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Punk football, the nick-name often adopted by the supporter-ownership movement, has come a long way in the past twenty years. From humble beginnings at Northampton Town back in 1992, the movement has blossomed. With the backing of Supporters Direct, trusts have proliferated across the game. There are now 104 of them in English football, 73 of which are in either the top-flight or the Football League.

But although trusts are now numerous, instances where they have achieved the goal of majority ownership are not. In the top four tiers of the game, such examples are confined to League Two. There might be scattered instances of share-holdings elsewhere, but these tend to be small, minority stakes. League Two has become the test-bed for this experiment in fan ownership, and it’s one in which the experiment appears to be floundering. During the recent season, most of the division’s fan-owned clubs had dismal campaigns, with several of them, including Portsmouth, Exeter City and Wycombe Wanderers, coming dangerously close to relegation out of the Football League and into the Conference.

This has led some of the trusts involved to question the validity of the supporter-ownership model and at least one of the them (Wycombe) to consider what Brentford did a few years ago and sell up to private owners. And it’s easy to see why following your club’s example appears to be tempting. With Matthew Benham’s investment, as you well know, Brentford have steadily climbed up the football pyramid and now get to play in what is arguably the greatest second-tier in world football. A few years ago, when the fans were at the helm, such an outcome would have seemed improbable.

During the past twelve months I’ve been writing a book on the phenomenon of supporters taking control at clubs; a book that includes a section about what happened at Brentford. During my research I was fortunate enough to talk to several of the people who have been involved with Bees United, one of whom was the club’s current vice-chair, Donald Kerr. Back when I interviewed Donald, he was kind enough to give me a frank analysis of the fans’ time in charge of the club. He said: “I’m a huge supporter of the ‘trust model’. Without it, we couldn’t have got out of the impasse that Ron Noades (pictured above) faced us with. But after that, it was clear that supporter ownership would only work at Brentford if the fans were willing to accept us playing at a much lower level.

We simply did not have the capacity to raise the necessary finance to compete against our peers. Football, at any level, is a game where money matters, and under supporter ownership we just didn’t have enough. I for one am eternally grateful that Matthew came along.” Anyone lucky enough (as I was) to be present at Griffin Park for the game against Preston late last season could not fail to be moved by the event. Brentford is a club that a few years ago faced the possibility of first, potentially going out of business and then later, once the club had been saved, of tumbling down towards non-league football. Yet here it was, promoted to the Championship and playing the kind of football worthy of that higher league.

So does this tale, along with the struggles currently facing the punk football clubs of League Two, mean that the idea of the fans being in charge is one that might never really catch on? Perhaps part of the problem with punk football is that advocates can become too fixated on ‘majority ownership’ as a way of exerting influence. But there are plenty of examples, at clubs like Carlisle, Swansea and Arsenal, where trusts have established a minority share, one that has provided them with certain rights and a ‘voice’. Even at Brentford, Bees United ensured that when it sold-up, it maintained a ‘Golden Share’, which protects Griffin Park from being sold before a new stadium is ready for the club to move into. The Trust will retain this ‘Golden Share’ in the new ground, protecting against any threat of asset stripping by the owners.

Added to this, Bees United also negotiated an array of other rights, the principle amongst them being two seats on the club board, one of which is the position of vice chairman. Allied to the fixation on majority ownership amongst punk football’s advocates, there is also a slight obsession on permanence, as if once the supporters have gained control the model should be set-in-stone. Most often, supporters trusts emerge as owners as a last resort, the only group willing to grasp the reigns when the situation at the club has become unremittingly dire.

Although such trusts provide a vital service, once the rescue has taken place, why should it be incumbent upon them to remain in charge for good, specifically if this means the club struggling to maintain its league position? At both Brentford and York City, the trusts realised that although they had played the role of saviours, while they remained in charge there was little chance of the club progressing and every chance of it deteriorating. It was this realisation that led both trusts to renegotiate their relationship with the club and allow the return of private ownership.

Although many of us cherish the idea that football is a game where it’s the fans that should one day call the shots, the reality is that life is hard for those clubs where this is the case. And until the game is reformed completely, with financial inequality addressed and support given to punk football from the authorities, it’s likely that minority ownership or some form of supporter representation at the club might be the best option for those trusts seeking to get a foot in the boardroom. But is this really so bad?

What Bees United decided to do a few years ago has proven to be enormously beneficial to the club. Not only has the owner’s investment given Brentford the means to return to the upper-reaches of English football, but the way in which ownership was transferred ensured that the fans retained that all-important and much-coveted ‘voice’. Brentford Football Club has become living proof that, even without majority-ownership, there is still a role for trusts to play. Not only is it an example worth bearing in mind for those trust-owned clubs currently struggling down in League Two, but Bees United has also proven that a limited presence can still provide influence, and that a small voice is better than no voice at all.

Jim Keoghan

51HNLCwJFML (2)Jim’s excellent book Punk Football – the rise of fan ownership in English football is available now priced £12.99 from your high street bookshop but if you feel compelled to use amazon from there too.