Monday, July 23, 2007

A Hostile Take-Over?

I've been keeping something of an eye on the events at My Football Club for a little while. For those of you that weren't already aware of what this is, it's a grand experiment set up by Will Brooks which hopes to buy an English football club and run it with ordinary people running it rather than having a manager. The way it works is pretty simple. First up, they want 50,000 people to sign up with a view to paying an annual subscription fee of £35. Once they have 50,000 names (and they are, reportedly, exceptionally close to this number), they intend to buy a football club and run the club with team selection and tactical decisions being made by online polls with a nominal head coach carrying out "the will of the people" on a Saturday afternoon. The ownership of the club will be held by the club's Industrial & Provident Society (a similar set up to that at other supporter-owned clubs such as AFC Wimbledon and FC United), and the supporters will even have a say in which players the club signs.

So far so good, but I am somewhat sceptical as to whether everybody concerned knows what they're letting themselves in for. I may be in the minority in that I am, on the whole, considerably more interested in the way that a club runs than the tactical formations that they adopt on a Saturday afternoon (and I'm not going to claim for a second that my life is richer as the result of this), but I'm far from certain that many of the people involved have got the first idea what they're doing. This can be seen on the homepage of the site itself. On the right-hand side of the page is a list of the clubs that the people signing up for it have voted for. Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool all feature in the top ten. Leeds United, currently sitting on the cusp of a financial apocalypse, are top of the list, in spite of the fact that the site itself states that the club to be purchased has to have no debt or a manageable debt. Of the other clubs in the top ten, QPR are almost certainly beyond the financial reach of the scheme, Nottingham Forest are on a firm financial footing and would be well beyond the reach of the scheme and Brighton & Hove Albion's value is a mystery until the outcome of the Home Office's investigation into their application for a new stadium is known.

I'm aware that the people running My Football Club have to sell the management side of the scheme in order to persuade people to join up. After all, a PC game called "Championship Administrator" would never sell as well as "Championship Manager". However, football is not merely a computer game. Hundreds of very real supporters will be involved. At professional clubs, peoples jobs could be at stake. I am somewhat troubled by the idea that decisions that will seriously affect people will be made by people that ultimately will be treating their new acquisition as a game. Also, the logistics are likely to be more complex than the site's creators have given credit for. My Football Club have confirmed that the ownership of any new club will only be assumed after due diligence and that lawyers will cover them every step of the way. It's also encouraging to hear that they will be acting as an IPS - the laws that govern these are pretty watertight (though they are up for revision soon), so the likelihood of anyone profiteering from it are fairly minimal. However, will the organisers be able to maintain the interest of 50,000 people once the daily grind of the average football season kicks in?

Whichever club eventually gets purchased will be taking something of a gamble. This has never been done in this country before (it has been attempted in Finland and France, with mixed results), and said club will be very much stepping into the unknown. However, such a take-over would be, in one way at least, securing the club's long-term future. The rules of the trust that the club would run under the governance of would ensure that they would be prudently financially managed. They would also benefit, in the short term at least, from the publicity that would be generated upon the take-over going through. That said, though... it's not going to work, is it? The site claims that the coach will be able to "concentrate on coaching and getting the best out of players", but we all know the egos involved in football. How long before the coach starts complaining about his "lack of control"? The one thing that concerns me the most of all, however, is the fact that the people running the project seem happy to look at any club that they can buy a 51% share in. They have reportedly already had contact from clubs that are looking to do some sort of "deal", but I would warn against any sort of compromise, whereby they have a majority shareholding but still have to deal with an existing board of directors. I can guarantee that this would make their job ten times as difficult as it would be otherwise. A "representative" on a regular board of directors will be patronised and ignored. They should see what they can purchase wholesale for £1.4m and go for that.

I should point out that I have seen nothing to indicate that there is anything wrong with the motives of the people that have organised this, and it will be an adventure for all concerned. It is worth remembering, however, that all football clubs are worth much more to many more people than they are given credit for and one would hope that, wherever the My Football Club group end up, they treat the institution that they purchase with the respect that it deserves. If they can pull it off in the long term, it could be another nail in the coffin of the outdated idea of the privately owned football club.


poots said...

you've got to admit though as Football Manager 2007 costs about £35
you can see why folks are tempted

200percent said...

I might yet sign up for it, Mr P. I do think, however, that a few of the people that have submitted their email addresses so far need to properly read the whole of the site before they smash open their piggy banks - because I would say that every club in the top two divisions will be out of their reach, along with a good number of the remainder right the way down to the Conference.

For example, a club that owns its own stadium is worth considerably more than one that plays in a stadium owned by the council. A very large amount of clubs in the lower divisions are millions and millions of pounds in debt - amounts of debt so high that a Trust wouldn't be able to cope with it.

sp3ktor said...

It's a nice (I'll shy away from saying naive) theory, but the more I look at it the more unworkable it gets.

The criteria for their purchase is laughable:

1. 51% or more of the football club shares can be bought with the Purchase Fund. (a total club value of £2.7 million)
2. There is none, or a manageable debt.
3. The club has the potential to reach the Premiership.

I doubt whether there is a single league club that satisfies more than one of those. And for non-league sides criteria 3 is (let's be honest) never going to happen in the current climate.

And of course you have to get the money in. It may be very close to its 50,000 target but getting that many paying need well over 100,000 signed up.

The cynical side of me also raises an eyebrow at the 20% of contributions being lopped off at the start.

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