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Supporters Direct Conference Report

Conference held at Stirling University
Saturday 6th June 2009

Attendees from BairnsTrust:

Bill Anderson, Colin Chalmers, Derek Gunn, Brian Guthrie, Steven Jackson, Christopher Paterson, Tom Paterson

The Key Speakers

The keynote speakers William Gaillard of UEFA (where he is now a special adviser to President Michael Platini) and ex-First Minister Henry Mcleish who is preparing a report for the SFA on the state of the game.


William Gaillard spoke mainly on UEFA’s plans to elevate the status if fans to genuine stake-holders in the game; the proposal to bring financial stability to the game by introducing financial restrictions on clubs;  club licensing; and plans to bring ‘competitive balance’ to the game.

Fans as stake-holders in the game - Gaillard noted that UEFA had revised it’s statutes to include fans alongside clubs, players and national associations.  Quite how that stake-holding is to be exercised is still to be decided.

 
UEFA has funded a feasibility study into models for giving supporters the opportunity to play a role in improving the financial stability and governance of their clubs.  A conference will be held in Germany in the summer to take the idea forward.   The British Trust model will be considered along with others currently or formerly in place throughout different European countries.

Financial sustainability - it was noted that Michel Platini had called for clubs to be monitored financially - to ensure they did not go bust on the one hand and to ensure that no club can simply buy championships by buying them via excessive borrowing.  

Other suggestions were to bring in the quarterly reporting of finances such as happens in the French league.  

Gaillard said that consultations had begun with clubs and that the page was blank - but should clubs fail to come up with an agreed system of regulation by consent then UEFA would eventually impose one.

The American model - UEFA’s thinking is greatly influenced by American models of regulation.  UEFA regularly meets governing bodies such as the NBA, NHL, NFL, MLB and MLS.  For instance, Gaillard noted that the Manchester United takeover by debt leverage would simply not have been entertained for any franchise in any of the major sports in the US, the purchase would have to have been mainly funded by cash.

Competitive balance - Gaillard noted that the Champions League trophy had never been successfully defended and that the highest ever winning margin was three goals.  However, the increasing gaps between rich and poor (the Top Four in England for example) in some domestic competitions was causing concern.

One proposal was for a salary cap.  As The Times newspaper previously reported - “clubs could spend no more than a certain percentage — yet to be determined, but thought to be between 50 and 70 per cent — of turnover on wages and transfers. For example, if the limit were set at 60 per cent, a club with a turnover of £50 million and a wage bill of £25 million could then spend only a further £5 million net on transfers.”

Reports on League Structure and Community discussions

Structure - James Proctor, Supporters Direct
 
The organisation of a League plays a large part in the ability of each club to be sustainable and successful. This session looked at the issue of league structure and made reference to the current debates on a pyramid structure and SPL2.
 
Delegates represented a wide range of Supporters Trusts of clubs from the SPL to Division 3 plus an ex-SFA employee, John Dunlop. There was a general consensus that clubs meeting each other four times a season led to too much familiarity and that supporters were bored of watching the same teams so often.
 
Comparisons were made to League structures in Belgium, Sweden and the Czech Republic. In general, the average size of the top division is 16 teams. Regionalisation of leagues begins at varying stages in other countries.
 
So what should happen in Scotland? Part of the perceived problem was the fact that we have three main organisations running football; the SFA, SPL and SFL. Part of the criticism of the SFA was that very small organisations who are members have the same voting rights as larger ones, with the smaller ones wanting to hold onto that power at all costs. In addition, it is difficult for a progressive small club to gain access to the mainstream leagues. SPL2 was only seen useful if it would bring clubs additional revenue and it was generally felt there should be a wider distribution of income from the media contracts and a return to an equal share of the gate money (something which the RST vehemently opposes).
 
The size of the top league was discussed with the idea of a move to 16 teams. How could this work though? If clubs played each other twice there would only be 30 games per season. Clubs could not charge the same as they do now for season tickets, tickets, hospitality and catering and would lose vital revenue. A split of 8-8 after the 30 games had been played could lead to a further seven games but this would mean an unequal number of home and away games. Playing each other twice again would lead to 44 games, far too many in the opinion of most delegates. The climax to the SPL this season, where all the major issues were decided on the last weekend, made the current structure difficult to argue against.
 
There was some discussion over regionalisation after the top two divisions. A winter midweek journey from Stranraer to Dingwall is very unattractive and expensive for both club and supporters, with the Scottish weather and the possibility of late call-offs a distinct possibility.

