosion in income being hoovered up mostly by the clubs at the top of the professional pile. First, gate sharing for League games was withdrawn. Then, TV income from Sky was ring-fenced by the creation of the Premier League.
Rather than be sensible and match expenses to income, many owners decided to ridiculously overspend in order to try and reach the supposed financial nirvana of the PL, which has only resulted in ruin for some: big names such as Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday and now Portsmouth. And other untrustworthy and unaccountable owners have asset-stripped clubs or made crazy decisions: like fellow lower league concerns Chester, Wrexham and Darlington, who have consequently all flirted with oblivion. The stark fact that there have been 92 insolvencies in the top 5 English Leagues since 1992 is a sobering thought.
Sadly, many fans don't seem too bothered, provided their club survives and the owners "get the chequebook out" to stay competitive. But only the most stupid can't see it's a non-sustainable model: one which induces egomaniacal chairmen to overspend without much personal liability in most cases, or encourages the unscrupulous to asset-strip, whilst at the same time making the leagues much more predictable and less enjoyable as a competition.
There has also been a parallel trend to flog tatty overpriced merchandise and raise admission rate way beyond inflation, pricing some less wealthy and youngsters out of local grounds, with a result that punters are then more likely to see and support the same small handful of top teams via repeated TV and media exposure, which simply compounds the problem for the majority of smaller clubs.
All of these developments need supporters to be organised to oppose and combat the changes that are not in fans' longer term interests, both at their own clubs and within the wider game, and Trusts are usually the tool to do this. But which Trusts have been success stories, and which models of fans' ownership have proved no better than the rich-owner alternative?
Looking to Europe, it's clear that fan ownership can work spectacularly well. FC Barcelona, the most successful club in the wold right now, is owned by its supporters. And German football sees nearly all the Bundesliga clubs, apart from a couple of works-sponsored teams, operate collectively for the good of the game and with a 50%+1 model of fans-dominated ownership at their clubs. In Germany this has resulted in large colourful crowds, optional standing areas, cheaper tickets and a more competitive league.
In our own division, both Exeter and Brentford are fan-owned. The Grecians work with local Authorities and businesses to boost incomes, but strictly control their spending to ensure they avoid going bust. Brentford have what appears to be an enviable model: they have a rich fan who supplements the club's income, whilst ensuring the fans - via their Trust - retain control.
Probably the best known fans-club is AFC Wimbledon, which spectacularly rose from the ashes - following the disgraceful FA permission that sanctioned the franchising of the original club to Milton Keynes - climbing through the non-league pyramid to take a place back in the Football League this season.
And FC United of Manchester, formed by fans of Man U disgusted by the parasitical ownership and leverage debts of the Glazers, has also been a success story in many ways, with supporters making the switch feeling less alienated and the local community both benefitting and being more involved.
But it's not all good news with supporter-ownership.
When MyFC was formed as an internet project with the idea of buying and controlling a club, a massive 40,000 intrigued people initially signed up. But once Ebbsfleet was chosen as the target club, renewals sharply dropped off, mainly because most investors weren't fans of that club, and so the club struggled with spikes and troughs of income streams. It's settled down now, with a few thousand remaining members staying for the long haul, but the initial concept was deeply flawed.
When Rushden and Diamonds benefactor, Dr Martens owner Max Griggs, handed over the club and ground to its supporters, it seemed an ideal arrangement. But things soon started to go pear shaped as the new owners didn't adjust their spending downwards quickly enough, ultimately resulting in the club going bust after a few short years and being wound up.
And at Notts County, they struggled to remain competitive in Division 4 on the income they had from gates, which eventually forced the Trust to give up and "gift" the club to the shady Munto Finance, who promised a lot but delivered little. That change did lead to promotion and a further change of owners, but has again saddled the club with worrying and increasing debts.
The other alternative is a club part-owned by fans with a meaningful shareholding. Swansea City's elevation back to the top coincided with supporters taking a 20% stake and a seat on the board, following disillusionment with the way former owners were heading, as new investors took over and involved the fans closely in taking the club forward.
At Orient Barry Hearn did, of course, invite fan representation into our boardroom early on into his stewardship, with the chairman of the Supporters Club having a seat. But our excellent Supporters Club is constitutionally bound to stay out of club politics, which neutralises its potential influence. And we have O's fan and former fanzine editor Matt Porter as CEO, so we certainly have open communication channels, even if the size of his controlling interest means that Hearn can, and does, make the decisions and play the role of "benevolent" dictator regardless of fans' views and wishes.
So, really it's a case of being careful what you wish for: most clubs become fan-owned only in calamitous circumstances, and it's not easy to see how Orient could remain competitive at current levels without some other sort of extra income or support from benefactors, unless other clubs at our level also stop spending beyond their incomes. Fans used to abrogating responsibility for club stewardship to an investor-owner will just as quickly turn on a Trust trying to balance the books if success on the pitch is elusive, especially if they feel the club still remains no more answerable to its general supporters under a cliquey cabal of super-fans than it would with a sugar-daddy.
Admittedly these aren't immediate issues for LOFT or Orient supporters: Barry Hearn has continued to steer the club along for 16 years now. But O's must be prepared for life after Hearn. We still lose money, he's already sold off the Brisbane Road land assets to himself in order to recoup his earlier loans and stay afloat (and separating ownership of club and ground is often a prelude to disaster), understandably he doesn't want to fritter away his own savings, and the remaining cash in the bank is a dwindling pile that will likely be exhausted in a few years.
There's renewed widespread political and FA sentiment to encourage changes including greater fan involvement in ownership at the moment, but unless by some miracle the overall football finance model changes again to help smaller professional clubs like ours - or an unlikely competent and well-meaning new benefactor turns up - Orient fans will need to prepare for the day when running and financing the club ourselves is possibly the only option left to ensure its survival.
You can find out more about Trusts in general at www.supporters-direct.org and LOFT at www.leytonorientfanstrust.com , and we encourage all Orient fans to join us and shape our future (it's only £1 minimum pa).
James Cassidy, LOFT committee member
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