Roger Welch , a member of the Portsmouth Supporters Trust, returns to Inside Left to examine what Guy Whittingham's recent departure from Portsmouth Football Club tells us about how the fan owned club is run.
Five years ago on the day this piece was written (November 28 2013), until Filippo Inzaghi scored an injury time equaliser, Pompey were a Premiership club, holders of the FA cup and two minutes away from an historic 2-1 victory over AC Milan in the UEFA cup. Today, Pompey is a so-called community owned club in League 2 with a relegation battle beckoning to stay in the Football League.
In my previous blog for Inside Left I wrote in support of the battle by the Portsmouth Supporters Trust to force Balram Chanrai to sell the club to it. I also wrote in this blog that, should the Trust succeed, there were questions marks over the extent to which Pompey truly would be a club owned and run by the fans. The fact that the bid to buy the club along with Fratton Park did succeed is undoubtedly significant progress, and should ensure that never again will Pompey be involved in the murky financial world and dealings that forced the club to go twice into administration in the Gaydamak, Storrie and Chanrai years. Some of the goings on in this period have been exposed in articles by The Guardian’s sports writer, David Conn. (See, for example, Pompey back on brink as extent of club’s mishandling is laid bare.)
Since the Trust have taken over the club there have been two events (see below) that, for me, have shown that, whilst as the boards around Fratton Park proclaim, the ground and the club are now owned by fans the club is not owned and run by the fans as a collective whole. Rather the club is owned and run by a small group of wealthy businessmen, although all of these people are genuine fans. The extent to which Trust members (themselves a small minority of Pompey fans as a whole) have any say at all is restricted to one occasion a year – this being the AGM of the Trust at which members can move and vote on resolutions and elect the members of the Trust board. This board then decides which of its members will go on to the Club’s board, and the remaining directors are the non-elected and self-styled Presidents of the club who had the personal wealth to put up the bulk of the funds to enable the Trust to buy the club. The Trust has a 51% shareholding in the club, but the chances are that the members of the Trust board who also sit as Directors on the club’s board will continue to be friends of the Presidents and therefore the club will continue to be run by a small self-perpetuating clique.
Formally speaking, of course, it is possible to not to re-elect the same members of the Trust’s board and for this board to vote people on to the club’s board who will act as a counter-weight to the Presidents. However, as many readers of Inside Left will know from their own experiences as trade unionists and/or past or present members of far left groups (though there are exceptions such as the Anti Capitalist Initiative, the International Socialist Network and Socialist Resistance), the dynamics of power relations are such that it is difficult to near impossible to dislodge existing leaderships who have control of the resources and networks to remain in power. This is particularly so where dissenting individuals do not have the same logistical mechanisms, as possessed by leaderships, to identify and collaborate with co-thinkers with view to challenging the former. This is even more so where key democratic decisions can only be taken once a year - be it at an annual conference or, in the case of the Pompey Supporters Trust, at an AGM.
The two events which have caused me to voice my concerns were firstly the Club’s decision to sign up to the Tory’s slave labour scheme by employing unpaid young people on benefits to make improvements to the stadium, and secondly and more recently the decision to sack Guy Whittingham as team manager. I was, of course, politically opposed to the exploitation of young workers who would have lost their benefits if they had not agreed to do this work, but I recognise this may have been a minority view amongst Pompey fans. Similarly, I was probably part of a minority of fans who opposed Whittingham’s sacking, although I suspect that there were a fair number of fans who thought his time had come but nevertheless were dismayed at the abrupt and brutal manner of his sacking. In archetypical footballing fashion Whittingham had publicly received the chairman’s dreaded vote of confidence only to find himself out of his job days later. In this case Whittingham was so confident that his job remained secure that, immediately prior to being sacked, he had given his weekly press conference at which he stated he was certain he retained the full backing of the board (for the full story see Neil Allen, Bell Tolled for Whittingham as Pompey get Ruthless, The News, 28/11/2013.
However, a major component part of any true democratic process is that there are effective mechanisms whereby minorities can seek to become majorities and change policies and practices accordingly. In the case of the Supporters Trust there is not even an online discussion board or email discussion list through which individual members can state their views and seek to identify like-minded people. As I have said above, Pompey is not so much a club owned and run by the fans but by a small and wealthy elite. In saying this I must emphasise I do not impute any bad practice or bad faith on the part of this group in taking the initiative to set up the Trust and fight the lengthy and costly court battles to defeat Chanrai. But I think many of us were caught up in the emotional rhetoric of establishing the largest community owned club in the country and believed we would have more say in how the club is run than has actually proved to be the case. Moreover, I must say that for myself, as a lawyer, I should have known better than to have failed to read the small print, where everything was made clear, and probably in any case would have donated my £1000 to help save the club as I could afford to do so.
How could a genuine community club be run? Well, ideally, Trust members would directly elect the whole of the club board and any member could seek nomination to become a club director. I suspect this is constitutionally and legally impossible under the current set up as this would involve liquidating the current company that owns Pompey and replacing it with a new company with a new constitution. However, it would be practically possible to amend the Trust’s constitution to provide for direct election of Trust members to the club’s board. It would certainly be possible to set up an online discussion board etc. Moreover, membership of the Trust could now be made open to any individual Pompey fan prepared to pay a small annual affiliation fee and who would then have equal voting rights with original Trust members. Footballing decisions concerned with running the team have to be left to the manager and his or her coaching staff, and clearly it is only specific representatives of the club who can draw up and sign employment contracts, sponsorship deals and the like. However, key decisions, such as the identity of club sponsors and the termination of a manager’s contract, should be subject to ratification by the Trust’s members, and if necessary this could be done relatively quickly by using online technologies. Fans should also be in a position where they can veto the appointment of a specific manager such as the fascist Di Canio. There should be regular meetings of Trust members where opinions can be voiced and exchanged. The ultimate democratic mechanism would be providing for the immediate recall of board members, individually or collectively, through enabling Trust members to propose and vote on motions of no confidence.
Under things as they stand could such developments happen at Pompey? Almost certainly not! However, I do believe that a football club could effectively and efficiently operate in this way and that such a club would genuinely be a community club owned and run by its fans.