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Just how much "community value" is in a football stadium?

Oxford United turns abstract into reality.

Oxford United. Photograph: Getty Images

The most significant victory of the 2012/13 football season in England may well prove to have been secured by Oxford United. Or, more accurately, the club’s fans, who have succeeded in designating the club’s Kassam Stadium an Asset of Community Value under the Localism Act. The ripples from this decision could travel from League Two to the upper echelons of English football, with applications in the pipeline to designate two of the most iconic stadiums in the world – Manchester United’s Old Trafford and Liverpool’s Anfield – as ACVs.

What is significant about these developments is that football supporters are organising to turn one of the sports enduring but abstract elements of appeal into something tangible. In doing so, they are creating a powerful practical challenge to the direction the sport has taken. Listing these stadiums as ACVs would mean they could not be sold without community groups being informed and given a chance to bid. As Tom Hall, Head of Policy and Development at Supporters Direct, says: “This is the first legislation that recognises clubs as more than just a business.”

Notions of identity and community are key to the complex tribal currents that fuel the football business. Yet, in the vast majority of cases, fans have no influence on or stake in either club or stadium. The clubs themselves love to talk about community, and it should be pointed out that many clubs do much more community work than is commonly acknowledged. But, and this is the important point, that work is dependent on the club having the will and the resource to carry it out.

Clubs can just as easily take the line that they are private businesses whose owners can do what they like. So if they want to sell the stadium to realise the land value, move the club to another community or use the value of the ground to load debt onto their business, there is little to stop them. At which point the noble talk about community and identity is exposed as the opportunist cant it is.

Ask the fans of Wrexham FC, who endured turbulent years as property developers sought to make money out of the club’s Racecourse Ground, the world’s oldest international stadium. Or Brighton and Hove Albion fans, who saw their home of 95 years, the Goldstone Ground, sold to developers with no new home arranged, meaning the club played home games 75 miles away in Gillingham for two years. In 1995 Ken Richardson, the majority shareholder in Doncaster Rovers and a man described by detectives as “the type that would trample a two-year-old child to pick up a 2p bit”, was convicted of hiring three men to torch the club’s Belle Vue stadium and sell the land to developers.

Most famously, the owners of Wimbledon FC were allowed to move the club from south London to Milton Keynes, changing the club’s name to Milton Keynes Dons. The move went against all those concepts of place and identity the idea of a football club stood for, but football’s foolish authorities approved the move. While MK Dons agreed to give up all claim to the history and honours of Wimbledon, the club is still known as “the Franchise” by most fans, and the fan-owned AFC Wimbledon regarded as the real Dons.

Often, as at Wrexham and AFC Wimbledon, the fans have stepped in to run the clubs in the wake of the mess left by those we have always been told know better. What’s interesting about the ACV development is that fans are trying to stop the mess occurring in the first place, and that they are doing so at some of the game’s biggest multinational brands. As Hall points out, designating stadiums as ACVs means “an end to the process of secret sales, making moves public and so opening up the chance to protest”.

The idea of fan ownership was once dismissed as unrealistic before fans showed that it could work, so now we’re told it can only work at “small clubs”. But the Chelsea Pitch Owners group showed that even the mega-billions of Roman Abramovitch could not buy everything. CPO was formed in 1993 after the club nearly went out of business when its property developer owners went into liquidation. CPO owns the freehold on Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge ground, which it has leased to the football club for a peppercorn rent for 199 years. Conditions of the lease are that Chelsea play first team matches at Stamford Bridge, that the ground may only be used for football purposes – effectively reducing the market value of the land; and that the use of the name Chelsea FC is dependent upon the club playing at the Bridge.

In 2011, Abramovitch-owned Chelsea tried to buy back the freehold. Displaying an astonishing failure to learn the lessons of history, the club assured fans that its home would always be safe because Abramovitch was in charge. The fans did not fall for it and, for once, Abramovitch was unable to buy what he wanted.

Football fans have learned the lessons of the game’s sorry ownership sagas. Paul Martin of the Spirit of Shankley Liverpool supporters union said the ACV application “provides us with an opportunity to influence any future sale of the club by being part of that process. Having been witness to a sales process that left us in a precarious financial position… we know all too well the importance of this”.

Of course, defining "community" can be tricky, especially at the bigger clubs with worldwide support. And London, with its 13 league clubs and complex supporter diaspora, presents unique challenges. This does not stop the clubs themselves from playing the community card when it suits them. Tottenham Hotspur, which got a nasty shock when what it pitched as a short move from north to east London prompted fierce opposition from fans wanting to preserve the club’s character, now positions itself as a potential catalyst for community regeneration in run-down Tottenham. The community work of the club’s Foundation is well-regarded, but its lobbying for financial assistance from public funds for a new stadium sits uncomfortably with the tax-exile status of its multi-millionaire owner and the ultimate objective of the investment company vehicle which controls it. And at neighbours Arsenal, a look at the gap between the promises made to the community by Arsenal as the new Emirates Stadium – there’s that community angle again – was built and the reality is rather sobering.

ACV status gives fans an opportunity make notions of community and identity more than folk ephemera. Details such as asset locks on the use of grounds and defined conditions for the use of club facilities and history help to make the game less attractive to speculative influences. Fans are organising to make the identities upon which clubs have traded for so long have real meaning. And it will not have gone unnoticed that if fierce rivals such as Liverpool and Manchester United can campaign together, the divisions that have allowed the game’s authorities to misrule for so long are being swept aside.

But that is a story for another blog.