Changes of ownership at a club are often met with a palpable excitement, an expectation of what’s to come. The ‘new’ can often be attractive. I remember this personally as a Wimbledon fan in the late 90s, as the two Norwegians Kjell Inge Rokke – one the richest men in Europe – and his compatriot Bjorn Gjelsten, bought the club and promised great things.
At that point we were arguably at the height of our powers in squad and attendance terms, looking only upwards when it came to progress on the pitch. Off it, things were deeply unsettled, and it turned out it that somehow Sam Hammam had managed to convince the pair that a franchising of the club to Dublin was still on the cards, even though by then it was basically dead in the water. Personally, I can never understand why a multi-millionaire many, many times over didn’t see the massive opportunity in front of them if they took the club home, instead of across the Irish sea.
I don’t need to tell you what happened, but as an aside, Rokke ended up in prison for bribery for an unrelated matter.
I’ve seen similar cycles at clubs all over the country and across the World up close (mostly without the same the dramatic endings) for many years, with varying levels of involvement in their resolutions. The cause was often a few bad seasons, a failed planning application, unpopular changes of personnel, dislocation between fans and club officials & owners, eventually leading to a permanent loss of trust.
Sunderland have been a poster-child of late for the slow, burning demise. The drawn-out sale of the club by US owner Ellis Short clearly caused significant damage to the psyche of club and fans in all sorts of ways, and whilst optimism was restored briefly under Stewart Donald’s consortium, it dissolved again very quickly. I remember commenting at the time that it concerned me that the natural optimism that was present needed to be backed up with far more structured engagement with fans than just volunteer-fan-labour painting the seats.
The optimism generated by a takeover is quite brittle, thin and on the surface, and what matters is what new owners do from the moment they take over. As Damian Irvine says, you need to build the superstructure in during the early days. Call it listening, engagement, whatever you want, this is the point at which clubs need to be building bridges and long-term structures with their fanbase, creating the infrastructure and processes in which a culture of listening and engagement can be fostered. But somewhat controversially perhaps, I’m going to add that what often gets forgotten is the responsibility held by the fans in situations like this.
When I say ‘fans’, at the front-end I mean ‘organised fans’. There’s a decent chance that a lot of matchgoing fans will take their collective eye off the ball now, and just leave it all to Dreyfuss and his colleagues. And to a large extent that’s to be understood. Most people are not preoccupied with the to-and-fro post takeover, and why should they be? That’s why activists exist, and why supporters’ trusts in particular do too. What’s important is that those organised fans can’t just join them in the stands, or get too preoccupied with the Fan Experience issues – matchgoing stuff. As important as all that is to the experience of being a fan, Sunderland needs a more than just hot tea, cold beer and good service, and fans have to play their part.
In a situation like this, the role of a supporters’ trust (or more rarely these days, an independent supporters group) is to anchor an owner in reality: communicate with a more sober, slightly more sensible, long-term look at the situation, providing a view that reflects not simply the relief of fans, but also tries to help to define what strategies the new owners might usefully employ to rebuild trust. They need to be looking ahead having reflected on the past.
The reason supporters’ trusts are such potentially powerful organisations in these circumstances is that they are by definition preoccupied with the longer-term considerations of a club, and can be a repository of an ‘institutional memory’ – both of club and of fans. Jay McKenna, ex Spirit of Shankly reminded me of this when he recounted a meeting with former US owner Hicks and Gilette (you can hear his episode in two parts here and here, along with two others from Spurs & Fulham supporters’ trusts), who had forgotten that when buying a club you buy the bad as well as the good. When new owners come in it can be a bit ‘year zero’. Having a group that reminds owners of past failures, using that to positively to help create a roadmap to avoid the potholes in future, is a very good way of ensuring the rebuilding the trust in a far more authentic and long-lasting way. Or as Damian Irvine puts it ‘sincere’.
The vast majority of the bad things or mistakes that get made at football clubs are correctable, and most of the time, clubs and their owners are the ones who have to be responsible for them. They have the power to be able to make decisions about structure, relationships, culture. But I’ve also always believed very strongly that organised groups, especially supporters’ trusts, must recognise that without their contribution, channelling that of the wider fanbase, the club finds navigating the recovery far more difficult, and has far more chance of repeating history. Again.