The Great Army of Fans - by Chairman Mao
It is no exaggeration to say that without the support from Supporters Direct (SD) eight years ago we would not have a football club playing in the English pyramid structure. The organisation had started under Tony Blair’s football task force in 1999 with the prime motive of encouraging fans to gain a stake in their clubs and to make fan-ownership a realistic target for fans too. The Supporters Trust model was born at Northampton Town in 1992 and provided a framework for fans to work within a not-for-profit business model to ensure good governance and transparency in club boardrooms.
It was Supporters Direct who contacted us back in 2004 to invite Merthyr Tydfil fans to form a supporters’ trust. Little did we know that this organisation would resurrect the town’s football club in 2010 and become the first fan-owned club in Wales.
The late Jacqui Forster was our first SD caseworker and she travelled to Penydarren Park on a dark winter’s night in our first year to encourage us to follow the registration procedure through to its end. Jacqui was an inspiration to everyone on the Trust’s first working group and fundamental to the early success of Martyrs to the Cause. Pretty soon we had launched the Soccalot lottery that still helps to fund the club to this day. A youth team was formed to provide local talent with opportunities to play and of course we challenged the often chaotic running of the club itself.
Kevin Rye helped steer us through FA panels and provided expert support during the public meetings and once again we could look to SD as an organisation that truly invested in the good governance of football no matter which level of the game you operated.
So it’s true that our club owes a debt of gratitude to SD. The idea of fan-owned clubs seemed to work in the non-league game with many clubs taking the leap into community ownership but as we know that will provide a glass-ceiling on ambition as we compete with clubs who speculate wildly on players with no regard to the consequences. SD looked to level the playing field by lobbying Westminster for special tax rebates for community owned clubs that operate as a social enterprise. In short SD looked at the wider governance of the game and how the vision of sustainable football clubs could be encouraged and maintained.
Funding for Supporters Direct has always been an issue for the organisation. Membership for each Club or Trust was minimal so a grant from the football authorities was needed, the early days of the Tony Blair government were no issue as the principle of fan-ownership was well-established but as the organisation challenged the status-quo of the football authorities and also the ideological austerity of the subsequent Tory regime those funds have been reluctantly confirmed and always threatened.
The Football Supporters Federation (FSF) is a mass representative organisation for football fans in England & Wales. A result of a merger of the antiquated National Federation of Football Supporters’ Club with the more radical Football Supporters’ Association, the FSF have campaigned, often with great success, over a number of supporter issues such as Away Fans Matter (including the Twenty’s Plenty ticket price campaign) and Watching Football Is Not A Crime! The issue for this fanzine is that the vast majority of these campaigns and therefore the energy of FSF has been on the professional game with little mention of the issues covering us in the non-league world.
There’s always been a certain inevitability that both football fan organisations would merge, one voice for the fans makes sense but only if it covers the full spectrum of the game, and we’re proud to confirm that Merthyr Town FC voted against the motion from SD in July 2018 but the merger with FSF was approved.
The unification of FSF and SD was finalised on 22nd November and a new Council has been confirmed at an AGM. Merthyr Town FC has three representatives in principle on this body; Rob Street (Billericay Town Supporters Society) for the National Game plus both Neil Le Milliere (Exeter City Supporters Trust) and Tim Hillyer (AFC Wimbledon) for supporter owned clubs.
The worry for us is that the new currently un-named organisation will concentrate on the professional game and will forget the vital fight for good governance throughout the game but in particular at non-league level.
It will be interesting to see how FSF-SD develops. We have many friends at SD who have helped our little crazy club from the top end of the Valleys and we’re sure they will continue to argue, lobby and campaign for a greater say in the beautiful game and a level playing field for every club that believes that operating within its means and preserving a legacy for future generations is more important than short term success.
Good luck and how can we help?