John Harris

Journalist & Author

In the Evo-Stik, fans can still tell a team from a business | John Harris

If Premier League football is a cash-dominated farce, the rebellious optimism of supporter-owned clubs points to an alternative

‘Top-level football looks exactly like a small globalised economy,” offered one Comment is free user, and they didn’t mean it as a compliment. “There is something inherently messed up about a competition that starts each year with 20 teams but only three or four of them ever have the potential to actually win,” reckoned someone else. We had asked Cifers for their opinions about life in the game’s less star-spangled layers – and inevitably, just about everyone was agreed on something so built into the national conversation that it seems to be a matter of firm consensus: that notwithstanding such jaw-droppers as Manchester United thrashing Arsenal 8-2, big money is so distorting the game that its upper tiers seem to have precious little to do with the unpredictable glories of great sport.

Of late, Uefa has introduced financial fair play rules aimed at forcing big clubs to break even and limit their spending; but plenty of sceptical voices still see the future of high-end football belonging to such teams as Chelsea, Manchester City – and FC Anzhi Makhachkala. Thanks to a local oligarch named Suleyman Kerimov, the Dagestan club have just signed Samuel Eto’o from Inter Milan for £22m and are paying him £330,000 a week to make sporting life in an unstable region just south of Chechnya that bit more palatable.

Meanwhile, whether new constraints on the sport’s aristocracy work or not, in the case of scores of British clubs all that matters is simple survival. The super-teams of the Premier League tower over them, offering a kind of infinite gratification with which the stoicism of traditional football fandom can’t compete. Falling into administration is an ongoing threat. But as an evening at the home ground of Chester FC proves, some clubs are brimming with a new kind of rebellious optimism. “Coming here is actually better than the Premier League,” one fan tells me; that might be pushing it, but I can just about see his point.

Until the spring of 2010, the local team here were called Chester City. Founded in 1885, their history contained little more auspicious than once reaching the semi-finals of the League Cup, and in the TV age the success enjoyed by Liverpool sucked away their support. Towards the end of their existence, they were bedeviled by textbook mishap: a £7m debt, administration, an owner since ruled out of the game according to the Football Association’s “fit and proper” regulations – and expulsion from the Conference League in February 2010. The club was formally liquidated a month later.

But those who wanted football to carry on here acted admirably quickly, and launched the new Chester FC as a “phoenix club”. Crucially, it’s a mutual: owned by its supporters, who can pay a minimum of £5 a season to become active shareholders. And it is not alone: the night I watched them play, their opponents in the Evo-Stik League premier division were the fan-owned FC United Of Manchester, founded in protest against the debt-laden misrule of the Glazer family. There is also AFC Wimbledon – whose fans took similar umbrage at their old club’s move to Milton Keynes and are now back in the Football League – and, among others, Brentford, Exeter City, Cambridge City, and good old Runcorn Linnets.

Built around these teams is an ecosystem of support and sympathetic research. Supporters Direct, the body originally set up by the last government to encourage more accountable sports clubs, not only advises and lobbies but runs its own cup and pre-season shield competitions. The momentum they’ve acquired led to a pledge to encourage “co-operative ownership of football clubs by supporters” in last year’s coalition agreement, though insiders say they now want some appreciable action. They’re pushing for tax relief for fan-owned clubs. As soon as it becomes law, they want government and local authorities to aggressively use the provisions of the localism bill to identify football clubs as assets of community value, thus opening the way for mutualised local ownership. More generally, they’re pushing for a sports law that will recognise that clubs amount to much more than privately owned businesses, and toughen the regulation on who can own them.

Back inside Chester’s Exacta Stadium, the last 20 minutes was a bit of a thriller: the home team holding on to a 2-1 lead, though FC United constantly threatened to come back – all of which underlines the fact that in the absence of Sky TV cameras, those fabled prawn sandwiches and big money, the game’s essential thrills might actually be easier to experience. The 3,219 fans who turned up created a fantastically infectious atmosphere.

Incidentally, this coming Saturday will see no Premier League or Championship fixtures, because of international matches – and has been craftily rebranded by grassroots football activists as “non-league day”. The online blurb exhorts “all football fans to watch their local non-league side play, providing both a boost to grassroots football and a new experience for fans used to the upper echelons of the game”.

If you’re troubled by the idea that big-time football has now become a cash–dominated farce, you should think about trying it. And if you need further encouragement, consider these words, posted on Cif by a disciple of Weymouth FC, currently doing their thing in the Evo-Stik southern premier division. “There are no poncy egos here. That nippy right-winger you idolise from the terraces? You’ll see him the next day emptying your bin.” © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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