The Ebbsfleet United fan ownership experiment

The Ebbsfleet United fan ownership experiment

It was supposed to be one of the greatest innovations football had ever witnessed. For the first time in history, fans, thousands of fans, would be given a real say in the running of an English club. They could vote democratically on everything from starting line-ups to whether or not the 17-year-old prospect from the reserves should be given a run out with the senior side. What’s more, it only cost £35 a year to do so, a bargain by anyone’s standards. Rather than play Football Manager for hours on end, fans were being given the opportunity to actually manage a club. That was what MyFootballClub promised potential sponsors when the idea was first proposed nearly a decade ago.

The brainchild of former football journalist Will Brooks, MyFC burst onto the footballing scene in the winter of 2007 promising to revolutionise the way English football conducted into. Within two months of establishing MyFC in the public domain, Brooks was inundated with emails and phone calls from China to Spain enquiring about his project. It was clear that he had tapped into something special that few marketing directors could ever do. Brooks wasn’t offering the latest jersey or a mug with a crest on it; he was offering a football club in all its glory. In an unprecedented show of support for Brooks’ idea, over 53,000 people had registered their interest in the project by July 2007. Of these 53,000, over 23,000 would stump up the annual fee of £35. Within a month of accepting investors, MyFC had generated over £500,000.

In an attempt to drum up even more support for the idea, Brooks became increasingly sensationalist with UK and foreign media outlets. In an interview with the BBC, Brooks informed the broadcaster that MyFC members would vote on team selections, formations and even transfer policies. Upwards of 23,000 people would have a voice in the running of the club and, by taking decisions away from the manager, the team would, in theory, be able to flourish. That was Brooks’ logic at least.

As the number investors increased, a list of potential clubs was drawn up with some targets seeming much more plausible than others. Displaying the optimism of the time, Leeds United, the Yorkshire giants then languishing in League One, were top of the list, just ahead of Arsenal. For a period of two months MyFC teased potential investors about the possibility of investing in Leeds United or, failing that, Nottingham Forest. You can imagine the surprise and shock felt on the part of some investors when it was announced that MyFC had bought Ebbsfleet United, formerly Gravesend and Northfleet FC, a Conference side.

Nevertheless, the money had been paid for the year and the vast majority of investors decided to stick it out. It wasn’t League One or even close to it, but it was a beginning. Ebbsfleet’s roots dated back to the 1890s, which attached some form of prestige to the club. Coupled with this, then Fulham manager Roy Hodgson had turned out for the club 59 times during the 1970s, so at the very least Ebbsfleet was a good pub trivia question. Fun facts aside, the world’s first crowd sourced football experiment had begun and things would get interesting very fast.


A strong start 


Despite the initial grumblings amongst some investors that Ebbsfleet was a far cry from Leeds United, over 90 per cent of investors approved MyFC’s £635,000 take over in January 2008. These were exciting, often traumatic, times for Ebbsfleet. The previous summer had seen them move to a full time playing staff, a decision that had left the club with chronic debt. With MyFC’s backing, Ebbsfleet avoided a winding up order and were given a small kitty for the upcoming transfer window. Ebbsfleet’s manager, Liam Daish, could hardly contain his delight, telling reporters: “As a football fan, I think the MyFootballClub idea is fantastic. And as the coach, I look forward to the challenge of working with thousands of members to produce a winning team. Alan Kimble (Ebbsfleet’s assistant manager) and myself are 100 per cent committed to making this work.”

Although initially proposed as an internet-based democracy in which the 20,000 investors would get a say in the running of the club, the reality soon proved far different. Given Ebbsfleet’s relatively obscure league standing, few investors had the required knowledge to know which players Ebbsfleet should sign, let alone line out for the team. MyFC’s first initial decision then was to allow manager Liam Daish pursue his own transfer policy and team selections as opposed to crowd selected decisions.

Although a far cry from what had been promised, the decision resulted in some short-term successes. That season Ebbsfleet won the FA Trophy, with the team’s victory at Wembley ensuring that the MyFC project remained in the headlines for some time to come. The year saw Ebbsfleet scoop up a second trophy with a 4-0 victory over Cray Wanderers in the Kent Senior Cup. Two trophies in less than six months, it was a great start for many investors. Yet football is a fickle game, and Ebbsfleet’s final 11th place league position tempered the celebrations of many MyFc members, who had expected the side to make a push for promotion. As such, promotion was made the priority for the following season.

In August 2008, MyFC members were finally given their first real taste of what it was like to run a football club when Championship side Bristol City made a £140,000 bid for club forward John Akinde. In English football’s first case study in democratic transfer policies, over 82%per cent of fans approved the transfer, thereby making Akinde a Robin.

