kenny hodgart

Ebbsfleet United and the great ownership experiment

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IT is a quirk of democracy that people aren’t often given the chance to vote on whether they actually want it in the first place. People power might be the least bad way of running a country but whether it’s any use in making a football club tick is something the people of Kent are due to find out over the coming months.

Opinion among the thousand or so prone to regular attendance at Stonebridge Road in Northfleet, home of Blue Square Premier League outfit Ebbsfleet United – who were until last May known as Gravesend and Northfleet – was inevitably wide-ranging when it emerged in November that the club had found new owners. In an era when England’s finest clubs are being sold left, right and centre to (in many cases somewhat disreputable) foreigners, it will ever be thus. Yet aside from the obvious point that Ebbsfleet aren’t even in the Football League, this was a takeover with a difference. The club are now owned not by one man but by the 29,000 and counting who have each paid a £35 subscription to the web-based venture MyFootballClub, founded by 36-year-old Fulham fan Will Brooks.

The buyout was finalised last month and structures are now being put in place to allow members to vote on decisions relating to team selection and transfer activity. There is – in a very real sense – a Blairite notion of empowerment to the whole model: the idea that by giving people a sense of ownership results will improve. Meanwhile, long-term supporters of Ebbsfleet – a club the size of, say, Clydebank – who were happy following a local side never likely to trouble even the middle echelons of English football, might have to get used to a bit of progress. Or at any rate to people from all over the UK, in addition to 1500 in the States, 500 in Australia and 400 in Norway, making decisions affecting their club.

Former Coventry City and Republic of Ireland defender Liam Daish remains as head coach, with MFC backing, while members are due to elect representatives to sit on the board. The manager will be asked for his ideas on selection, tactics, transfer targets and the like, but decisions – so long as they do not jeopardise the club’s stability – will ultimately be made by members. Any profits will be reinvested, as opposed to being paid out to shareholders.

Brooks, a former football journalist and advertising copywriter, knows perhaps better than most what it will take to keep MFC members engaged and interested enough to re-subscribe when their year’s membership runs out. “There is no guarantee that people will re-subscribe,” he admits. “If we keep getting people signing up at the rate they have been, however, then we’ll be at 40,000 this time next year. If we retain half of them then there will be the money to take the club forward. It’s part of our job on the website to make sure people do stay on. We’re confident of being able to boost the club’s marketing profile as well as revenues through gate receipts, the sale of merchandise and all the other traditional avenues.”

One way of keeping the ball rolling – as at any club – will be improvements on the park. Having advanced as a club in each of the three years of Daish’s management before going full-time at the start of this campaign, Ebbsfleet are still in with a shout of making the play-offs for promotion to League Two, English football’s fourth division, this season: although they currently sit tenth in the table they have games in hand over most of the sides above them.

Brooks says the club had been losing around £30,000 a month before the takeover, which should give it a cash injection of around £1million from subscriptions. Key among plans for the future, meanwhile, is the building of a new stadium in the nearby Ebbsfleet Valley. Last year’s name change, which brought Eurostar on board as the main sponsor, was intended to align the club with that area, where 10,000 new homes are being built in the vicinity of the new Ebbsfleet International Station – a major rail hub linking London to the south-east and France.

Conference league sides tend not to have much in the way of transfer budgets at their disposal but that may be about to change at Ebbsfleet, as Daish senses. “We’ve never had any money to spend, so anything that comes in will be an improvement,” he says.

The democratic urge, to return that theme, is, however, clearly something which motivates Brooks. It is his conviction that football supporters are capable of making the right decisions for their club. “I would never say fans are better than managers at making decisions but I think it can be beneficial to have the fans’ views taken into account,” he says. Whilst he admits that the level of influence MFC members decide to grant themselves is now out of his hands – and that they may ultimately decide to revert to the more traditional model of allowing the manager free rein – he asserts that voting on team selection will be in place before the end of this season.

Now, we only need look at the example Hearts to realise a lack of managerial control over team affairs can be problematic to say the least. Daish’s responses to questions on the matter suggest a degree of unease. “I pick the team and I’ll continue to do that until someone tells me differently,” he says. “I’m quite happy for supporters to make my job easier by going and looking at players I should be signing but I believe a majority of people on MyFootballClub won’t want to pick sides as they won’t feel qualified to do so.”

Alex Leach writes about sport for the Gravesend Reporter. He believes that while most people who care about the club are glad to see the investment, there is widespread scepticism about the extent to which members will actually have a say. “The principle of people controlling the club via a voting system would seem open to interpretation,” he says. “If the experiment is nice and transparent then everyone will be happy. If not, then who knows?” The hardest job on Brooks’ hands could well be in convincing members of that transparency. Otherwise they might all just go back to playing Football Manager on their Nintendos.

This article appeared in the Sunday Herald

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