Over the last twenty years the notion of what it means to be a football fan has undergone a radical transformation in this country. For most of the game’s history fans were customers, happy to limit their involvement at the club to paying at the gate. The board were free to run things as they saw fit, without oversight.
Although there are plenty of supporters who still adhere to this traditional relationship, for many others the idea of being a customer alone seems horribly archaic. These fans see themselves as a vital part of the community of the club, with a voice that demands to be heard.
During the past twelve months I’ve been writing a book on supporter activism. It struck me while working on this that anyone who wants to chart the way in which fandom has changed and also understand the issues that face this more activist type of supporter, would do well to take the time to look at United’s recent history.
After all, this is the club where the Independent Supporters Association took on and beat Rupert Murdoch, where the idea of supporter ownership first took hold in the top-flight and where a section of the faithful decided to up-sticks and start a new fan-owned club of their own. In many ways, the supporters of the club have been at the forefront of developments in activism over the past two decades.
A key factor in this has been a growing sense of disillusionment at Old Trafford. Although this might sound odd considering how spectacularly triumphant United have been over the past twenty years, it’s a truism of the game today that success on the pitch is not everything.
Supporters have become tired of a board that appears indifferent to the concerns of the fans and in recent years an owner that’s played fast-and-loose with the financial fortunes of the club. In fact, it would be fair to say that almost every single problem associated with modern football has at some point been evident at United in the last few decades. Ticket price rises that have reached ‘banana republic’ levels of inflation, the restructuring of the stadium in favour of the corporate demographic, the creation of debt to an almost terrifying level; the list goes on and on.
It’s perhaps no surprise then that this has elicited such a strong response from an element of the supporter-base. But what does it mean for the future of the club and its relationship with the fans?
Although they both disagree on the action the other has taken, those involved with FC United of Manchester and those who have remained with the Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST), each contend that supporter-ownership has a role to play in modern football. But is such an outcome feasible or even desirable at Old Trafford?
There exists a vein of thought that the prospect of fans gaining a significant minority shareholding or even becoming majority shareholders at a big Premier League club remains unlikely. Not only do the costs involved in share-ownership appear staggeringly large, there is also a fear that the collective finances of ordinary fans will not be significant enough to sustain the club in the face of competition from rivals backed by deep-pocketed owners.
There is hope amongst those who would like to see more examples of supporter-ownership at the top that the various financial regulations recently introduced by UEFA and the Premier League to control costs, losses and debt could be the key to solving this problem. Should they work, then with a more level playing field, the ability of a club with an element of fan-control to compete might increase. This could make the prospect of trust ownership, whether partial or total, more palatable to fans previously put-off by the possibility of stagnation or decline.
But should these regulations work (and there’s no guarantee that they will), without membership numbers, even this potentially more benign environment wouldn’t be enough to either establish a degree of supporter-ownership at a big club or ensure long-term financial sustainability. Where trusts have been forced to sell-up elsewhere in the game, such as at York City, Notts County and Brentford, a contributory factor in their failure has been a lack of members and because of this an inability to support the club financially.
If a degree of supporter-ownership is ever one day to become a reality at Old Trafford, then MUST needs to establish a strong presence amongst the fans to ensure that it has the necessary volume of membership to take a shareholding in the club (should the opportunity ever arise) and help support the finances in the long-term.
At the moment, the Trust has over 200,000 members, making it the largest supporters trust in the country. But even the impressive thousands gathered by MUST represent only a fraction of what would likely be needed to make a degree of supporter-ownership a reality.
However, gathering many more members is possible. A recent survey undertaken by the club estimated that United currently has 659million followers, or in more dramatic terms, nearly a 10th of the world’s global population. Although the nature of modern fandom would suggest that not all of these are willing to ‘bleed for the club’ or put their hand in their pocket to create a supporters utopia, enough might.
As big clubs elsewhere in Europe have proven, such as Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, supporter ownership is compatible with success at the highest level. In the Premier League at the moment, we seem to be light years away from establishing some kind of supporters’ utopia. But that’s not to say it can’t happen. At worst, the trust model offers the best medium for fans to unite together to express their views and attempt to hold the club to account. At best though, with enough support behind it, it could become the medium that one day ushers in a new age where the fans have a much stronger voice than they do today.