Let's Talk about Real Fan Power; the Newcastle Utd Scandal Should Make Us Think Again about Football Plcs
Gamble, Andrew, Kelly, Gavin, New Statesman (1996)
On 5 April Newcastle United and Sheffield United meet in the semifinal of the FA Cup. But both clubs have been making more headlines recently off the field than on it. Sheffield lost a manager, chairman and chief executive in one week, while two Newcastle directors, Freddie Shepherd and Douglas Hall, have just been forced to resign after reports of their denigration of their own team's supporters.
The Newcastle resignations have been hailed as a victory for fan power. But this is far from the reality: the two men still in effect own the club and the immediate crisis has been abated only by the temporary return of Hall's father, the local magnate Sir John Hall, to the board.
Both clubs' crises should cause us to question the path of their commercial development. For, along with an increasing number of others, both have become plcs, floated on the stock exchange. The plc is seen as the modern way to run a football club. But it has created new conflicts between shareholders and fans.
Sheffield United's manager resigned in protest at the chief executive's curious strategy of trying to achieve Premiership status by selling his best players. Noisy demonstrations then forced the chairman and chief executive to resign. The outrage of Newcastle fans at the behaviour of the two directors comes in the wake of earlier unease about the timing of Kevin Keegan's resignation as manager.
But the role of supporters - and thus the extent of fan power - is pretty well limited to invading the pitch, singing nasty songs and (in real desperation) boycotting matches. Even when the faces in the boardroom change, the problems don't. Fans believe big clubs are increasingly run in the interests of shareholders rather than supporters. To football fans, for whom transfer of loyalty is not an option, this trend is nothing short of a betrayal.
Could it be different? Well, yes, it could. There are two possible strategies. The first is a reformist corporate governance agenda, tightening the accountability of directors to shareholders while informally increasing the involvement of fans, councils and schools (under review by the football task force). Clubs might appoint fans as non-executive directors and conduct "supporter audits". But while this would be an improvement, it is unlikely to touch on the issues that concern most fans.
The second strategy starts from the recognition that supporters have a fundamentally different relationship with their team than consumers do with the producers of most other goods and services. Though there are many teams in the league, once you have made your choice of club you have nowhere else to go. Fans also have to survive on trust. They purchase season tickets without knowing which players will be at the club, let alone who will be managing it. Accordingly, it would be appropriate if football clubs were legally required to further the longterm interests of the club and its supporters as a whole rather than the narrow interests of shareholders. But this would be difficult to enforce for football clubs alone, and would probably require a comprehensive reform of company law. …