Michael Walker: Hearts and Wimbledon show that fan ownership model can work
The question of just who owns football is raging just now in Britain
Hearts fans paid back the £2.5 million owed to benevolent owner Ann Budge. Her 75.1 per cent shareholding will be transferred to FoH in early April. Photograph: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
In his idiosyncratic interview with the Financial Times at the start of last month, over vodka and pork knuckles in Bavaria, Alisher Usmanov discussed his former ownership of Arsenal and his possible sponsorship of Everton. “What is the remedy for love?” Usmanov asked rhetorically. “New love.”
He chuckled, apparently. A Russian oligarch who denies being a Russian oligarch, Usmanov was speaking of Everton’s proposed new stadium.
Fast forward one month and on Tuesday Heart of Midlothian announced that the fans who set up the Foundation of Hearts (FoH) in the wake of the club’s administration in 2014 had paid back the £2.5 million owed to benevolent owner Ann Budge. Budge’s 75.1 per cent shareholding will be transferred to FoH in early April.
There has always been a tension between the emotional ownership of a club and the legal ownership
“This is a hugely significant step along the road towards fan ownership of Heart of Midlothian,” said FoH chairman Stuart Wallace.
In between these differing tales of football ownership attitudes were stories about the possible takeover of Newcastle United by senior figures within Saudi Arabia and the completion of a deal for Charlton Athletic by an Abu Dhabi-based business.
Meanwhile, there were ongoing anxieties about the ownership of Manchester United, West Ham United, Sunderland, Oldham, Bolton and Macclesfield. Then, of course, there is Bury.
Who or what constitutes ownership in football has been a rising concern over the past 25 or so years and, in Britain, it cannot be called a settled question.
There has always been a tension between the emotional ownership of a club – how a fanbase feels – and the legal ownership – directors, majority shareholders etc.
This remains the power structure at the vast majority of British clubs and explains why Usmanov is able to discuss Everton’s future so casually. Usmanov is a friend and business partner of Everton’s majority shareholder since this month four years ago, Farhad Moshiri. Previously, both owned a chunk of Arsenal’s shares.
No season-ticket holder in the Gwladys Street End would ever speak casually about Everton, but none of them is as potentially influential as Usmanov. So who owns football?
“Who really owns it?” asks Wallace of FoH. “Well, we talk about constants – managers, players and owners will come and go – but the fans don’t. They own it emotionally and when things go really wrong, everyone turns to the bank of the fans.”
A bank of fans is a neat nuance.
“We came from a moment of crisis, when you’re always going to get the fans behind you,” Wallace explains, Hearts imploding after the nine-year ownership of Russian businessman Vladimir Romanov.
“If you’ve not got that moment of crisis, no matter how bad things are, you expect the club to survive.
“If it’s made clear the club will not survive, but that you have a solution, then fans will back it.”
For the past six years up to 12,000 Hearts fans – 8,000 continually – have put an average of £16.50 into the club every month. A common direct debit, Wallace says, is £51 per month – “because we beat Hibs 5-1 in the Scottish Cup final”.
The total generated is £10 million, of which £4 million has gone into the running of the club, £3 million into the new stand at Tynecastle (future income) and £2.5 million into buying back the shares of Budge’s firm.
“People said we wouldn’t stick with it, here we are £10 million on,” Wallace adds. “Never again will we become the plaything of a Russian owner who can take the club to the brink of oblivion.”
The Foundation has two members on the board but consultation and consent are what this achieves, not control.
“We’ve always been very clear to say this should be fan-owned but not fan-run. We have a normal place on the board; if we start interfering in day-to-day things the executive is responsible for, then that is disastrous.
“Fans are going to say: ‘What do we get for our money?’ Well, there are four things the fans will always be consulted on: first, the club’s colours – and you can laugh, but look at the Bluebirds at Cardiff.
“Two, the club’s name – ask Hull City fans.
“Third, the most emotive one, is selling Tynecastle. We have to stay at our spiritual home.
“Fourth, the biggest one, is that if ever there was a chance of the FoH selling its shareholding – say Sheikh Mansour turns up and says he wants to take Hearts to the Champions League final – then we would need to have a ‘super majority’, 75-90 per cent.
“That would have to go back to the fans with the question: ‘What do we care about more – fan ownership or success?’
“Now we can be the arbiters of that. We have financial and legal ownership as well as emotional.
“You look at England and it’s very different. Who owns English football? Someone overseas probably.”
As the question arose, the Dons Trust which owns AFC Wimbledon were launching a bond scheme on Wednesday to help them get to the £31 million total that will see a rebuilt Plough Lane open next season. They have already raised and spent £21 million. The stadium is under way.
But the fan-owned club has had external interest from investors and the short-term shortfall has created a moment of economic uncertainty and philosophical debate. Who owns AFC Wimbledon and why? Who owns football?
“In our case, we do,” says Charlie Talbot of the Dons bond plan, “but that’s rare and it seems to be becoming rarer.
“We think clubs that are owned by, and report to, their fans are better run and better long-term prospects. In a reverse of expectations, fans do not want to gamble with the club’s future, they want it to exist. Look at Bury, Bolton.”
Talbot has praise for clubs with an element of fan ownership who are trying to live within their means – Luton Town, Accrington Stanley, Tranmere Rovers, Exeter City – but he knows, like Wimbledon and Hearts, there are struggles on the pitch related to prudence.
Within AFC Wimbledon, where fan ownership is the raison d’etre since 2002 and the Milton Keynes debacle, there has also been sufficient worry about finance for some to consider ceding control to outside investment.
It was voted down but from the discussion came an acceptance, among some, that a form of the 50+1 rule of German ownership could allow some outside funding.
“Being fan-owned is a core ethos,” Talbot says, “and it is pretty clear a deal that sells off control wouldn’t get by the membership. What was interesting was that there were fans who would understand minority investment.
“But we don’t want to be bounced into that to get the stadium built; we want to build the stadium first, then talk.”
By Thursday the Dons bond was past the £2.4 million mark – they’re hoping to get to £5 million by next Friday. That would leave £6 million to borrow and as Talbot says “to borrow £6 million of a total of £31 million is easier with lenders than £11 million.”
At Hearts’ turnover is up to around £16 million – under Romanov it was £6 million.
These are more than well-meaning punters. So while Usmanov, or a TV executive or Uefa/Fifa committee man, might dismiss such sums over lunch, supporters at Hearts and Wimbledon show that they have professionalism on top of their commitment. Admittedly, there are many days when it does not feel like it, but they own the game too.