Why aren’t Supporters Trusts influencing decision making in the top leagues?

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.

Cardiff City Stadium with its new branding. (From personal collection)

Cardiff City Stadium with its new branding.

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.

The Fred Keenor statue outside the Cardiff City Stadium

The Fred Keenor statue outside the Cardiff City Stadium

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.”

Swansea fans enjoying their success at the Emirates last weekend. (Photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/ronmacphotos/ )

Swansea fans enjoying their success at the Emirates last weekend. (Photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/ronmacphotos/ )

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.

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16 Responses to Why aren’t Supporters Trusts influencing decision making in the top leagues?

  1. Dave H says:

    The fact that the trust followed the rest of the “sheep” and gave in to the prostitution of CCFC is the reason I will not join them. Opposition not collaboration.

  2. Huw Cooze says:

    If your not happy Dave H, join and lobby for change, simples

    • DaveH says:

      There was and still is, no opposition. Please Mr. Tan we are not happy! Where was the mass boycott, partnership with Keep Cardiff Blue, condemnation of the ban on protests? Fast forward six months, what about the board changes, the veil of secrecy in the club, the 7% interest charges, the reduced gates, fall in merchandise sales, the reduced shirt sponsors – even Borley did not stick CMB on the programme page, the lack of any further investment promised by the Malaysian TV deal, the freeloaders that were invited over including the Sultan of Johor – now he is a story all on his own, Sam Hammam, Dave Jones’ emerging moans, the Q.C. appointed to the board…..you still want me? My view is that the sheepshaggers are now sheep. All avenues of protest are completely ignored by the club, they will not even acknowledge there still people who want to fight for blue, never mind the people who have walked, never to return. The Trust have the only avenue into the sanctum.

      • nbellis says:

        If the trust have the only avenue into the sanctum wouldn’t joining the trust and expressing your displeasure at their and the club’s conduct to try and change things be the way forward?

  3. DaveH says:

    The problem with the Trust is that they are not confronting the club. I would be one voice, the black sheep, the troublemaker. I have tried so hard to get a response from the Directors, they ignore everyone, even the Trust has said they will not talk about finances. Why not? Something to hide? I think so……but I would never get near enough to ask. I have exchanged Twitter messages with Mr Borley, once Mr Cardiff City, as soon as questions on shirt, badge, Tan etc crop up, he stops replying.

    • nbellis says:

      So you think the trust is failing in its duties to put across fans views?
      I suppose the trust is in a difficult position regarding this, they are finally getting to put the views of their members across (which is one of their initial aims) but at the same time they don’t want to lose the contact with the club as there are plenty of other projects at the club which the trust and club can work together on.
      Where do they draw the line? Do they do what they are doing at the moment and try to work with the club despite obvious flaws or do they take every opportunity to protest against the changes that the chairman made against the wishes of most of the employees of the club.

      • DaveH says:

        To me, I suppose the whole modern football bit is the cause. Suddenly you have to be in the Premiership or nowhere. I suspect that Vincent Tan, the owner is taking a big gamble on getting there. Hence the “veil of secrecy” that surrounds the club. The Trust does not want to rock the boat but they should. We may not own it but it is our club and it has been hijacked and most supporters ignore that fact……for the dream. The Trust are no different to the rest of the “sheep” and really ought to be a bit more aggressive. The other projects were good but that was started pre-red. I have supported the club since 59, nearly every ground in the League visited, two seasons, every game home and away including every game in the FA Cup, right up to Wembley. Vincent Tan was the first man, other than a surgeon to stop me from going to a game. My support (and an estimated 3,000+ fans stopped either going or spending money) ceased at the start of this season. That is not likely to change but I do not feel like going away……

      • nbellis says:

        Do you think the trust is too scared of people who want to chase the dream?

