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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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.