Sheffield United: City’s plight prompts calls for fans to enjoy greater representation

Coventry City supporters protest outside Sixfields Stadium during Wednesday's match against Cardiff City
Coventry City supporters protest outside Sixfields Stadium during Wednesday's match against Cardiff City
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It might not have prevented their slide into administration or stopped them being forced to play matches 34 miles away at Northampton Town, writes James Shield.

But, if English clubs were obliged to appoint supporters as directors, then Kevin Rye believes Coventry City could still be calling the Ricoh Arena home.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of their dispute with the stadium’s landlords or reasons why a team previously regarded as a model of sound governance and prudence recently found itself teetering on the edge of a financial abyss, followers of Sheffield United’s latest opponents are the real victims of this sporting hard luck story.

And, together with similar cases at both Hull City and Cardiff, have prompted Supporters Direct to repeat their call for major reform of the national game.

“An elected director would give a permanent voice to the people who are recognised as making football what it really is,” Rye, SD’s development manager, told The Star last night. “This could ensure that poor decisions like those at Cardiff or Coventry could be blocked or challenged much earlier on.”

SD, the organisation which helps establish “democratic cooperatives” otherwise known as supporters’ trusts, recently published the findings of a poll, conducted by ICM, which revealed 49 per cent of those questioned believe fans and their elected representatives should “be more involved in the running of football” while only 18 per cent regard their respective clubs as being “financially well run.”

Speaking ahead of tomorrow’s League One fixture between Coventry and United at Sixfields Stadium, where Steve Pressley’s side have played since owners Sisu became embroiled in a row with the Ricoh Arena’s operating company ACL, Rye said: “It would have made it far more difficult for Coventry to move if they’d had an elected supporter on the board because they would have had to involve the fans. They could definitely have made it far, far more difficult. But you still need the FA to have rules to protect clubs. Seventy seven per cent of people think that fans should be formally consulted on changes to their football club such as ground location and changes to name, colours and badge.”

If clubs do embrace the principle of appointing a supporters representative to their respective boards, then the Football Association and Football League would have to take steps to ensure their status is enshrined in law.

“There would always need to be guarantees in the way the club is set-up to ensure that the position can’t just be removed if other directors fancy it,” Rye said. “How about licencing clubs like most of Europe and large parts of world football do? If it’s working elsewhere, why not here? “Part of the licence could be a supporter representative.”

Of course, SD’s idea faces significant opposition. Not least from folk who believe those who purchase a football club are equipped with the necessary business acumen and have earned the right to run them as they please.

“No-one has the right to own a football club. Do we you really want to carry on with clubs being run by whoever fancies having a go? It’s not worked that well so far,” Rye continued. “If we’re prepared to protect special buildings or special works of art, even when they’re privately owned, why can’t we protect football clubs?

“That’s what has got us 100 insolvencies in 22 years from the Premier League to the Conference Premier. I think it’s time we did things differently.”

“Football clubs aren’t normal businesses,” Rye added. “You don’t get your ashes scattered at Lidl or Tesco but you do at a football stadium.”

With the Football League recently intervening in the dispute between Sisu and ACL, City’s year long exile in Northamptonshire could soon be at an end with Pressley cautiously welcoming reports they are poised for a return to the Ricoh Arena.

Sisu were ordered by the governing body, who sanctioned City’s relocation 13 months ago, to pay the vast majority of a £590,000 sum owed to ACL.

“It would be fantastic for everybody involved with the club but especially the supporters, who have endured a great deal over the last 16 to 18 months,” Pressley, who has been linked with the vacant managerial post at Huddersfield Town, said. “It will make a massive difference.”

“There’s no guarantee it would in terms of results but in terms of the feel-good-factor around the club it would make a huge difference,” Pressley, whose club exited administration last season, added. “It would be wonderful to play at your home ground and I do think the players would receive a huge lift from that kind of news.”

Nevertheless, Greg Dyke, the FA’s chairman, expressed sympathy with SD’s stance when he described some members of his employer’s ruling council as “out of touch” during a conference in London earlier this month.

Rye said: “He also acknowledged that fans and their representatives themselves must play a bigger role in The FA and the game too.”

*Twitter: @JamesShield1