First published in Sons View, 22 September 2007, Dumbarton -v- East Fife
Perhaps the most important change in football over the past 25 years is the blossoming of fan power and direct supporter involvement in the running of clubs – of which the Sons Trust is, of course, a fine and pioneering example.
There are many other trends in the game, positive and negative, that have grabbed more attention, naturally. The growth of football across Africa and Asia (positive) the finessing of the professional foul (negative) and the seemingly endless tide of designer suits and WAGs (I’ll lake you make your own mind up on that one!)
But if we are thinking about how the sport we cherish can genuinely flourish, then moves to ensure that it stays in the hands of those who love it most must surely be the most significant development of all.
It began with the blossoming of fanzines back in the 1980s – though the first one was probably ‘Foul’, which lasted from 1972-76. Two main trends led to people devoting hours to writing and circulating these blotchy samizdat publications, more than a few of which have survived well into the internet age.
First, ordinary fans felt that the influence on the game of those who cheered from the terraces and passed through the turnstiles was diminishing dangerously. At the same time, new money started to pour into football in the ‘loadsamoney’ era.
As choices about how to spend money and take decisions mushroomed, supporters wanted their own say on how clubs were being run and paid for, as well as the usual opportunity to gripe on teams picks and grouse about referees.
Second, there was dissatisfaction with what was coming over about football through the mainstream media, and complaints about its sometimes over-cosy relationship with the game it was reporting on.
Aberdeen’s original ‘Northern Lights’, I believe, first coined the name ‘The Daily Ranger’ for one of Scotland’s best-selling tabloids, summing up its verdict on the paper’s balance of coverage. Fanzines often enjoyed a tense relationship with their clubs and with journalists, as well as a friendly rivalry with each other.
But commentary was only the first step. In 1985 the Heysel Stadium disaster led Liverpool fans Rogan Taylor and Peter Garrett to found the Football Supporters Federation to campaign for better conditions and participation.
Grassroots opposition to racism and bigotry among a minority of fans grew in the same way. And as both larger and smaller clubs lurched into crisis, Independent Supporters Associations (ISAs) grew up, determined to have a stake in shaping the future.
This pressure was an important factor in getting government to take the game more seriously, and the formation of Supporters Direct in 2000 galvanised a new wave of involvement. As everyone knows, Dumbarton were the first league club in Scotland to have a supporters’ trust.
Now there are over 100 such trusts across Scotland, Wales and England. 59 of these hold equity within their clubs, 38 (including the Sons) have supporter representation within the boards of their football clubs, and 8 clubs (including the reformed Bankies, if you’ll forgive me reminding you!) are now owned by their supporters.
My own local team, Exeter City, was saved from bankruptcy by the incredible dedication of fans and the work of their trust. Well, that and a crucial money-spinning FA Cup-tie against Manchester United. Luck still plays a large role in the fortunes of the small and the brave.
According to Supporters Direct, trusts have, in total, brought around £10 million worth of investment into the game, and more than 75,000 people have joined these supporter-run, not-for-profit organisations dedicated to renewing their clubs in the community.
In an age where cooperation and mutuality often comes off second best to corporate greed, this is a not inconsiderable achievement. I am immensely proud to be a member of the Sons Trust, and grateful to those who keep it moving forward.
Of course now that trusts are allied to ‘the system’ in football, there will be those who worry that they will become the new establishment. But in a democratic organisation there is a solution. Get involved, have your say and pull your weight.
So if you happen to be reading this and haven’t signed up yet, please do consider it. For a small outlay, it’s a very important way of securing the future of Dumbarton Football Club.