Parliament to debate fan ownership as support grows

Green MSP Alison Johnstone has lodged two amendments to the Community Empowerment Bill that would bring in a fans’ right to buy their football clubs, and those amendments will be considered by the Local Government and Community Committee at its Wednesday meeting.

The amendments have been signed by Labour MSP Ken Macintosh, and are also supported by the Liberal Democrats, while the Conservatives’ 2010 Westminster manifesto pledged to “reform the governance arrangements in football to enable co-operative ownership models to be established by supporters”. The campaign has also been backed by Scotland’s leading anti-sectarianism charity Nil By Mouth, by Supporters Direct, and by other leading lights in the supporter ownership movement.

Over the last fortnight the Green MSPs received more than 250 replies to a survey of football supporters and members of fans’ trusts on the proposals. More than 95% supported giving fans the first right of refusal if their clubs are sold or go into administration, and 81% of those expressing a view backed a right to buy at any time. The proposal that trusts should be able to bid for government support to buy their clubs, whether as grants, loans or to underwrite bids, was backed by 89% of those expressing a view (2).

This response confirms the results of a Survation poll commissioned by Green MSPs last year, which showed overwhelming public support for a fans’ right to buy. 87% of those expressing a view backed a right of first refusal if a club comes up for sale or goes into administration, and 72% supported a fans’ right to buy their local club for a market value at any point (3).

Alison Johnstone MSP, who lodged the amendments, said:

AJ at conf 2014You don’t need to be a football fan to know that Scottish football lurches from crisis to crisis, and that the current model of ownership has led to disaster at clubs from Gretna to Hearts. You also only need to look at Germany, where almost all clubs are fan-owned, to see how well this model can work. But it’s not just about fans stepping in to save their clubs once they’ve fallen into administration. There are many well-run Scottish clubs in private hands, but those owners come and go, and when they go, we want to see fans have the first right of refusal. And where there’s a committed and well-organised group of fans with strong support on the terraces for a takeover, we want them to have the power to do so.

“The Community Empowerment Bill is a good piece of legislation, but this one small change could make it a landmark law. Football clubs are at the heart of many of our communities, large and small: what could empower those communities more directly than helping them run those clubs more successfully? I’m delighted to have Labour and Liberal Democrat support for these plans, and the Conservatives formally backed fan ownership in 2010. I’m hopeful that SNP MSPs will join the consensus and vote this week to put Scottish football fans first.”

Andrew Jenkin, head of Supporters Direct Scotland, said:

“Supporters Direct Scotland was set up to support fan ownership of Scottish clubs, and we believe a well-constructed right to buy could be a game-changer for Scottish football. We welcome the principle of these amendments, although we recognise that another round of discussion will be required before the Community Empowerment Bill is considered at Stage 3, and that additional changes may be needed to allow other ownership models to be included. Using our considerable expertise and experience in this area we stand ready to help the Scottish Football Association, the Scottish Professional Football League and the Scottish Government refine these proposals so they can best empower supporter ownership and enshrine the voice of supporters in our game.”

Dave Scott, campaign director for Nil By Mouth, said:

“In 2011 we published an action plan arguing for supporters trusts to be given funding to run their own anti-bigotry initiatives, and last year we worked with Supporters Direct Scotland on its ‘Colour of our Scarves’ project, which has been touring across SPFL clubs and the communities they operate to highlight the positive contribution the game brings to society. We have also had strong support for our work from a number of Supporters’ Trusts, as highlighted at the Supporters Direct Scotland conference last summer, where we led a session on sectarianism in the game.

“When we called for the introduction of ‘strict liability’ into the Scottish game, to make clubs responsible for sectarian behaviour by their fans, the strongest support we received came from supporters groups. For example, the Raith Supporters Trust officially wrote to their club asking them to place the proposals on the SFA’s AGM agenda. With all of this in mind, NbM would be supportive of proposals for greater fan control and ownership of their clubs and feel that this could be an exciting opportunity for the silent majority of fans to find their voice and use their increased position to bring about the real changes required to bring the Scottish game into the 21st century.”

Stuart Duncan, a former Director of Greenock Morton Football Club and Supporters Direct, said:

“As an advocate for fan ownership since the establishment of Supporters Direct Scotland in 2002 I’m very excited at the prospect of fans being given the right to buy. Clubs provincial and otherwise are community assets as shown by my own club Greenock Morton who now have a vibrant and highly successful community trust, a fan led initiative, which is in their own words, “the heartbeat of Inverclyde”. These community assets are best protected by people who have the club as the hub of the community at heart, fans.”

A Falkirk fan who filled in the Green MSPs survey said:

“My club went into administration in the late 90s and it was an awful time, not just for the club and the fans but the local communities in and around Falkirk as well as the dozens of small businesses depending on trade with the club and the ordinary people who worked at the club. The worst thing was to realise how important the club was to the town and people’s sense of connection to it, through the football, and to see it all play out as a big business game and feel totally disempowered. These proposals would give well organised groups the opportunity to act on behalf of communities and create something tangible to go with that feeling of a sense of belonging that goes with being a fan of a football club, especially a local one.”

A Pars fan said:

“I am a Dunfermline Athletic fan, and a member of Pars United, the majority shareholder of DAFC. Fan ownership has prevented our football club from being wiped out, brought a valuable community asset and stadium into public ownership, increased volunteering and employment opportunities in the area. Without the vision and dedication of those that led the buy-out effort we would not have a club any more. Every fans group in Scotland should have the opportunity to do similar for their club.”

A Celtic fan said:

“Currently Celtic is run brilliantly (it wasn’t always like that). But Dermot Desmond and the board will certainly not be around for ever and who knows what route the next incumbents might take. Reckless spending to chase success is a tried and tested route in Scotland (Livingston, Gretna, Hearts, Rangers)… it never goes well. If fans own or part-own clubs then the finances are kept realistic because fans understand that it is them who will be digging into their pocket to save the club in the end. No fan wants to go through the pain of the aforementioned financially ‘troubled’ clubs.”