The Akinde transfer allowed manager Liam Daish to retain the nucleus of his squad, many of whom had seen their contracts expire at the end of the season. Even more excitingly, members had clubbed together to secure the £20,000 signature of striker Michael Gash from Cambridge City. Naturally pleased with how proceedings had gone, MyFC announced that the upcoming season would see the first ever crowd selected starting 11, with March proposed as a preliminary date.

Before that could happen, however, disaster struck.


Less Money, Mo’ Problems


As is so often the case, the initial enthusiasm behind a new idea began to wane. As early as September 2008, just one month after the Akinde transfer, newspapers began to report on the decline in active members on the MyFC website. Interested parties, namely those fans who had supported Ebbsfleet back in their Gravesend and Northfleet days, began to raise concerns about MyFC’s ability to finance the club. By early January it was reported that just over 9,000 subscribers had paid that year’s subscription fee, a far cry from the 15,000 that had previously been required. Finances were at an all time low and the club’s activity within the transfer market was muted.

Nevertheless, the MyFC project continued on as best it could. In April 2009, MyFC members selected voted on the kit supplier for the upcoming seasons, alongside some decisions on kit designs. Coupled with this, more fundraising campaigns sprang up to ensure the club’s future. Although the democratic process remained, members increasingly grumbling that they were merely cash cows for the club, a club that was languishing in mid-table.

Tensions came to a head when, in October 2010, MyFC fans took away Daish’s control of transfer dealings. From then on any proposed signing or sale had to be discussed with the MyFC membership 48 hours in advance. Needless to say, both Daish and the club secretary opposed the decision, but there was little they could do.

Confidence at an all time low, Brooks, the main responsible for MyFC’s birth, parted company with the project, citing irreconcilable differences. Daish and his Ebbsfleet squad did they best they could but, with little money, the team found itself in a relegation dogfight. On the last day of the season Ebbsfleet were relegated into the Conference South. The MyFC experiment was faltering and the remaining members knew it.

Further compounding matters, the MyFC subscribers base fell to 3,500 members following a decision to raise membership fees to £50 a year. The decision, made in light of Ebbsfleet’s financial situation, further depleted MyFC’s chances of survival. Those that remained with the project, however, did prove their loyalty, helping to raise enough money to bring in two experienced players for the upcoming Conference South season, in which it must be said, Ebbsfleet performed above any and all expectations.

On 15 May, 2011, Ebbsfleet won the Conference South playoff final 4–2 against Farnborough and = thus promoted back to the Conference at the first time of asking; a momentous occasion that unfortunately turned out to be a last hurrah for MyFC. On 23 December, 2011, it was announced that Ebbsfleet needed to raise £50,000 by the end of the 2011-12 season or risk going out of business. Whilst monies were raised to stave off bankruptcy, MyFc began to seek out new owners for the club. Within a year, Ebbsfleet was officially out of MyFC hands.

In early 2013, MyFc, sold its 75 per cent shares of Ebbsfleet United to a Kuwaiti subsidiary company headed by Peter Varney, the former chief executive of Charlton Athletic for a little over £10,000. Those that had stuck by MyFC to the bitter end were given some compensation and left in the hope that they had made the right decision. Commenting on the MyFc project in 2013, Liam Daish lamented: “We never pushed on. We were in such a strong position then (when MyFC first took over), maybe we could have got into the Football League in the couple of years afterwards. But the club never built on it.”

Three years on, Liam Daish has moved to pastures new, KSL have wiped Ebbsfleet’s debts and promised a new stadium for the National League South side. MyFC have become sponsors for Slough Town and at present there is no indication that they are considering another take over in the considerable future.


Looking back 


A project often labelled as overly ambitious and entirely naive, it is far too easy to bash the MyFc project. Amidst sensationalist articles about how MyFc was seeking to revolutionise football, many fans and journalists lost sight of what the project truly represented. MyFc was not Championship Manager; it was proof that modern fans felt entirely disconnected from their football teams, a feeling that has continued to grow in recent years.

MyFc was proof that fans were fed up of eccentric owners with no loyalty to a side, and if the remaining MyFc subscribers showed anything, it was that they were loyal. The project was proof that football, as we know it, is capable of change, but that this change must come from the fans themselves and not profit-driven directors. MyFc was, at its very core, an attempt to make football the people’s game again and not that of the prawn sandwich brigade.

Unfortunately the true aims of MyFc never came to fruition. Ebbsfleet’s fortunes were mixed, and at one point the club was in real danger of bankruptcy. Subscribers often felt like cash cows and those running the club resented the power of the faceless MyFc project. That the experiment failed no one can deny. That it was misguided, I’m not so sure.

By Conor Heffernan. Follow @PhysCstudy

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