What Can It Achieve – S.T

Thursday, 31 May 2001, 0:00
5 mins read

What can a Supporters Trust accomplish?

This is an example of the original Supporters Trust set up at Northampton Town FC. By Brian Lmax

Northampton Town Supporters’ Trust was formed in January 1992, as a result of a large public meeting attended by over 600 fans. This meeting was called by a group of ordinary supporters, including Rob Marshall, editor of the fanzine What a Load of Cobblers, and myself, in response to a financial crisis at the club and a series of misleading statements issued by the then chairman.

The club was reluctant to send representatives to the meeting, but relented at the last minute, and the situation disclosed by them was a debt approaching £1.6 million, representing more than two years’ turnover for the club. As the Trust subsequently discovered, the rot had set in some time before, and unpaid bills stretched back several years, to the time of the previous regime at the club. The crisis, however, had been precipitated by the club s failure to pay the previous two months’ players’ wages, which amounted to about £64,000.

The Professional Footballers’ Association had had to cover this, and so it too had now become a creditor of the club. The Trust was set up with two objectives: first, to raise money to save the club (but not for the then current regime), and to be accountable to the supporters for the expenditure of that money; and second, to seek effective involvement and representation for supporters in the running of the club in order to ensure that such a crisis situation would never occur again. In this latter respect, the Trust marked itself out as being distinct from normal supporters’ clubs, in that from its inception it has had an inescapably political dimension.

By doing this, the Trust was a forerunner of a variety of independent supporters’ associations and other similar bodies, who have sought to change the way that their clubs are run and how they relate to their fans. The Trust has also had a representative of Northampton Borough Council on its executive committee since its inception. The Trust’s initial strategy was a dual approach: campaigning for change and fundraising in public, whilst negotiating in private with the club’s creditors, former directors, the Football League and the Professional Footballers’ Association. In this way the Trust was able to establish its credentials within the first three months to play its part in the running of the club. The Trust’s publicity campaign met with almost universal support from the public and the media.

Fundraising efforts began spontaneously in pubs, clubs and workplaces, and dozens of individual donations ranging from gl to Å“1,000 were received. A bucket collection at the first home match after the Trust was formed yielded Å“3,500, over Å“1 per head of the gate. This particular occasion became immortalized locally by the chairman’s attempts to evict the collectors from the ground in front of television cameras. In the eyes of supporters, this only added to the legitimacy of the Trust and its members, and the bucket collections continued successfully for the rest of the season. The private negotiations were aimed at bringing a winding-up petition against the club in court.

Strange though it may seem that loyal supporters might take such drastic action, the advice we received was that this was the only way to wrest control from the chairman. The Trust could not, of course, bring the petition itself, because it was not a creditor of the club, so we had to persuade others to take this course. The company that eventual1y did so was Abbeyfield Press Limited, the club’s programme producers, who were owed over £11,000. Abbeyfield was owned by Tim Vernon, himself a lifelong supporter, and his partner. Despite pressure from various quarters, they stood firm and went ahead with the action.

When the petition was brought, the chairman was granted an eight-week adjournment on the basis of preparing a ‘rescue plan’ for the club. This was worrying because it would have taken until the end of the season when, with fixtures completed, the Football League would have had much less incentive to help keep the club going.

For a brief period it appeared that the club’s only future lay in the route already taken by Aldershot Football Club, which found that after the old company folded in 1992 and a new one formed, the team itself had to resume playing five divisions lower in the league ‘pyramid’. Northampton Town’s only ‘assets’ in these circumstances would have been the Å“13,000 thus far raised by the Trust, and the right to continue playing at the old County Ground.

This ground no longer even met Southern League Premier Division standards. The chairman’s ‘rescue plan’ collapsed within days and shortly afterwards he called in administrators to run the club. On his own admission, he thought that by doing this he would obtain a year’s breathing space, and then return to run a club free of debt. Barry Ward, the administrator, took a different view. He first had to obtain an Order of Administration from the High Gourt and in order to do so had to convince the Court that the company was capable of returning to solvency and normal trading within a reasonable period of time.

His two main pieces of evidence were the continued interest of former directors, and the volume of public support as evidenced by the formation and rapid growth of the Trust. The Trust, meanwhile, was continuing its public work through fundraising, bucket collections and open meetings.

On obtaining the Order of Administration, Ward’s first action was to cancel the contracts of the three management staff and nine players. This led to much sorrow and researching among supporters, but they fundamentally knew some sort of action of this kind was necessary to bring costs under control.

The process of political education had already begun. The same morning Ward held a meeting at his offices in Birmingham to which former directors and Trust officers were invited. The chairman and his wife were already present when the four of us arrived. Barry told us all that he was forming a local board to run the club on his behalf, of which he would be chairman. He then invited us to decide whether the current chairman and his wife, by then the sole directors would continue in post, and left us to discuss the matter.

We took the opportunity to vote them out, and at that point they left with good grace. The meeting then resumed and it was agreed that the new board would consist of four former directors and two representatives of the Trust. We insisted that they be elected. On 10 April 1992 Phil Frost and I became the first two elected supporters’ directors on the board of an English League club.

When the club came out of administration and returned to normal trading in 1994, this was reduced to one but that place is guaranteed by Northampton Borough Council until at least the year 2019 as a condition of the club’s lease and licence to occupy its new stadium at Sixfields, Northampton, which was completed in 1994. The Borough Council also has a non-executive seat on the board for the same duration. This stadium, built and owned by Northampton Borough Council with the aid of a £l million grant from the Football Trust, is a perfect symbol of the partnership between the local authority, the football club and the Trust.

It is also state-of-the-art in its safety provisions and its facilities for disabled spectators. It is truly a community stadium. The Leader of the Council has recently said that he regards the Trust member on the board of directors as representing not only the supporters but the community as a whole. Councillors have also frequently stated that the stadium would never have been built were it not for the Supporters’ Trust and the democratic guarantee it provided.

If the Trust had not existed it would have been politically unacceptable to provide a football ground from public funds for an unreformed club recently guilty of gross mismanagement. In financial terms, the Trust has paid over £102,000 into Northampton Town FC in the last seven years, with funds still in hand, and it owns 30,592 shares in the club, over seven per cent of the total issued. The sum invested bears good comparison with that of any individual director over the same period.

We have advised or assisted in the formation of severa1 Trusts at other clubs, with similar objectives, including Kettering Town, Middlesbrough, Plymouth Argyle and AFC Bournemouth. These trusts have enjoyed varying degrees of success, the most notable being AFC Bournemouth, to which I will refer later. We have also advised groups who wish to form similar trusts at Dundee United, Manchester City, Partick Thistle, Lincoln City and Chester City among others.

What is A Supporters Trust? (Click Here)

Press Release (Click Here)

Images courtesy of Getty Images, Athena Picture Agency and Swansea City Football Club.

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