Football authorities in England do not have the appetite for the sort of meaningful change that would give power to supporters, according to the chief at Bury’s fan-owned phoenix club.
Phil Young is the chairman of the Shakers Community, which owns non-league Bury AFC – the club which was formed after League One side Bury FC were kicked out of the English Football League following financial troubles.
He believes a fan ownership model could work higher up the football pyramid – but does not believe the will is there among the sport’s governing bodies to make it happen.
“It’s a hard one to resolve without a significant amount of pain to change the structure of ownership in English football,” Young told the PA news agency.
“And I’m not sure that it’s something any of the organisations that have been complaining – the likes of Premier League and the FA – I’m not sure any of them have got the appetite to do the hard work that’s required to fundamentally reform and restructure the game.”
Bury were expelled from the EFL in 2019 after financial mismanagement left them unable to fulfil their fixtures, a situation which a Digital Culture Media and Sport committee found the EFL contributed to by failing to intervene.
And it is that unwillingness to get involved in clubs’ business which Young feels would have to shift if there were to be any serious changes to how football is run.
“The EFL would have to have powers way beyond what they’ve got at the moment and be far more interventionist and far more hands-on involved potentially in the running of some of these football clubs if it went wrong,” he said.
“And I just don’t think any of these organisations have the appetite to be anything other than a very loose kind of affiliation group.”
As with recent wranglings among the Premier League’s so-called big six clubs over a potential European super league, Young said it shows clubs and fans are “completely at the whim and mercy of individuals”.
The idea of fan ownership has become a live topic after supporters revolted over plans by Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham to join the proposed new competition.
It was a situation that led to Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggesting he was prepared to drop a “legislative bomb” on the sport – giving hope that some form of fan ownership could be facilitated.
Bury AFC, who are in the 10th tier of English football, are owned entirely by the Shakers Community, which is financed by its more than 1,500 members.
Members vote on many issues from ticketing policies to kit design, while footballing decisions – such as picking the team’s manager – are left to the board and club officials.
League Two side Exeter also have a fan ownership model, with the Exeter City Supporters’ Trust owning a majority shareholding.
Members elect trustees, who sit on the club’s board and have a “very significant say in how the club is run”, according to trust chairman Nick Hawker.
“We’re still competing with all the other clubs who aren’t supporter owned and so we feel that the way we run the business makes up for the lack of funding that perhaps you might get from a wealthy owner,” Hawker said.
Supporters of Newcastle recently launched an attempt to raise enough money to buy a stake in their club, whose owner Mike Ashley is largely unpopular with fans.
And Hawker believes the model could work in the Premier League – but significant rule changes would be needed if they were ever to compete with clubs funded in other ways.
“We have no beef about big clubs being big clubs and competing at a higher level than us,” he said.
“Our beef is when big clubs go into huge debt in order to compete and are gifted money by wealthy owners or the clubs are compromised in terms of loans in order to gain success.
“I see no reason why the model wouldn’t work at a Premier League club, and especially clubs like Newcastle who I always sense are a big part of the community there, but I think there has to be equalisation of how clubs are funded.
“Fine if they’re funded through their own operational means but if people are throwing money and we have playing budgets and operational budgets that are far beyond what the club actually makes operationally, that’s what makes it impossible.”
Hawker said he felt a sense of “hopelessness” when he first saw the latest plans for a European Super League.
He described the scheme’s PR as “an absolute disaster” but said the backlash was symptomatic of the fact that some big clubs have drifted away from their communities.
“It was sad that clubs didn’t anticipate what was about to happen,” he said. “It demonstrates that clearly they are out of touch not just with their customers but the sense that the world was against it.
“It’s amazing that people at that level who have been so successful in their lives could misjudge something so massively.”