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Chelsea offers unique opportunity for supporter stake at top-flight club

Football Supporters’ Association vice chair Tom Greatrex says that Chelsea’s ownership change offers a unique opportunity for supporter equity at a top-flight club…

The sanctioning of Roman Abramovich has left the future of Chelsea in some uncertainty – but with a bidding process underway, and many possible purchasers, what looks certain is that there will be a new owner of the club relatively soon.

Football clubs change ownership reasonably regularly but what is unusual this time is the role the Government is taking in the sale, and the way in which some of the public comments from potential bidders is being calibrated by reference to the role of supporters.

While the circumstances that have prompted the sale of the club are highly unusual the increased focus on the role of supporters is something that has gained significant prominence in recent years.

The events leading to the demises of Bury and Macclesfield, and the European Super League proposals, have all contributed to a sense that the protection of football assets and the role of supporters have been absent in the considerations of decision makers. Football governance is not fit for purpose.

Protecting clubs

The Fan-led Review of Football Governance, undertaken by Tracey Crouch MP, set out some key recommendations to improve governance and protect football, in the interests of supporters and the communities with which professional football clubs are associated.

The Government welcomed the report and at last week’s PMQ’s reiterated their intention to put an independent regulator in place – all eyes are now on the forthcoming Queen’s Speech to see how urgently that commitment will be kept.

The review also included important recommendations to improve the role of supporters, through a golden share to protect heritage issues (including grounds, names and colours of teams) and a shadow board to facilitate fuller, more meaningful dialogue with supporters on issues of key importance.

As a sale is effectively forced by the Government, who have a role in facilitating that transfer, prospective new owners should ensure the recommendations from the Fan-led Review are implemented as part of their stewardship of the club.

There will not be a better opportunity to put in place a new model of governance and supporter engagement.

While there have been, and continue to be, supporter-owned clubs at different levels of the game, that has not been the case at the top of the English pyramid. That is at least partly because it felt unachievable and unrealistic – yet, in unprecedented circumstances, that opportunity may well have presented itself at the most unlikely of times at what, a few weeks ago, would have seemed the most unlikely of clubs.

Cementing the role of supporters and protecting the long term interests of a footballing asset through a stake held in trust is something that could now happen at Chelsea if the will is there.

Supporter ownership

The FSA has long been a champion of supporter ownership, but recognised that the route to fans as owners has been beset with challenges at the top level. The nature of what is happening now at Chelsea removes some of those barriers, and does so at an established Premier League club. While those circumstances may seem unlikely to apply to any other clubs in the near term, the benefits of a more beneficial ownership mix could prove to be an exemplar for other clubs at all levels.

Not only would supporters holding a meaningful stake help protect the integrity of the club, putting it in place as part of a sale would also introduce a different ownership mix able to meet the objectives of sustainability and stability that clubs and their fanbases aspire to.

Individual football clubs are too important to the history, heritage and future of the game to be held by any one entity alone – be they an oligarch, sovereign wealth fund or corporate investor. While Chelsea might present the opportunity to be a first mover, it should be something an independent regulator looks at as it gets to grips with a duty to protect football as a set of cultural institutions.

If “football without fans is nothing” then a supporters’ stake is surely a worthwhile protection for the game so many love.

 

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