      • DaveH says:

        Scared. Two meanings there. There was a Keep Cardiff Blue meeting which was gatecrashed by a few heavies. The man on the microphone asked them to leave and they refused. They shouted down every attempt at discussion and at one point threatened to “bury” anyone who stood in the way of the change. (He has a vested interest) The mood at that meeting was very dark.
        If you mean scared of upsetting people then yes. However, as a Trust they also want the dream as well as the people who still go to matches. I am no longer a customer so am in limbo. If I protest by withdrawing support, can I still complain? If I go and complain, I am adding to their attendance figures and finances, which I cannot do.

      • nbellis says:

        I had heard something similar about the Keep Cardiff Blue thing although idk the exact details.
        I understand not wanting to add to attendance figures. If it were me I would probably go and watch another local team lower down the pyramid (Barry Town are in need of support!). I suppose you are in a Catch 22 if you don’t feel you can join the trust and voice your views there due to their lack of previous action (although they did tell the club they weren’t happy about the colour change) and don’t feel like you can attend games – the only choice is to withdraw support and send letters to the papers then really.
        I realise I am biased when it comes to supporters trusts because my club is run by one but I really do think they are the best way for supporter representation going forward. In some cases it may take some time to get a proper say onto the board but eventually enough clubs will have to be rescued by them or the government will force the change onto the clubs (less likely imo).

      • DaveH says:

        Not me but wish I had written it… 2chevrons.wordpress.com

  4. Pingback: Analysing the club – what Supporters’ Trusts are for | Fan Owned Football

  5. llannerch says:

    I found the lack of a viable supporters owned model for Cardiff City thoroughly depressing when details of the change of colours first emerged. Indeed, the manner in which it couldn’t flex its muscles because of small membership and finance made it look quite puny. Too many City fans, I suspect, see it as a supporters lobby group or association. In this way they focus on the word ‘Supporters’ whereas I’d argue that ‘Trust’ is more important; most people don’t understand what a trust is (an interesting research exercise on Sloper Road on match day perhaps).

    Indeed, I’d go further to say that the more consumerist and individualist nature of football in the upper echelons in England inhibits people’s desire to collectivise and willingness to recognise the benefits of doing so. Such values also find principals such as democracy and co-operativism a nuisance. I have a theory that areas like the south Wales valleys reject traditional collectivist principles as a throwback to an old-fashioned age and are embracing neo-individualist ideology with the zeal that other communities did in the late 80s. Cardiff City ST has a battle on its hands to draw on membership from the Valleys. It needs to re-brand and re-connect with such an area in order to boost membership

    Like being flooded and realising one doesn’t have home insurance, when Cardiff needed a strong – in terms of membership, finance and expertise – ST it found it didn’t have one. The battleground will shift, however, from the club’s colour and badge to something else (season ticket prices or leveraged debt for instance). The ST ought to see the time until this happens as a key period in which to expand so that when that battleground becomes clear it is in a stronger position to put forward an alternative model of ownership. Until it does this the Malaysians will be able to marginalise it

    • nbellis says:

      I have to say most of what you are saying I think is true of all clubs. Fans, on the whole, don’t know what an ST does. Whether that is through wilful or general ignorance isn’t entirely clear.
      What really does annoy me are people who think joining a trust is pointless if their team is doing well on the pitch like that is the only thing you can measure a club by. The same people are usually the ones laughing at Man U fans for having no money.
      I’m not quite sure that your individualist argument is isolated to the South Wales valleys but at the same time I’m not totally convinced that people refuse to join trusts because of their own selfish outlook on life.
      Anyway, the bind that Cardiff ST seems to find themselves in currently is one where they are trying to get a dialogue going with the club to make it look like they are doing something but at the same time they have to criticise the same people who they try to sit down with every week. Some fans won’t want them to talk to them whilst they play in red whereas some fans will think they aren’t doing anything. How do they get into a position where they can be critical of the club, speak with the club about fan issues and raise membership all at the same time? I think at the moment, without government intervention, the key is with the club and as you say the Malaysians can marginalise it.

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