Are English supporters losing their voice?

Successes achieved in giving fans greater ownership of their clubs could be reversed as the English Premier League cuts $2 million from a vital organisation.

    They are the people you hear at every football match in England. But all too often their voice is not listened to by the game they love.

    Fans have a hard enough time as it is. This week their task looks to have become even harder.

    Supporters Direct is an organisation that has been in existence for just over 10 years now.

    It was created under the previous Labour government as a means to encourage fan involvement in the running of their clubs. But despite a solid track record of success, the group now finds itself in crisis.

    The English Premier League (the richest league in the world) has just withdrawn around $2 million worth of funding. If a remedy is not found quickly the body could well go out of existence.

    The immediate crisis began when SD's chief executive Dave Boyle got a little bit carried away on Twitter.

    Boyle is a committed AFC Wimbledon fan, a team embodying all that SD stands for - namely a club that is owned and run by the fans.

    Their nemesis is of course the MK Dons, the team that took league football away from the London suburb of Wimbledon. AFC Wimbledon was the fan-backed alternative to emerge from the ashes. Their recent promotion into the football league was a huge step for the principle of supporter ownership and Boyle it seems allowed emotions to get the better of him.

    He Tweeted some abusive thoughts aimed in the direction of the MK Dons, and has as a consequence resigned from his job. But it seems one man's misjudgment could have an impact on hundreds of thousands of fans.

    In direct response to Boyle's actions, the Premier League decided to cut SD's cash.

    Right now I am in the process of editing a documentary about football supporters in England and their efforts to play a more active role at their clubs.

    Supporters' trusts

    I interviewed Boyle and was hugely impressed with his passion and SD's achievements. They have helped establish nearly 200 supporters' trusts and have close to 300,000 members.

    That my home town of Chester still has a football club is down, in no small part, to the efforts of SD. The fans provide the commitment, SD provides the guidance.

    The need for SD is hard to question. There have been more than 50 insolvencies in the football league in the last 20 years. The stories of bungled ownership are too numerous and painful to detail.

    Can football really afford not to listen to to the one voice that will always have the best interests of the game and their club at heart? There has been a recurring theme in the interviews I have conducted in recent weeks.

    When a club hits trouble the owners disappear, the players move on and the manager shakes his head. Often the only people left are the fans, and they are the ones who raise the enthusiasm and the money to save their team.

    During the filming of this programme I spent a few days in Exeter. The city's football club has seen it all. Several bouts of bankruptcy, owners thrown in jail and the bizarre spectacle of Michael Jackson being made an honorary director. I wish I was joking.

    In 2003 the club had hit absolutely rock bottom.  With no other options available, the fans clubbed together to buy their team. Promotions and stability followed. To this day, Exeter is run as a supporters' trust.

    The side are now back in League One - English football's third division - and their future is secure. The song you hear from the fans every week there is a simple one - "We own our club." Exeter's fans have been helped every step of the way by SD.

    The next Premier League season will see the arrival of Swansea City in the big time.  Their supporters' trust has a 20 per cent holding in the club and they have a full-time representative on the board.

    It will be the first top flight team in England to have a significant fan share. Once again, they owe much to SD and the personal involvement of Boyle.

    The rights and wrongs of an individual's behaviour are a matter for SD to deal with. As it is, Boyle has resigned and a replacement has been named.

    The cynical among us might see SD's work as a direct threat to the commercial outlook of the Premier League. Whatever the agendas at play are, SD finds itself trapped in the mother of all ironies.

    SD preaches a doctrine of football needing to live within its means and clubs not being reliant on sugar daddy handouts. But through no fault of its own, SD's own future was in the hands of the very league it wanted to reform.  

    If it does go, it will be to the detriment of fans all over the country. But you suspect its possible disappearance will not be causing too many sleepless nights at the Premier League.


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