Should supporters start to take Direct action?

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PORTSMOUTH’S appearance at Bramall Lane on Monday, 30 months after they contested the FA Cup final in front of a near 90,000 crowd, reminded how quickly footballing fortunes can change.

And, despite what some conspiracy theorists argue, that in the grand scheme of things Sheffield United aren’t suffering so terribly after all.

Okay, cash isn’t crammed into its coffers and relegation to the third tier didn’t warrant a mention on the manifesto for sporting domination drafted five years ago. Every season, though, 24 Championship teams present compelling cases for promotion. And 24 into three don’t go.

But with a collection of Pompey fans being handed preferred bidder status in the battle for ownership of the financially troubled club, it did start me thinking about what would happen if the ‘Trust’ model employed by the likes of Exeter and Wrexham was rolled-out elsewhere. So I approached Supporters Direct, the organisation which promotes “supporter community ownership,” to find out.

“To be owned by the fans makes it much more difficult to question what they want,” spokesman Kevin Rye said. “The business case is overwhelming and we’re seeing some really well run clubs who are responsible with their finances.

“It also results in a generally more secure form of ownership and also greater involvement by fans sees local business and other groups prepared to be more open with the club.

“Football clubs have often become bywords for secrecy and intrigue when actually they’re pretty simple things. The more they’re open to their number one stakeholder - the fans - the more they’re prepared to move to help the club and it’s why we’re pushing for this to be introduced across football as part of the football governance reforms that Government has backed.”

So, those are the benefits of supporter trusts. What about the challenges?

Citing the “lack of a level playing field,” Rye said: “Privately owned football clubs can often use tax breaks or write-offs - legitimate tax avoidance schemes - which clubs like Swansea (20% trust owned) or AFC Wimbledon (fan owned) can’t.

“That’s not fair on anyone and encourages dependence on a stream of income that is nothing to do with the business of running a club. We’re hoping that Financial Fair Play...will have an effect as it decreases the amount that can be spent.”

Of course, involving those who pay to watch their favourite club or follow its fortunes from afar more in boardroom affairs is no guarantee of sensible decision making. How many times do you hear folk claim that spiralling wage demands among players make them feel disenfranchised and then castigate directors for not paying the going rate?

Rye, though, told me that trusts encourage greater responsibility within the game.

“Persuading fans that the all too often unpopular message of sustainability and transparency is vital,” he said. “The reason 92 insolvencies have occurred in the top five divisions since 1992 is because these have not been embraced by the majority.”