It has been a pretty big month for Supporters Trusts (STs). 20% fan-owned Swansea City beat Arsenal at the Emirates, Supporters Direct put forward their European position paper on how the game should be run throughout the continent and AFC Wimbledon took on the Franchise which stole their league placing.
With STs becoming more influential in the lower reaches of the game and more clubs becoming fan owned every month (Northwich Vics this month); I thought I would take a look at some of the clubs higher up the pyramid to see why the ST model doesn’t seem to be having the same impact. And hell, it wouldn’t be football without a rivalry so I looked specifically at the South Wales derby clubs; Cardiff City and Swansea City.
One of the most high profile acts by any chairman recently was the change of the kit colour and badge at Cardiff City. Throwing away the famous Bluebirds badge and swapping to red on the whim of the owner was a bitter pill for many fans to swallow.
The Cardiff City ST canvassed its members and they voted to tell the club they weren’t happy about it. But with Cardiff ST’s membership only around the 800 mark they were ignored (as were the employees of the club) and the owner imposed his will. If the ST membership was higher the trust could have spoken with a larger voice and possibly forced Tan to back down. So why are Supporters Trust membership numbers so low at Cardiff and other Championship/Premier League clubs?
Cardiff City Supporters Trust Vice-Chair David Craig said he thinks a lack of understanding of what a ST is, means membership numbers are low. He said: “I think what you have to do first is to get people to appreciate that trusts are democratically set up and run democratically and therefore when the trust speaks the voice it speaks with is a legitimate one.”
Despite being a legitimate voice of fans many clubs across the country completely ignore their ST. The Manchester United ST is the biggest in the country with over 187,000 members yet it has little contact with the club which the Glazers, especially since the green and gold protest was their idea.
At Cardiff the ST is getting more and more involved with the club, the most recent examples are the unveiling of the Fred Keenor statue – Cardiff’s FA Cup winning captain in 1927 – and producing a supporter’s charter with the club. But despite the greater involvement the club David said they won’t talk about everything with the ST. David said: “Explaining ourselves and having the club explaining themselves to us is one of the key objectives of the trust because then we can relay that to fans.
“The atmosphere that the trust has with the club is increasingly better but if a question is asked about the financial situation the whole thing is closed down. I’m not saying that is wrong but that is what happens. If they don’t think we should have that information they tell us. It is very clear that they are not prepared to discuss some aspects of the club with us and want to keep that within their own management.
“I can understand that because they are a business. They don’t see the reason why that kind of information should be divulged to anyone outside the club. That doesn’t mean to sound critical because I understand the nature of the game in a way, because in any other business of that size it wouldn’t have anything to do with you. In our case we feel it has a lot to do with us because the 25,000 season ticket holders care.
“I wouldn’t belong to the trust if I didn’t think it would change things but the rate of change is going to be slow unless the government steps in and changes how football is run or we go down the mire. If things look like they are going that way I think that is when our membership will increase.”
One of the major objectives of any ST is to get a supporters director. A director which has been directly elected from members of the Supporters Trust to give the fans view on issues surrounding the club. The only club in the top two divisions of English football to have a supporter’s director is Swansea City. Alan Lewis, the Swansea City ST membership officer, said his role is vital. He said: “Having a supporter’s director on the board is pretty significant really.
“A lot of people say to us that having him on the board is only a token gesture but it is a lot more than that. He is a key figure in the way the board is run. He has a great relationship with the other members of the board and he is involved in all of the major decisions and the day to day running of the club off the field. It is a key part of the club and something that it valued by the fans.”
Despite this success at Swansea complacency set in and trust membership dropped dangerously low. Alan explains this is because people aren’t as active in the club when things are going well. He said: “When the trust was formed people could understand the issues that were going on and the membership was quite strong initially, we had about 3-4000 and interestingly as the club got more successful the membership dwindled and at one point we only had around 1000 members.
“What we have done in the last few years to increase our profile is offer automatic membership to season ticket holders. That was an effort to try and increase interest in the trust.
“I think like most people if things are going well, and they have been going very well for Swansea in recent years, fans don’t see the need for direct involvement because they think the board is doing fine. Of course what some of them don’t appreciate is that the supporter’s director is very much involved.”
So how do clubs go about getting a supporter’s director on the board, or even just more of a say? Head of Communication at Supporter’s Direct, Kevin Rye, said there is no simple answer. He said: “There is no one size fits all, no one answer. With the different political set up at each club, you can’t give an answer and about how the trust fits within that context.
“We have to push for external regulatory changes and also on the constructive relationship with our STs where Cardiff form a ST and they don’t just feel like they are left to the wars trying to deal with the situation at their own club. They know that if they follow a certain route and pattern of behaviour and a structured manner, at the end of it they get rewarded with some role.”
FA and government involvement was actually looked into very recently but despite the overwhelming conclusions of the Football Governance Inquiry saying supporter involvement is a good thing for the game, and the government and FA should force clubs to have a supporter representative involved at the club more, the government and FA has not implicated the recommendations.
Sadly it looks like supporter involvement at the top clubs will be a long slow road ahead.