One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson’s attempt to buy Doncaster Rovers was an idealistic gesture which appealed to those of us who unashamedly fetishise the ‘butcher, baker and candlestick maker’ ownership model associated with football clubs of yore. Tomlinson is a mega-rich international pop star, not a local businessman, but his desire to buy Doncaster still harks back to the stock cliché of the local boy made good assuming stewardship of his hometown club.
If clichés have their roots in truth, we can still get away with calling that a cliché. Nine out of 20 Premier League clubs are still in UK ownership. Some of them, such as Everton and Stoke, have those ‘local boys made good’ at the helm. The supporter regime at Swansea, which has delivered them from the brink of the conference in 2003 to major trophy winners in 2013, has been praised and hailed as a model to follow, along with the celebrated German model of fans owning 51 per cent of their clubs. AFC Wimbledon, whose fans created their club and took them back to the Football League, nine years after the FA allowed their predecessor outfit to be relocated to Milton Keynes, are another good news story of fan ownership. Their rise, along with that of FC United of Manchester, prompted chatter among disenfranchised supporters about what could be achieved with common purpose and righteous anger.
However, there have been signs of strain at fan-owned clubs this summer, and also that the German ownership model is not one which will be seen much in England any time soon. Trust-owned Exeter City remain under a transfer embargo after taking out a PFA loan in June to cover a financial shortfall.
While predicaments such as Exeter’s are encouraging in one sense (it illustrates they are a club being run by sensible, caring people) it is disquieting in another. Returning to Tomlinson, that a man of his wealth and profile’s financial credentials are being questioned is alarming, as are Exeter’s knife-edge finances. It seems to indicate that the hyper-inflated sums washing around the game’s upper echelons have poisoned the financial wells lower down, to the extent that a man reportedly worth £16 million and rising has questions asked of his ability to run a League One club.
The recent announcement that the Arsenal supporters trust were disbanding their Fanshare scheme shows the problem is even more acute for aspirational fans of the biggest clubs. Fanshare cited their inability to procure more than the 116 shares they currently hold as the reason for their decision. Seen alongside the abortive 2010 attempt by the Red Knights to buy the Glazer family out of Manchester United, this provides further evidence of the closed shop that now exists in the most rarified areas of English football.
The most jolting thing about the Tomlinson affair is related to his idealism, and the stark reminder that the price on a fan’s dream is now far beyond the wealth even of an extremely rich young man. Idealism and running football clubs has always been a highly dangerous cocktail, as a litany of failed and moribund clubs ruined by overspending continue to warn us. However, the financial realities of modern football only serve to commodify the idealism that is a staple of childish football-related reveries. These are a key part of weaning children onto the game, and which Tomlinson is lucky enough to attempt to indulge as an adult. His gesture of buying a place in Doncaster’s reserves for the benefit of a local hospice depicts a man who clearly has philanthropy and the soul of his community in mind. It would be a shame if the authorities think that football cannot accommodate him.
Do you think that fan ownership of football clubs has hit a glass ceiling?