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Football is a microcosm of society, at the behest of globalism, commercialism and commodification. But for many the pendulum has swung too far.
Consumerism has consumed a sport which purports to be for the people. Supporters have become secondary to surplus and community usurped by capital. Greed has become institutionalised and compassion forgotten. The game’s human touch has gone cold.
Fans are football’s power supply. They are part of the theatre and their absence has been keenly felt during the coronavirus pandemic. Too often, though, they been manipulated, smeared and taken for granted.
Ours, the latest release in the award-winning BT Sport Films series, speaks to, and speaks up for, football supporters.
Written and narrated by award-winning journalist Michael Calvin, Ours offers a unique insight into modern football away from the Premier League. It asks searching questions about identity and belonging, and finds hope in clubs that are run by, or heavily influenced by, their fans.
It provides an in-depth examination of a variety of ownership models in an uncertain era for the sport.
How will they help to shape the future of a game undergoing an existential crisis?
Fan culture is predicated on one basic human desire: to belong. Match days are ritualistic. They are a release and a constant. But what happens when you wake up one day without a football club?
For James Bentley, the memory of Bury’s loss is as acute as ever. The two-time FA Cup winners were expelled from the Football League after 125 years in 2019 when a proposed takeover collapsed at the eleventh hour.
“I felt like it was the strongest punch to the gut I’ve ever had in my life,” says Bentley who took the day off work to mourn the loss of his club.
“It will take me years to get over the moment when I realised things had got so bad that this ultimate punishment had been handed down to us.”
Football clubs are pillars of society. They can be displaced, but the emotional connection binding the supporters and they club they love never fades.
Take AFC Wimbledon, poster boys of the ‘phoenix club’ revolution. The club was formed by disenfranchised supporters in 2002 after the Football Association ratified Wimbledon's move to Milton Keynes, some 60 miles north of the London suburb.
Remarkably, they made relatively light work of returning to the Football League, needing only nine years to scale the non-league pyramid. A unique footballing odyssey had a closing chapter in November, when AFC Wimbledon of League One returned to their spiritual home of Plough Lane.
Naming the Pompey owners is like naming the seven dwarfs
- Bob Beech, co-founder of SOS Pompey
For Ivor Hellor, AFC Wimbledon’s Commercial Director, the club’s astronomic rise was fuelled by righteous indignation over their relocation.
Portsmouth is a naval town with a military tradition. They won the FA Cup in 2008 but spent well beyond their means in the following years, becoming the first Premier League club to enter administration in 2012.
Then, the parasites descended.
“Naming the Pompey owners is like naming the seven dwarfs, you always forget one and most of them were dopey,” says Bob Beech, co-founder of SOS Pompey.
From Sacha Gaydamak, son of a convicted gun-runner, to Ali al-Faraj (known locally as Ali al-mirage because he was never seen in Hampshire), Portsmouth became victims of the freewheeling way the game is organised.
In a seminal moment in 2013, the club was saved from liquidation and the clutches of chronic mismanagement when the Portsmouth Supporters Trust sealed an historic takeover.
Lifelong supporter Iain McInnes was the chairman before the club was handed back to external owners in 2017, when the Trust voted overwhelmingly in favour of selling their stake to former Disney chief executive Michael Eisner.
Reliance on individual benefactors can be perilous though, as Rushden and Diamonds discovered in 2011.
They were competitive in League One in 2003 with a reputable owner and state-of-the-art stadium. Max Griggs, a local businessman and owner of the shoe company Dr Martens supplied the cash, but he handed over his assets to the Supporters Trust for £1 when he decided he couldn’t take the club any further. Six years later the club became insolvent.
Today Nene Park is a wasteland, a harrowing reminder of a club that lived fast and died young.
Rather than rely on one owner, Kent club Ebbsfleet United ripped up the ownership rulebook when they were taken over by MyFootballClub, brainchild of former journalist Will Brooks.
The radical scheme sought to democratise the running of clubs by offering fans the opportunity to have a say on starting line-ups, transfers and contract negotiations for the sum of £35 each.
32,000 supporters worldwide signed up, hoping to be at the forefront of a brave new era of fan ownership. However, renewals dried up and memberships plummeted when the novelty wore off. Relations between MyFootballClub and the Club had deteriorated by November 2012 and Ebbsfleet was handed over to a Kuwaiti-based consortium a year later.
Another club who consciously rejected big-league principles are Lewes FC who converted to a 100% fan-owned, democratic, not-for-profit institution in 2010. They have 1,500 owners from 33 countries and are have pioneered numerous socially responsible efforts.
In 2017, they became the first club in the world to split revenue equally between the men’s and women’s teams. They also started Football Therapy, free drop-in sessions for anyone with mental health problems and called for an increase in the prize money for the women’s FA Cup.
For Lewes’ dedicated and compassionate fan base, the picturesque surroundings of East Sussex trump the cathedrals of the modern game.
Football continues to evolve and Generation Z are setting the agenda. Hashtag United, founded by YouTuber Spencer Owen are now playing semi-professionally in the ninth tier and their matches are streamed globally to bigger audiences than all but a handful of Premier League clubs.
Traditional clubs are starting to take notice. Leyton Orient is a club were innovation is admired and staff are empowered to challenge convention. The result? A partnership with astonishingly successful YouTube group Sidemen.
The life-affirming journey demonstrates the irrefutable power of fans and for Professor Simon Chadwick, an expert on football club ownership, they hold the key to the game’s future.
“The time has now come for fans to step up,” he says. “We know the British government isn’t going to help. We know the English FA is almost in constant turmoil. Fans, you need to step up and you need to do it yourself.”
The game is ours, after all.
Speaking on BT Sport’s Football Writers Podcast, Calvin said: “Football isn’t the same without fans. They leave a void emotionally and, in too many cases, financially. We wanted to pay homage to them.
“I’ve tried to give an insight into the passion, the principles and the potential of a series of clubs.
“In the film I admit that I had fallen out of love with the game’s elitism and greed. Meeting so many good people, doing the right things for the right reasons, renewed my faith in football. It made me think like a fan again.”
Author and journalist Paul Hayward, who features in Ours, said: “There’s so much room for encouragement there. It doesn’t have to be a smash and grab exercise. It doesn’t have to be a playground for asset strippers and speculators, and fans have this power that perhaps they don’t realise they actually have to save and restore their own football clubs.”
Sally Brown, Executive Producer of BT Sport Films, said: “The last 12 months have brought the importance of fans to the fore, the pandemic re-emphasising the role that their passion plays both in and away from the stadium.
“A strikingly relevant piece of work, Ours confronts the flaws of the modern game and celebrates those that help make it a reality.”
Watch Ours right here on btsport.com or catch up on the BT Sport app.