Monday, 28 December 2009

In Trusts we trust

First published in The Grecian, 28 December 2009, Exeter City -v- Gillingham

So Exeter City's neighbours Plymouth have secured one of the coveted places as a potential World Cup venue in England’s bid to host the 2018 competition. This news (not so new now!) has generated a mixed response among the Exeter faithful… unsurprisingly, given the not-always-friendly sense of football competition between the two cities.

Personally I hope a sporting response will win out over instincts towards rancour when it comes to anything connected with our green rivals. After all, there’s justifiable pride in Devon and southwest at stake here, together with tangible benefits for both Exeter and Torquay in terms of related facilities.

There’s also the more fragile promise of economic benefit and a tourism boost for the region if Plymouth survive the final hurdle – Bristol are their more favoured competitors for a regional venue – and if England win the bid.

That’s two big “ifs” already. A further one concerns the longer-term viability of a 45,000-seater stadium for the Pilgrims. A ground share with the Grecians, perhaps? Don’t worry, I’m only kidding!

Nevertheless, as the situation at Everton demonstrates, even big clubs may have to think the unthinkable in terms of resources and development as the financial noose around the game becomes even tighter in our credit-crunched and environmentally threatened world.

In other European countries fierce rivals sometimes share grounds, and many clubs hire or share facilities rather than owning them outright. In Britain that seems culturally odd and out of synch with the way the game has evolved. But it will be interesting to see where we are in 25 years time.

Talking of proprietorship, I hope football fans across the country will be making New Year’s resolutions to back even more Trusts with a stake in owning and running their clubs.

The Trust movement and Supporters Direct are still thriving, in spite of recent difficulties and resistance from some of the ‘old guard’. It is a source of pride in Exeter that we are now the only fully Trust-owned club in the Football League. But I still wish there were many more.

The sad mess at Notts County ought to serve as a solid warning to those who think that provident societies are just a temporary phase for a team seeking to avert a crisis before they move on to “bigger and better things” – that is, finding a gold-rich benefactor to hand over the millions which will ensure their success.

In truth, leaning on the super-rich is a highly fallible process, and often downright dangerous. Rather than keeping a club close to those who care about it most, the supporters, megacorp ownership makes it prey to the whims, fortunes and debts of wheeler-dealers.

This is a problem for football aristocrats too. Liverpool’s possibilities of winning the Premier League, for example, are now ransomed to the debt-servicing needs of their American owners. And only Manchester United’s massive global market is preventing them from having similar problems. But where did that £80 million for Ronaldo go, we might ask ourselves?

This is a different universe to the one inhabited by Exeter City. But perils lurk in our territory too. Some fans on Exeweb and elsewhere think that our Trust will need to sell out to a sugar daddy in order to secure a dream of regular Championship football. Notts County fans thought that too, and gave away everything they had built up for a pittance in exchange for Munto’s empty promises. Now they are hoping that Sven and his friends can do some more magic.

The real danger is that if a wealthy way forward is found for County (which in football terms we all hope will be the case) it will breed complacency among others about the tycoon route to ‘success’. It shouldn’t. We need to grow up and realise that not every team can aspire to the highest level. It is the game as a whole that we should be seeking to benefit. The best way to do that is for fans to be more involved – and more realistic in their expectations.

This principle also applies to the web-based MyFootballClub experiment, too. Ebbsfleet looked to have cracked this a couple of years ago when they were chosen as recipients of the largess of the £35 punters. Now that, too, is unravelling.

So my hope for 2010 is that the Trust movement will gain fresh traction. Exeter City has been offering a lead. Hopefully that’s also what we will have secured at the end of 90 minutes against Gillingham. Enjoy the game and happy New Year!

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