Words: Seb White
Images: Offside Sports Photgraphy / OWNAFC
I recently completed my first year as a board member on a supporters’ trust for a non-league club in the 6th tier of English football. I first went to watch Hampton & Richmond a few years ago now, and as detailed here fell in love with a football club and the many people involved in it pretty much from the off. This last year has been even more interesting, eventful and ultimately more rewarding than I could have ever envisaged.
As the largest shareholder in the football club, the trust has a huge role in many decisions, however big or small; it’s a serious business. No one on the board takes lightly the responsibility they hold in ensuring the smooth running of an institution which in a few years will celebrate its centenary.
As a result, the headline “OWNAFC: Non-league football club could be run by supporters using a phone app” certainly piqued my interest. Turns out a team at “tier six or seven” could soon be taken over by a group of 2,500 people all connected via an app which will allow them to have a say on all manner of decisions, all settled with a “majority vote”. Democracy is inherently a good thing of course it is, and of course there a number of football clubs that would be most welcome in an era of the Oystons, the Ashleys and the Duchâtelets. And doing it all on app makes perfect sense, you should see some of the email chains we have among our board, however when you dig a little deeper into what OWNAFC are promising you have to wonder if it will really benefit the football club and its supporters?
Everyone who goes to watch a non-league football match is there because they truly want to be. There’s a connection between those on the pitch and those off it, which some say is lost in other areas of modern day football. The manager will come and shake your hand on the way to the dugout before kick-off, the winger taking the corner will look you at you and wink when you tell him five pints in to “make sure to get it in the mixer” and post-match you’ll chat to the players over a pint about the goal they scored, the tackle they made, the yellow card they got and how good the post-match grub is. The intimacy and connection is what keeps clubs going through the difficult spells and what fuels the hardy regulars who pitch up every week and the part-time players whose inherent love for the game means they give up their Saturday for that buzz and aren't there just for the wedge, there absolutely isn’t enough of that going around anyway. The rickety ground might be falling apart, but it feels like home.
I might be wrong, but I don’t think you get an authentic connection with a football club (certainly one you’ve previously never heard of) making a few snap decisions on a mobile phone app hundreds of miles away while sat in your pants on the sofa.
Outside of the 92, the majority of managers are part-time, as are their staff. Not for them the glory of netting a last minute winner or a diving, one-handed save to prevent a defeat. Just hours and hours in between the day job to scout for that hidden gem that may change your team's fortunes or net the club a huge windfall in the future. The constant time on the calculator, making sure every single penny is spent wisely. The planning and work to best maximise the sporadic and disrupted training sessions that give you a rare chance to get your message across to the lads. No one knows the club and what needs to be done on the pitch better than you. OWNAFC turns all that on its head—the manager just becomes an utterly powerless pawn, with no ability to make absolutely crucial decisions. How is that possibly of benefit to a football club?
Non-league football is nothing without it’s volunteers, the ones that sell the programme, the ones that run the turnstiles, the ones that will spend hot summer days watering the newly laid pitch, the ones that will weed the terraces, the ones who will get up a ladder and fix that hole in the terrace roof, the ones that will help kit out a new food truck so you can sell a few more burgers, the ones that fix the broken seats in the falling down stand, the ones that work hours and hours and hours all for absolutely nothing, not one penny. They do it because they love the football club, and they are brilliant, brilliant people. As well as the volunteers you have the skeleton staff keeping things moving and who are very rarely appropriately financially rewarded for their efforts either. So much is unseen at non-league clubs, how can you possibly be able to judge the merits of all that and make life-changing, highly emotive decisions on a poll on a smartphone.
Don’t get me wrong non-league football is certainly a slow-moving beast, and like all levels of the game at home and abroad representation of supporters at board level is long overdue. But this whole concept places the power in the hands of assorted bedwetters whose first knowledge of the football club they now control will be the name of it when the notification flashes up on their smartphone once the NDA runs out. And at the touch of a button their opinion and flash judgements will suddenly matter more than those of the hardy souls who have followed their clubs for years, volunteered countless hours doing the mundane but essential, and who just want to watch their team managed by a bloke who has the freedom to put HIS very best 11 players on a football pitch. And you can gain all this superiority over your fellow football fan for just £49 for a share.
One of the founders of OWNAFC has said it will “show what can be done at a club if fans have ownership”. I can only presume he’s never heard of AFC Wimbledon, Wrexham AFC and the other 40 odd fan-owned teams, nor the amazing work that Supporters Direct has done for over 25 years. Not every single club owned by the fans is perfect of course, but if OWNAFC is the answer to the problems that football has in terms of club ownership, then we’re definitely asking the wrong question.