I can’t tell you how much local football teams mean to other cultures. But to the English, the home club is part of the fabric of the community… and it is danger of extinction. In some cities, crowds are low — one or two thousand dedicated supporters taking sons and daughters to see the local side.
In my family, Chester City games were sacrosanct. Saturday afternoons at 3 p.m. was when the men of the family gathered to watch Chester for the ritual of supporting the local team. The scene is the same all over Britain, regardless of town or city — and regardless of the size of the club.
Generally, friends and families meet at noon for a bit of lunch and a few pints to prepare for the match. The opponent is not important and, I dare say, the result isn’t either. It’s the ritual that matters — a part of the working class culture in Britain. When children are old enough, they are invited to join dads, uncles, mums and aunts to the pub and then to the game. We weren’t interested in either; only listening to the dads and uncles yell at the opponents — as well as the home team — as they stand on the tiny terraces. Of course, a drink was in order before going home, giving families time to bond and for the youngsters to play with cousins, building memories for a lifetime.
It is these moments that Britons remember as adults – their first game with a parent; seeing the grass of the stadium as they took their place on the terrace or in the seats; the smell of stale beer and half-time cups of tea and a match-day pie.
This is why I was so emotional when I learned that my beloved Chester City had gone into administration in 2009. They were not alone in this predicament. Chester was joined that year by Portsmouth (FA Cup Winners in 2008), Darlington, Southampton and Stockport County. According to the Guardian newspaper, 53 lower division clubs have become insolvent since 1992.
A proud franchise since 1885, Chester was taken over in 1999 by an owner who had no experience in football, had no links to the community, and didn’t understand the impact that the team had on the city. The club was relegated out of the League for the first time in 69 proud years.
The once vibrant club was almost dead. Chester started the career of Liverpool legend Ian Rush. It was managed by former England international Mark Wright and former Everton star Kevin Ratcliffe. It was the employer of many professional footballers — and now it was now in a state of ruin. The mismanagement lead to another owner in 2001, this time from Liverpool.
But alas, it all ended in tears. Administration was needed, even after a promotion in 2003-2004 back to the Football League. Relegation back to the Conference followed the 2008-09 season and the club was officially wound up on May 10, 2010 in the year of its 125th anniversary.
It is not just the little clubs in danger. Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea all have owners with little ties to the community. It is estimated that Liverpool and United alone have a combined debt of close to 1 billion pounds. According to UEFA, the Premier League is the most indebted league in the world with debts of upwards of 3.5 billion pounds. This type of mismanagement is not sustainable.
The moral of the story is this: Supporters Beware. Absentee owners, whether at Chester, Manchester United, Liverpool or Portsmouth, should not be trusted with a critical facet of the community – the local football club. Supporters should continue to be involved to ensure that this part of the British culture is protected.
The supporters should be owners.
Business people don’t put culture first, they put business first. Fair dues to them – it is their money. But if we want local teams to flourish and survive, it is our responsibility to be involved in the clubs which we love.
It does work. Some good examples of fan-based success include AFC Wimbledon, the FC United of Manchester and now Chester. The supporters have rallied and become owners and organisers, resurrecting the club as Chester Football Club to begin the long journey back to respectability. Instead of playing in the Football League or the Conference, the club now plays in the Northern Premier League Division One North as it basically starts from scratch.
Politicians even agree that supporter ownership is crucial. That is why the Labour party proposed a scheme in the last election to allow supporters to own up to 25% in clubs – later endorsed by UEFA President Michel Platini and Supporters Direct. And there are no better examples of supporter-owned clubs than giants Barcelona and Real Madrid. A visit to the Camp Nou museum and trophy room is proof that its system of supporter ownership called a “socio” works just fine. Real and Barca are among the world’s most successful clubs and are the two of the richest clubs on the planet.
If we love our clubs as much as we say we do, we should all be prepared to get involved. Otherwise, our favourite clubs may end up like Portsmouth, or, heaven forbid, Chester.
The author — a proud shareholder in the new Chester FC — has asked to remain anonymous.