(This article first appeared on the website of "Heart of the Game" website, which brings together the growing number of supporter-run clubs, Supporters’ Trusts and fan organisations in Ireland (yes, the Supporters Trust movement exists beyond these shores!).
Although it refers to events and publications that are Irish oriented, the points it makes are very relevant to Trusts in the UK.)
It’s almost 12 months to the day since the launch of the Heart of the Game handbook at Dáil Éireann in the company of Minister of State for Sport, Michael Ring TD.
Clubs, supporters’ trusts and democratic groups from all over Ireland were involved in the research and collaborative efforts needed to piece the handbook together, and many of the same will come together again later this year for a conference that will look once more at the critical role supporters have within the League of Ireland.
In the meantime, it’s important to clear up a couple of myths that seem to prevail:
Myth: Supporters’ trusts are solely anti-owner
One Irish club official, until recently, believed that FORAS was set up in reaction to the troubled ownership regime of Tom Coughlan. Untrue, of course, as the supporters’ trust was planned and launched before the latter ever arrived at Cork City.
The fear of how the current club owners will receive a new supporters’ trust is quite widespread, however, both here in Ireland and across the UK. In conducting research for the Heart of the Game handbook, we found that supporters came together and organised themselves with one primary objective: to help their football club.
Yes, numbers swell and more prominence is given in a time of crisis but there are numerous excellent examples of supporters’ trusts working proactively alongside their club across the world and in Ireland – including the 1895 Trust at Shelbourne, where club chairman Joe Casey attended and even spoke at the organisation’s official launch in 2012.
Opening up to supporters, being more transparent in explaining some club decisions and challenges as well as thinking more long-term are all aims that trusts advocate for – and are nothing to be feared.
Myth: Supporters’ trusts are a fundraising mechanism
One common perception is that supporters’ trusts need a groundswell of fans around the club in order to be able to succeed. However, a co-operative needs only seven people to form initially and is not a fundraising vehicle as many assume.
Yes, members can choose to make a financial contribution towards the club if they wish – but a football club should run sustainably and within its own means rather than depending on any owner / ownership model to prop up unsustainable budgets.
Supporters’ trusts generally have free or low yearly membership fees in an effort to effort involvement and participation. Others, like the Shamrock Rovers Members Club and FORAS, choose higher rates of membership in order to be able to put the monies taken in towards one project or another.
Indie Cork, an independent film festival in Cork, is another example of what the ideal means: while the festival is run by a committee elected by the festival’s shareholders, it relies mainly on sponsorship, ticket sales, support from the public to survive and thrive in the longer term.
Myth: Supporters’ trusts are a ‘last ditch’ solution
Supporters are often seen as the last resort when crisis time hits, but as wise men have said before and will say again: ‘If it’s crisis time, it’s already too late to act’.
FORAS was already years in the planning and making when Cork City went into administration in 2008, and the Members’ Club at Shamrock Rovers was already an active, organised group before the Hoops ran into trouble in 2005.
Supporters’ trusts take time to set up fully and properly. The benefits of a legally-formed entity are discussed in depth in the Heart of the Game handbook but suffice to say nothing formed in haste tends to last the distance without huge rework at some point.
Getting organised when times are good is not an expectation of disaster. It’s a tribute to all the excellent work being done around the League of Ireland by various groups involved in their football clubs. However, having such an organisation in place does ensure that there are solid foundations already should darker clouds ever appear on the horizon.
Myth: Once you’re up and running, it’s easy after that
Getting the numbers, the paperwork and the committee together is the hard bit right? Ask anyone that’s been involved with a supporters’ trust or movement over a longer period of time, however, and they will tell you that it takes a great deal of work year in year out.
Co-operative ownership comes with its own challenges: going back to the same group of people looking for financial support time and time again, banks not particularly liking the co-operative model etc. Democracy, too, is slow moving at times and a trust’s board are always answerable to their members.
An active trust or supporters’ group needs distinct and ongoing campaigns in order to maintain momentum and have a clear purpose. For some groups, it’s the ownership of their club; for others it’s an effort to be recognised formally and have an input into the running of their club.
Whichever side your trust or group falls on, it’s critical to remember the effort that is required on an ongoing basis. Questions need to be asked every month, every year – not as a criticism of the work being done but in an effort to raise the achievements bar even further.
It’s one type of challenge to unite supporters together in the face of one significant enemy; it’s another challenge entirely to guide and motivate the same mass of people through a process that guarantees everyone cannot get their own way all the time.
It’s vital to be wary of the ‘Everything is grand’ factor as once principles, rules and your ethos start to take a back seat, your agreed objectives and direction are no longer the steering force they once were.