Thursday, 17 April 2008

A result worth struggling for

First published in The Grecian, 15 April 2008, Exeter City -v- Aldershot Town

Whatever the final verdict on the Grecians this season, the continued vibrancy of the Club and its aspiration toward greater achievements rests squarely on those who care about it most – the supporters. In an age of corporate power, the participation of fans is still the only way to ensure that football retains a heart as well as a head.

So it is very good news indeed that the Exeter City Supporters’ Trust has increased its funding of the Club by 8 per cent to £65,000 for the 2008-09 season. The trust also plans to put in £75,600 in 2009-10 and £78,000 in 2010-11, if all goes well.

This means that fans themselves will have paid over £850,000 to City since the trust was formed. On top of these cash contributions there is an additional £20,000 to be repaid to supporters who lent money when the trust bought its majority shareholding in ECFC in 2003.

Contrast what has been happening at Exeter with the ownership scrapes that some other teams are in right now. Rotherham United’s chairman is facing a ban from becoming a director or holding a 30% share at any Football League club because of two insolvency events effecting the Millers since March 2006.

Meanwhile, Wrexham are facing the drop into the Blue Square after years fighting off a developer who wanted to sell off their ground for a hefty profit. Mansfield Town are staring bleakly at relegation too, plus the ignominious possibility of being re-named to attract commercial interest.

The idea to re-title the historic club ‘Harchester United’, supposedly to attract enthusiasts for Sky’s Dream Team soap series, has come from motor-sports entrepreneur John Batchelor, who unsuccessfully tried the same gambit at York City during his brief spell as controlling investor in 2002-3.

Batchelor has been hoping to take over the Stags for some time, but the recent appointment of Mansfield’s town mayor Tony Egginton as the Club’s non-executive chair looks like it may thwart that ambition. Much depends on whether a mini-revival can keep them in the league.

The mayor has described the renaming ploy as “a bizarre publicity stunt”. Stags supporters are also dismayed that the man who may grab the reins in their uncertain future is on record as saying: “If I am successful in achieving ownership, this will be my Club, my business, and up to me to provide entertainment. I am not even interested in discussing it with ‘fans’; however I will talk to customers any time.”

Whatever the outcome, this seems to sum up the attitude of a certain kind of ‘suit’ coming into football right now. While no-one denies that the game has often suffered from turning sound business logic on its head, the opposing tendency towards transforming local Clubs into ‘brands’ is equally undesirable – and usually short-lived.

Properly run, decently accountable trusts provide a positive alternative to these extremes because they bring together hundreds or thousands of people with a direct interest in football, and the combine this with a shared motivation for ensuring that their team is run in as sensible way by people with knowledge as well as commitment.

The problem is that stakeholders in a provident society can become harping critics, blaming decision makers without having to bear the burden of responsibility; or else mere voting fodder. But the evidence so far is that these undesirable tendencies can be mitigated by the sharing of information and genuine consultation.

That’s certainly what we want at Exeter City. In the meantime, it would be great if the Grecians and the Stags could face each other in League Two next year. That would certainly be a result worth struggling for.

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