Up in the North East, a mini revolution is underway. Frustrated by three previous owners leaving their club on the precipice of oblivion, the fans of Darlington FC are trying to take over the club themselves.
In reality, the troubled North East club doesn’t have much alternative. They were placed into administration at the start of the year and with only matchdays as a source of income, the prospect of liquidation loomed menacingly above Darlington FC.
Indeed, on January 18, 2012, the club was declared dead on the operating table, only for fans to resuscitate it with a £50,000 injection to buy time to look for a buyer.
All attempts to buy the club have ended in failure, either through investors losing interest or being unable to agree a deal with the club’s biggest creditor, former chairman and most recent owner, Raj Singh.
That meant the fans, lead by an enthusiastic rescue group, are taking the unprecedented step of trying to buy the club themselves and run it as a sustainable community venture.
The club needs £750,000 to pay off its creditors, come out of administration and start up for next season, although £600,000 would make the Quakers viable.
At the time of writing, £130,000 had been raised inside two days, with a backlog of payments still to be processed.
The plan revolves around a share issue. Fans and businesses can buy shares for £100 each, which entitles them to one vote in matters such as electing a board of directors.
Fan ownership is nothing new. The example of AFC Wimbledon, set up by fans outraged at the seizing of Wimbledon and it being transported a few dozen miles north to become MK Dons, shows fan ownership can be a success. After an existence of less than 10 years, AFC Wimbledon are now a football league club. League One sides Exeter City and Brentford are also owned by their fans.
But the difference with Darlington is that it’s a rejection of a previous model for running a football club. Before this attempt at fan ownership, Darlington FC had been owned by an individual. One man calling the shots, one man making the mistakes and one man running away when everything goes wrong.
While having one benefactor is logistically the simplest way of owning a club, it is also the most volatile. If the sole benefactor has problems themselves, they can turn off the flow of money into the club, leading to a financial catastrophe.
But there are also democratic problems. If the owner wants to do something, there isn’t anyone who can forcibly dissuade them from doing so.
Taking the example of Darlington, when the egotistical buffoon George Reynolds decided he wanted a ridiculously oversized stadium for the club to play in, some people had their doubts. But because Reynolds was in complete control of the club, and wasn’t the sort of man who changed his mind, the stadium was built. One person with sole control can easily cut everyone else, including the fans, out of the decision making process.
That’s not to say fan ownership doesn’t have its limitations. For a start, it can be financially restrictive. It’s unlikely the fans of the club are going to be able to raise millions of pounds to fund an all-conquering side that will storm the league.
This means a manager needs to be shrewder in the transfer market; successful bargains are blessings for a fan owned club.
In turn, this raises doubts as to the viability of fan ownership for the bigger clubs, certainly towards Premiership level. Fans of Manchester City are unlikely to have been able to raise the hundreds of millions of pounds needed to fund the side’s frankly absurd spending spree. Not in the same way one wealthy Arab sheikh could.
But the biggest positive to fan ownership is that it is the fans who have the strongest affinity to the club. They care about it more, know its strengths and limitations, and will work harder to make it a success.
Before taking over at Manchester City, it’s highly doubtful Sheikh Mansour had any real connection to the club.
A lack of connection to the club makes it easier to just walk away when financial problems occur. Fans of a club would not just walk away in the way someone with no connection to the club could.
The world of football will be watching events in the North East with a keen eye. If Darlington fans raise the funds to buy their club, and can then run it sustainably and successfully, fan ownership may be a model other clubs explore.
At a time when more clubs than ever seem to be engulfed in economic strife, fan ownership could seem like a more viable and a more attractive alternative to the single benefactor model.