 

Community  - Stuart Dykes of Schalke '04 and Tom Elliott, George Craig, Falkirk FC


This section of the Supporters Direct conference was presented by Stuart Dykes of Schalke '04 and Tom Elliott who works for Falkirk.
 
Englishman Dykes has been based in Gelsenkirchen for over 20 years now and has seen Schalke progress from a struggling outfit to a side which has won a UEFA Cup and plays every home game to a capacity crowd.
 
Being based in a one-club city is a huge plus point for Schalke. A fan of the club can be found in roughly three out of four homes in the city and Dykes told the room that this is the highest rate in Europe.
 
Gelsenkirchen is a former mining town which has struggled badly in recent years and currently has a 20% unemployment rate. Because of this the club feels that it has a duty to help out in the education of local youngsters as well as pushing home the message of the beautiful game. A prime example of their efforts outside of football is the millions of Euros that the club has ploughed into speech therapy in local and surrounding districts.
 
Falkirk is obviously at the other end of the scale from the German side but their efforts are also admirable, especially when you consider the financial constraints that they work under.
 
When Tom Elliott, the Head of Community Coaching, arrived at the club it was literally a case of one man and one computer in one tiny office. Since then the club has managed to purchase PCs and it runs computer courses for the disadvantaged and unemployed people from in local area.
 
The club also runs football courses at all levels, including a course for girls run by former Scottish international Pauline Hamill who works full-time for the club which is something of a rarity in Scottish football. For good measure we were also shown a picture of a very young Tam Scobbie who has progressed through all the youth teams to play in the Scottish Cup Final.
 
Falkirk, and Elliott, are rightly proud of their achievements and the awards that they have received for their efforts. They are a fine and friendly example to the rest of Scottish football.

Ownership and Fan Representation workshop

 John Bell, Berwick Rangers Trust and Alasdair Galloway, Clydebank FC

Many supporters view the ownership of their clubs as an important issue.  This workshop outlined two examples of club ownership (complete control in the case of the Bankies and large share ownership in the case of Berwick) and how this affects the running of the club.

The Berwick Trust teamed up with new directors to take over the club - they own about a 20% of the shares.  Clydebank is owned outright by their Trust.

Berwick Rangers

For years Berwick were run by different groups of businessmen or individual figureheads.  After the Trust started the Club offered a seat on the Board to a fans rep.  This worked well for a while until things turned sour - on one memorable night the rest of the Board were told “I’s my fucking club, I can do whatever the fuck I want.”  Things staggered on with the club being run in an evermore desperate manner until eventually the Trust and the Supporters Club joined with three local businessmen to take it over.

Out of 300,000 shares the Berwick trust has 67,000 and along with the Supporters Club around 30% are in the hands of fans groups.  This level of ownership means that the trust are represented as of right not be invitation on the Board.

Since the takeover in January this year things have not been easy.  Once they got their hands on the books they discovered the real level of debt and overdraft.  Despite inheriting a large overdraft facility at one point they only had £82 of funds to work with!  By the end of last season they had however managed to turn a small profit for the year.

The club now has only one full-time employee.  Most of the commercial and admin work is done by volunteers.  But they are glad to have saved the club from near certain oblivion.

Along the way things got very dirty - some former directors waged a campaign in the media claiming the Trust’s campaigning was  the cause of their financial crisis!  One trust rep had to step down for a while as his own day job came under threat from a whispering campaign.  Some fans believe anything in the media and high-profile Trust members were subjected to abusive behaviour in the street and at the ground as well as having anonymous telephone calls made and letters delivered.

However, they ground out the time and prepared for their inevitable chance to take over the club.  In the past the Supporters Club had followed the team and fundraised - loyally handing over funds collected to whoever was in charge.  The SC remains by and large a group with an older membership and is less interested in the mechanics of running the club - but when the time for action came they backed the new regime with money.

The Berwick Trust would like to own the club completely but at the moment are content with the progress they have made - money donated going into shares and a growing influence with real power in the Boardroom as of right and not by ‘grace and favour.’  

The goal they have set for the club in the next three season is simply - “be a good 3rd Division club.”   They don’t want to promise false dawns, they want to genuinely work within the income they have without placing the club in danger yet again.  They realise the club lacks a lot of infrastructure and that needs to be built up.

Unlike the Bankies they don’t own their club outright but feel they are on their way and in the meantime have stablilised it by overseeing good practice.

Clydebank

Alasdair Galloway outlined how the Bankies were revived - having taken over by Dr John Hall and sent into bankruptcy they were bought by Jim Ballantyne, renamved Airdrie United and moved to Lanarkshire.  So, Clydebank were no more - leaving the Bankies Trust or UCS (United Clydebank Supporters) as they are formally known, to start from scratch basing themselves at Glenhead Park the former home of Duntocher Hibs.

