The football industry proves itself increasingly incapable of change. Fans could be the answer. Photo: Getty
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Punk football: how the rise of fan ownership could save the sport

A new book charting and questioning the rise of football's supporter governance movement predicts a bright future for fan ownership of football clubs.

Woke up this morning feeling fine

Got punk football on my mind

We play football the way, the way that we should

Oh yeah

Something tells me I’m into something good

They sing that in the stands at FC United of Manchester, the club set up in 2005 by fans disillusioned with what the city’s more famous United has become. FC United is described as, “a club that embodies the idea of fan power, functions democratically and which hopes to be living proof that Old Trafford could one day be run differently”, by Jim Keoghan in his book Punk Football: The Rise of Fan Ownership in English Football. It’s a highly recommended read.

A well-researched and pacily presented work, it brings the stories of football’s DIY tendency – the punk football of the title – together to form the first complete history of the supporter governance movement. But it doesn’t just inform – it also asks some tough questions about where the movement goes next, and whether it can go much further at all.

Keoghan begins with a brief social history of English football which serves to place his story in context. He traces the development of modern supporter activism back to 1985 and the formation of the Football Supporters Association. And he details how attention turned from the terraces to the boardroom.

He’s careful to span the spectrum, with the comparatively small – but still significant – victories at Northampton Town and Exeter City, where fans stepped in to save their clubs from extinction laid out alongside the tale of how fans of Manchester United defeated Rupert Murdoch and fans of Liverpool saw off two millionaire American businessmen. And, or course, there’s the story of AFC Wimbledon – a new club formed by supporters whose old club was stolen from them.

He also tells the tale of where the supporter governance model didn’t work out – including the salutary tales of Stockport County, York City, Notts County and Brentford, takes a look at how supporter activism and football governance works in Europe, and asks if supporter ownership is a realistic aim at the very top of the game.

The question of whether the supporter owned model can only go so far is one that needs asking, and Keoghan and the many people he interviews do a good job of weighing it up. What’s interesting too is that this book asks the question of whether the right questions are being asked. For a number of those involved in running their clubs, just having a club that connects with them, which does not take stupid risks and rack up debt, is enough.

For Andy Walsh at FC United, while winning is important, what’s more important is the example the club sets, showing that, “what we have done is possible, and that there are real alternatives to the current model”. And, as Sean Hamil of the Birkbeck Business Sport Centre, points out, for many of the clubs in which supporters have a real stake, “football is about more than what happens on a Saturday afternoon”.

It’s these observations that Keoghan draws together in a conclusion that looks at what the future holds. Former Supporters Direct CEO Dave Boyle, who now writes and consults on mutual business models, says that what’s needed now is for more fans to “come to appreciate this model’s numerous benefits”, while Hamil makes an important point when he says that: “The FA and the various league authorities have it within their power to change the game as they see fit. If they wanted to promote a better relationship between supporter and club then they could.”

Keoghan’s central argument is that punk football has shown what is possible. The longer it sets an example, the more people will understand the point it is making. Currently, eyes are turning towards Portsmouth as a club that could rise from the ashes of the militantly free-market model of modern football to take supporter ownership to new levels of achievement. Eyes too are turning towards government to act as the football industry proves itself increasingly incapable of change, and as the economics increasingly prove to be those of the madhouse.  

“Punk football,” Keoghan concludes, “has changed what it means to be a fan in England today.” This book is as good an account that you’re likely to read of why that is.

Punk Football: The Rise of Fan Ownership in English Football by Jim Keoghan is out now (Pitch Publishing, £12.99)

Martin Cloake is a writer and editor based in London. You can follow him on Twitter at @MartinCloake.

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Labour is getting very, very scared about robots

Forget Brexit, it's the march of the automatons you should be worried about. 

Labour is worried about getting exterminated - and not at the polls. One of the preoccupations of this year's party conference is robots, and the possibility that mechanical devices will soon be replacing Britain's workforce. And fast. 

Norman Pickavance, a Grant Thornton consultant who advised Ed Miliband on employment policy, warned that three different futures loomed, including a "world of extraction" where humans are commoditised, or a "world of robotics and anxiety" (his preferred world was the third, an "age of connections"). Speaking at a Fabian fringe event, he said: "On robotics, I think the changes are coming really quickly."

Yvette Cooper, a former Cabinet minister, concurred. She said: "None of us know quite how fast this could happen, but it could rip through certain areas or sectors."

Next it was the turn of Chuka Umunna, the former shadow business secretary. He may have made headlines at conference for his comments on integration, but it seems he wasn't just talking about the human kind. "There are communities which have a high concentration of a particular industry that we know automation and robots are going to fundmentally impact," he said during a Resolution Foundation event.

So is Jeremy Corbyn's shadow cabinet going to shrug off Brexit and focus on robot wars? The Staggers asked Jon Trickett, shadow secretary of state for business, innovation and skills. And if anything, his view is even more apocalyptic. 

"It is part of the reason we can't go on in the same way," he said. "There are things that have happened to our country that make it difficult to sustain the status quo. Now we have got this innovation process which is about to accelerate. I think thousands of thousands of jobs are under threat.

"I think it's important we don't become Luddites, because this can emancipate people from the drudgery of labour, but at the same time it is important people are not left on the scrap heap."

As for why everyone's talking about it? According to Trickett, this is simply because "it is literally about to happen".

In the age of the robots, politicians must seize power in more ways than one. "Technology can either be our master or our servant," he told The Staggers. "I think we will have to make it our servant."