Portsmouth, Manchester United, Southampton, Liverpool, Blackburn Rovers, Arsenal, Nottingham Forest and Chelsea.
What do these clubs have in common? At some point over the last few years, decisions have been made that have lead to people questioning who is really in charge of a club.
Southampton did their bit recently when the Executive Chairman sacked manager Nigel Adkins when the club were actually doing relatively well. Fans were outraged, and media pundits put their oar into how bizarre it was for the decision to be made especially for the replacement to be someone completely new to English football.
Who owns the club? Does the club really belong to the fans?
Here is a fact. Chairmen will come, and chairmen will go. Owners will come and owners will come. Players, managers, club staff can be like the grass that flourishes in August and is replaced by February. The fans – real, die hard, passionate dyed in the wool fans, remain the lifeblood of the football club. They do have the power to vote with their feet and refuse to turn up to matches, or to stage protests. Sometimes these can have some impact. Yet for all the fuss made over the role of fans, the reality remains that their voice is very small in the larger scale of things. If you love the club, you’ll follow it in good times and bad. Your support does not guarantee the success of the club.
For that we look primarily at the manager. For it is the manager (or the increasing numbers of Head Coaches) who select the team, motivate the squad, make the most of the tools their given and presents the link between the playing staff and the executive staff of the club. A while back, the managers virtually came across as though they defined the success of the club. They may not have financially held the club together, but their management of the club was almost a monarchy with them as the monarch.
Figures who come to mind include Sir Matt Busby, Bill Shankly and Don Revie. Brian Clough also appeared to rule the roost initially at Derby County, and when that ended unceremoniously, he eventually ended up at Nottingham Forest and reigned there til his retirement. In case you might think the age of the Manager as Monarch is a thing of the past the very control that Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger have at all levels of Manchester United and Arsenal respectively suggests otherwise.
Yet Wenger and Ferguson are exceptions to the rule at present. The thought that success ensures a manager’s status has well and truly been shattered by the recent experiences of the likes of Allardyce at Blackburn – where he was able to offer Premier League stability and was rewarded with the boot. Then there’s the Nigel Adkins issue at Southampton. The trend-setter remains however anyone who happens to be in charge at Chelsea. There manager after manager has gone through the mill and it doesn’t matter if you win the league twice in succession, do the double, or if you win the Champions League, if the owner isn’t impressed by you, your days are number.
It is here that we come across the final contender for who the club really belongs to – funnily enough, the owners. Whether it’s a family run, traditional business, an up-to-the-minute consortium, or the oligarch, they have been there in the past, but their prominence in the last 10 years or so has really upped the stakes. Their methods are often questionable. There is the ongoing criticism that some of them have no football knowledge about them and don’t get football people involved and so make bizarre decisions that appear to take the club backwards rather than forwards.
As Portsmouth proves, however, if you’re not careful with the owner and you’re not careful with the structure of the club, then it can all get precariously close to going belly up. In that scenario is it the manager that will rescue the team? Can the fans save it from disaster? No. More often than not the best they can hope for is to have a seat on the board. That is all implicit in the thing of the club belongs to the people who make those crucial decisions. However they got there, now that they are there, it is their responsibility and theirs alone as to the fate of the club. All those other stakeholders – players, coaching staff, manager, sponsors and fans – they may have some level of influence. The bottom line, however, remains with those who control the cheque book.
The gate receipts are important at clubs, but they are not the be all and end all. As a club becomes more ambitious and seeks to progress, other factors to generate income take their place and the growing concern of football as a corporate concern emerges again. The club becomes a product for spin doctors and marketing experts to dig into and try to make the fastest buck with the least financial responsibility.
Football over the last 60 years or so has gone through different trends from the gloomy days of hooligan-dominated stories in the 80’s, to the explosion of TV-saturated, global brand football through the 90’s and 00’s. As with the nature of all trends it will come to an end, and as clubs catch up with the financial challenges of the day, so the change of trends may be just around the corner. It could well be the case that the age of the football club as the plaything of oil-rich tycoons could be a thing of the past. What will replace it? How will that affect the balance of power and who the club truly belongs to?
In the midst of it all, will always remain that ‘through thich and thin’ fan. The voice may not change much, they might be getting ripped off with ticket prices and a change of the club shirt every year, but maybe in the future, they’ll be able to take more ownership. That would make things rather more interesting …