The main problem they face is how to keep improving!  So far it’s been a case of one promotion after another and two cup finals.  How much harder would it have been had they not been able to put a winning side on the pitch?  On the other hand the fate of the club is now entirely within their own hands.  If they fail they have no-one else to blame.

Along the way they have had to become more professional while at the same time staying true to their roots and giving fans a say.   Their recent Scottish Junior Cup Final appearance was something of a watershed as they realised for the first time that they could mobilise a latent support far bigger than the membership of the Trust - taking 30 or so coaches to the Final.  What happens in years to come if they develop a regular support of a couple of thousand and results go wrong?

Rather than become a self-perpetuating dynasty their Board actively promotes “succession planning” - roughly speaking they make sure that every Board members area of responsibility is shadowed and assisted by other members so that if someone leaves due to change of circumstances they have an available pool of talent.

The club has now moved to play it’s games at Holm Park - the home of Yoker Athletic.  This brings new opportunities but also new challenges - how do you bring in sponsorship when you have no-where to entertain them as there is no clubhouse?  How do you cope with changing sponsorship banners between Yoker and Clydebank games?  

They now face the problem of being in charge of a club and running a Trust.  If things went wrong would they be subject to massive mood swings and undermine the stability of the club by reacting to pub talk?  The solution?  ‘We listen to the members carefully.”

 

Henry McLeish

The ex-First Minister Henry McLeish was publicly appointed in March this year as the independent chairman of the SFA Review.

He explained that the Review has three elements.

Firstly, an extensive look at grassroots football and youth development and the facilities and resources available to aid the development of young players.

Secondly, an analysis of the way in which young talent is nurtured and developed.  This will involved looking at other countries and he seemed keen on the sort of indoor facilities many Scandinavian countries take for granted.

Thirdly to look at the way in which the first two stages should influence the way the professional game is run.  This phase will look at the current work being done and funding.

A report on phases one and two should be read in January 2010 and work on the final phase being completed shortly thereafter.

McLeish stressed he was not going over old ground in the manner of Ernie Walker's Think Tank - indeed he had not even bothered to read that particular report as he wanted to keep his options open.  He had taken on the job with a view to most of it being implemented rather than lying in a desk drawer gathering dust so he wanted to keep his recommendations practical.

A couple of questions from the floor called for “town hall meetings” in every village and glen but McLeish said he was more interested in people coming to him - getting up off their backsides with practical ideas rather than conducting endless similar meetings up and down the country.  If you don’t bother to contact him then he’s not going to apologise for not considering your ideas.

An email address for people to submit ideas and proposals has been set up Contact:
footballreview@scottishfa.co.uk

 

Overall view of fan involvement, ownership and control

At the end of the 7th Supporters Direct Scottish Conference, BairnsTrust representatives came away with mixed feelings and mixed messages.  But also a few experiences which seemed to be common across the board.

Meeting people involved in either running their clubs or campaigning to save them puts our complaints in perspective and sometimes the amount of effort they devote takes your breath away.

Up and down the land these people are the backbone of their clubs whether or not they own them - without their volunteer help turnstiles would be unmanned, programmes unwritten and unsold, clubs would do without finance for essentials such as strips, physio tables, etc.  The bottle to take on debts run up by directors long disappeared is breathtaking when you consider that directors all become liable “jointly and severally” for underwriting club operations.

One message coming over loud and clear is that the current financial crisis means that many clubs are drinking in the Last Chance Saloon with banks now distantly owned and under no public pressure to decide on anything but a commercial basis whether or not to keep clubs alive.  The Berwick Rangers example of the new directors finding themselves within £82 of their overdraft limit is a sobering thought.

Although some clubs are at a far lower level of finance and football than Rangers one principle came through loud and clear - in the end only in completely ownership of a club can fans feel secure.

There have been examples of fans joining club boards only to themselves marginalised and having managerial accounts and other documentation hidden from them.    In short - unless they are forceful and disciplined they can be used as window-dressing.  

Another phenomenon is that of the four year itch.   Trusts all seem to start out with a crusading zeal and a novelty value.  If they don't make significant progress then fans start to look for something newer and more novel - so where they once criticised the club for refusing to change then can often end up criticising the local trust for not forcing the change.

The over-riding lesson is that no Trust should feel safe until they have 50% of the shares plus one.  Until then your club is at the mercy of the whim of the owner.

 

 

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