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Is the BWFC Supporters Trust Still Relevant?

Initiated in a blaze of expectation, on the eve of their first AGM, things are no longer rosy for the Supporters Trust (ST). The questions are why and what is the way forward?

During a time when our club was fighting for its very existence, an idea ignited by a few die-hard Bolton fans was quickly blown into a furnace of expectation, enthusiasm and hope by Bolton fans at large and the journey of having a Bolton Wanderers Football Club Supporters Trust was started. Time was short, our club in complete disarray, but first elections needed to be held, a structure put in place and way forward approved by the fans for an organisation run by fans for the fans. Big expectations and big obstacles but the ST seemed an unstoppable force.

However, a mere eight months later and it is safe to say that things have not gone well for the ST. So what went wrong? My view is that four critical factors torpedoed the ST boat as it began its maiden voyage:

  1. The Takeover Battle; rather than being an independent adjudicator over the various consortiums vying to buy the club, the ST got involved in a bid. This was completely within the legal remit for the steering group. It is also understandable that, with time being of the essence, a gamble to be part of a winning bid to save and indeed run our club was one worth taking. If an ST headed bid had won, I believe that they would’ve proved their worth. But they didn’t win. To make matters worse for the ST, fans who had quite rightly bought into the view that an elected ST would run to an agenda voted in by its membership, saw that critical decisions were being made without their say. From a PR point of view, it did not go down well at all. Most importantly though, it tainted the ST’s image of impartiality going forward. Any criticisms of or challenges made by the ST against the new owners regime, would be seen as the agenda of the jilted bride, resentful, with an undercurrent of wishing failure on the absent grooms future success.
  2. The Board Elections; be it fan apathy or lack of people with the qualifications needed to take part, not a single new candidate came forward for election to the board. To ensure that the ST continued, the steering group, some of whom said that they planned to stand down at the elections, were now forced into becoming board members by default. Once again, this did not go down well with the fans, giving the impression that the ST was actually an invite only old boys club and not what fans had bought into the previous January. Whilst the steering group was completely innocent of this view, it was a view held by many fans nonetheless and, sadly, another PR disaster was on the cards.
  3. The fans Rottweiler, knight in shining armour or club guardian (take your pick); for me, this has been a big disappointment. I expected an ST that would either challenge or ratify the club for every major decision made off the field of play, such as successfully meeting the League 1 salary cap, failure to remove the Football league restrictions, the record breaking delay for unfiled accounts, managing the debt and governance in general. I wanted to know that the fans had a representation that would go to all lengths to ensure that what happened last season didn’t happen again, or if it did, be in a position to inform and then help start to put a rescue plan together. It would inevitably ruffle feathers, it would sometimes be unpopular, but I don’t care, as I want to know that a club which has a century and a half of history behind it has a future going forward. Instead we seem to have an ST that does discounts at local eateries or for student joiners, promote its own ‘app’, doesn’t want to make waves and that is seemingly timid subservient its actions with the club hierarchy. Surely, if that’s what we wanted, we could’ve all joined the BWSA.
  4. Communications; in a world were social media is king, the ability to get your message across to your membership, readers or the clubs fan base is simply vital. I don’t think the ST has come close to achieving this. A focus on charity events, whilst admirable, is a big own goal and not what fans need. I expected regular updates on what the ST was doing, what they were investigating, what help they were providing, who they were talking to and what advice they were taking. Be it the future of the academy or the success of the club meeting the League One salary cap, to challenging the still unfiled annual accounts, I expected updates on these and lots of them.

So, is the ST still relevant?

Well, to answer that question, it requires us fans to hit a reset button of sorts. It’s all well and good pointing the finger at a bunch of people who, whilst do work in their own free time, have seemingly just put themselves on the board, but equally, I think us fans need to ask ourselves as to whether we are being fair in our views of and indeed contributing to the funk that the ST find themselves in. To clarify this point, we need to take a step back in time.

Back in the 2007/8 season, Bolton played giants of European football Bayern Munich, Athletico Madrid and Sporting Lisbon in the then named UFEA Cup. This followed a run of four straight seasons finishing in the top eight of the Premier League. We had a newish stadium that was the envy of many, a first class training facility at Euxton, a first class development set up, a reputation for being well run (this may seem unlikely now but is actually true), the Whites Hotel and a pedigree of being an established Premier League club.

During that season of 2007/8 the club also lost £10 million, pushing its total debt to over £53 million. Did many fans complain as to whether this debt was sustainable, whether the board had a business plan that was credible, whether the fact that the then chairman Phil Gartside statements that the continuing investment by Eddie Davis/Moonshift was viable going forward? Fans who did raise their voice and challenge this must have an agenda against the board, mustn’t they? This board had helped bring a period of unmatched success to the club; therefore shouldn’t they be given the benefit of doubt for managing the rising debt?

At this point, let me say that I was one of a majority of fans who was uninterested in the club finances. I supported Bolton over many years for what happened on the pitch not off it. It’s not that I was unaware; it was simply the case that as long as it wasn’t impacting what was happening on the pitch, I was happy to ignore the rising debt, wanting to trust the board to sort it out.

Seven years later the club walked off the edge of a financial cliff, almost £200 million in debt (as quoted by the Registrar in the wind up court) and eventually coming within thirty minutes of going out of existence. Let’s be honest, when things turned really bad early last November, most of us where totally unprepared for it. It is my belief that us fans have a de facto view that if all is well on the pitch, if the club are funding assets such as hotels or training grounds, then the finances are ok. However, history tells us that this is rarely the case in the world of football.

Therefore what safeguard do us fans have against this happening again?

What about the local paper, the Bolton News? This paper has a sporting golden egg in its backyard, namely Bolton Wanderers Football Club. Whilst the BN doesn’t receive any money directly from the club, commercially it still makes sense not to bite the hand that provides it’s articles and hence sales and this puts the paper at a disadvantage. Challenging the club for off field discrepancies could put the paper at risk of punitive punishments, if the club chose to do so. Alex Ferguson, an outstanding manger in his time it has to be said, is a good example of trying to manipulate media outlets on what they report. How many journo’s or papers or TV channels were ‘banned’ from interviewing him or club officials during his reign as manager? It was more than a few. Our own Marc Iles felt the heat of an upset chairman. In one article on Phil Gartsides legacy, he states; ‘On the wall of my toilet at home hangs a framed email, dated September 2009, which asks my editor who the newspaper intended to send to cover Bolton Wanderers games, as the club no longer wanted to deal with me.’

Okay, what about fan football blogs/sites or indeed fans that have a good insight to what’s happening in the club? They don’t necessarily have to work under the same strict codes that local papers have to legally abide by and can therefore ‘fill the gap’, can’t they? To a point, yes this is true, but the reality is that it depends on what stakes and/or people are involved. Let’s remember that these fan sites or ‘informed fans’, are generally amateurs who do blogs in their free time, for the love of the club they support. They have to rely on ‘sources’ within their local club to provide the information they need. Sometimes information can be cross checked, sometimes not. Sometimes the information is accurate but out of date. Sometimes the essence of what is being provided is misunderstood or errors are made in translation. If this happens, then the fan site or fan is exposed to the risk of legal action. Examples? Look at the Blackpool owners Owen and Karl Oyston who have sued a number of Blackpool fans for libel as a case in point. Then, of course, was the reported case of the Charlton Athletic fan who 'can only get a season ticket if he signs behavioural contract' and agrees not to badmouth club on social media!’ Both fans and fan sites are at a disadvantage because of this. If a club has the desire and plays its cards right, it can quite easily bully them into silence.

This is where the ST comes into its own. The structure and rules that a Supporters Trust has to abide by are endorsed by the government and the legal powers that be. It can challenge a club without being commercially disadvantaged. ST statements can be professionally checked to ensure that they are legally correct, before publishing. If in the event that a legal action is raised, an ST will have the funding in place to meet it head on. If a club takes punitive actions against the ST, then the ST members can respond. Fan power, when properly organised, WILL have an impact on a club. It may not be immediate but eventually fans will win through, simply because we have staying power, whereas owners, board members, managers and indeed players are invariably transient. THAT is why a Supporters Trust is important.

Finally, what about having a say in running a club? The ST currently does not have shares in the club and no place on the board. A popular view is that football is a business, the running of which doesn’t need to take into account fans views and doesn’t have to have fan representation on the board. Football club owners either put in their own cash or via their board, get investment into the club that they are ultimately responsible for. They are answerable to their shareholders and investors, but fans? It’s a big no to that one.

In response to this, I will quote from an open letter put together by Supporters Direct and the Football Supporters Federation, about the transparency of ownership, recently referenced in an article on The Offshore Game website:

The argument in football has been that clubs are businesses, and businesses are allowed to register whatever they see fit; after all, there is nothing illegal about doing that. This argument, however, fails to acknowledge that clubs are not businesses as they are commonly understood to be. They have a responsibility to act in a way that serves the communities they represent.

Many clubs would have expired through mismanagement years ago were they normal businesses. [...] Nearly all are only in existence because they represent a community’s desire to play and watch sport. They are sporting enterprises that must be businesslike for sure, but what is good for the corporate goose is not necessarily good for the football gander.

[...] Most people don’t care who ultimately owns the companies that make the cars they drive, the food they eat or the TVs on which they watch football (although they care passionately about safety and probity). Football clubs, however, are public institutions that matter like little else culturally and socially to the towns and cities in which they play. That is because the story of these clubs is the story of those communities, and the stories of the generations of families who have supported them through thick and thin: as someone once said, ‘No one ever had their ashes scattered at Tesco’s’.

The privilege of owning one of these institutions carries with it responsibilities to the community that has sustained it.

In my opinion, that trust and bond will be best maintained with fan representation on the board. To me, the best route to this is through a Supporters Trust. Note also that this is the norm in the German Bundesliga and their clubs aren’t exactly doing too bad are they?

The thing is, the ST can play good cop as well as bad cop. For example, how good would it have been for Ken Anderson, when interviewed by BBC Radio Manchester a few weeks back, to have his interview qualified by a Supporters Trust statement saying along the lines of ‘we can confirm everything that Mr Anderson stated in his interview comments was correct, this is a man who knows his onions and we are very excited with his plans for the future etc, etc.’ Immediately, the club has its communications independently qualified, helping to get the fans onside and perhaps be more patient and understanding when future off field struggles have to be worked through.

So, yes the Supporters Trust needs to be still relevant, but this can only be the case if us fans get involved and give it the support it needs. So, this evening of the 29 September, the ST has its first AGM. You can either throw the virtual rotten fruit in their direction or go along and make a positive contribution to the Trust going forward. It’s your call. Whilst we may be on the verge of a glorious and successful future under our new owners, alternately, we may be about to walk off another financial cliff. I’ve no idea which it is but I do know that I want fan representation at our club to ratify success or failure and be a safety net should the worst indeed happen.