- Interview by
- Sean Baillie
As the working-class game, football provides a sense of belonging and identity for millions in a world of increasing alienation. Stadiums are often one of the few avenues of collective action and team’s fortunes are tied to those of their communities. A cup win can live on, in the collective memory of towns and cities, for generations, in much the same way as the loss of an industry.
Football was forged by industry and the communities around the mills, the mines, shipyards, and steelworks. Much of the game’s cultural expression remains shaped by that experience, even as the jobs are gone, lost to a global market. For many the football club that is left to explain who we are and how we got here – and now they are in danger too.
But there is an alternative. Across football, movements for fan ownership have been growing. In England, there have been a number of successful fan-owned clubs – from AFC Wimbledon to Exeter City. But the most successful and high-profile fan buy-out has taken place at a Scottish club, Motherwell, the first top-flight club to come under fan ownership.
Fan ownership group The Well Society assumed control of Motherwell in 2016 when they took over 76 percent of the club’s shares from businessman Les Hutchison. Trade unionist and writer Sean Baillie spoke to Well Society board member Derek Watson to find out what fan ownership in Scotland looks like and how successful it can be in an environment of huge financial competition.
Could you describe the fan ownership model at Motherwell and your position within it?
Motherwell FC is the first top-flight club in the UK to be owned by their supporters. Every fan has the opportunity to become a member of The Well Society by paying as little as £5 a month and in turn the club is in the hands of those who care most about it.
The Society was set up in 2011, becoming fully fan-owned in 2016 and to date we have over 3,200 members. We have board elected by our members and from there we have 2 of our elected board members who sit on the executive board of the football club.
Motherwell have been in financial trouble in the past, even entering administration in 2002. Has becoming fan-owned enabled the club to become more financially stable?
I think we are definitely more financially sustainable. Through The Well Society model we now have a regular monthly income of around £15,000. It may not seem a lot – but that’s through membership fees alone. That doesn’t get spent but is put into a pot and we keep that as a reserve for a rainy day, for if things ever get challenging. We run as a football club in every other aspect on a daily basis, the majority of our income comes through tickets, sponsorship and TV revenue.
Looking back, when John Boyle came in and was chairman at the time he owned an airline company and was ploughing money into the club. We had players like Don Goodman, John Spencer, Ged Brannan and Shaun Teale who came from Aston Villa. They were on outrageous money. They came in and promised that we were going to win the league, and everyone got behind it. But the reality is that we ended up in administration and we had to start a campaign called ‘Well Worth Saving’ to make sure that we stayed afloat. Once you have seen your club nearly go out of business, I think you do appreciate it a little bit more.
In some ways, though, it has actually been a hindrance that we haven’t had a disaster to make the case for fan ownership. There’s been clubs like Hearts, for example, where fans recently created the Hearts Foundation in a time of crisis to move towards fan ownership. They raised millions overnight, within a few weeks their bank account was full of donations. That was because their fans could see the immediate danger to the club.
Many critics of fan ownership would say that you can’t be fan owned and remain competitive. What is your response to that?
I think you need to be realistic. Unlike the super clubs across the globe, we don’t have a tycoon bankrolling us. We’re not able to gamble millions on transfers each season. The income generated by our fans through The Well Society is crucial to our financial stability but ultimately, like most clubs, our main sources of income are gate receipts, TV revenue and sponsorship.
In terms of being competitive, last season we finished third – which is best of the rest in Scotland behind Celtic and Rangers. We were ahead of the city clubs from Dundee, Aberdeen and Edinburgh. We’ve featured in European competition and reached a number of cup finals, narrowly missing out to a Celtic side that featured the likes of Virgil van Dijk and managed by Brendan Rodgers – people who were paid more in a week than our lot get in a year.
How has the relationship between the club and the fans changed since The Well Society took majority control?
Being honest, I don’t think it’s changed too much. The transition to fan ownership was fairly smooth at Motherwell because we’ve always prided ourselves on being deep-rooted in the local community. It may seem alien to fans of England’s greedy Big Six and others in the Premier League but at Motherwell, fans often rub shoulders with the players. Our chief executive Alan Burrows was a fan before getting a job in our media team and then working his way to the top. The club is full of people who are fans first and employees second, that eliminates many of the ‘us and them’ situations.
What have been the main benefits of fan ownership?
The main benefits so far has been the fans having a say on the club’s decisions. It can be as small as something we have launched this week, where we are allowing supporters to rename the South Stand, which engages fans and gives everyone a sense of ownership and a chance to celebrate great players from our history. In contrast when you look at Hamilton Accies across the road – a smaller club but not owned by the fans – their stadium has been called the HopeCBD stadium and they’ve got a Spice of Life Stand just named after the highest bidder.
On the other hand, when Rangers got relegated to the third tier, many clubs were considering giving them a free pass back into the Premiership because they were worried about losing the revenue they brought to the league. If that was a decision solely for chief executives and chairmen, it would have happened. They would think about things like, ‘if Rangers come straight back up and play at our stadium a couple of times a season that would be a few hundred grand in ticket sales alone.’
At Motherwell, we put that to Well Society members. Our members unanimously voted to keep them in the third tier. It caused a massive backlash from Rangers fans, but ultimately it was our fans making the decisions about what Motherwell should be doing – and saying there’s a principle involved. It can’t be the case that just because you’re a member, you’re going to have a say in sacking the manager. That’s not going to happen. But fans should have that opportunity to make decisions about the day-to-day running of the club.
What do you think of the chances of a movement for fan ownership across football in the wake of the European Super League mess? And what advice would you give fans looking at that possibility?
When you talk about fan ownership, it’s important to remember that it cannot be forced. It can’t be top down, it has to be grassroots and like any campaign you want to make sure that it is the people who care about it the most, who are most affected and most invested in the club, that are making the case for it.
It is going to be a real struggle for bigger clubs to become fan-owned. The likes of Man United, Man City or Liverpool, which come from traditionally working-class areas and have huge working-class fan bases, have labour values in their roots. But they are also multi-billion pound companies. The fans want it to happen, but ultimately if it conflicts with success on the field, or gets in the way of the next super transfer, are they going to be willing to stick it out? It’s a question of the culture of the Premier League now.
I think if you want fan ownership you need to realise that there is going to be pitfalls as well. That’s just being real about the situation rather than painting a rosy picture. We’ve seen it being talked about at Celtic recently, for example, but we have also seen the uproar that’s happened because they failed to win 10 leagues in a row. If we move towards fan ownership, big clubs might have to get used to not having a monopoly on trophies – there would be more of a balance between success on the park and success off it.
Fans of Motherwell have a dream that we might win the cup, or maybe even a league. I don’t think there is anyone alive who saw Motherwell win the league in the 1930s. What I see as a success at Motherwell is making sure we have an affordable ticket model, players that buy into the ethos of the club, community initiatives that are delivering and making a difference. It matters as a fan that we have a club which is run by the fans and those who care about it the most, and that for me is a success.
The ultimate failure in my eyes isn’t finishing 7th or 8th in the league, it’s not having a club for the future. It’s knowing that your football club has died because of mismanagement and it was all done by people who don’t care about the club. I think a lot of Motherwell fans will agree with me. Don’t get me wrong, we want to win trophies but it’s not why we go.
Motherwell has become fan owned at a time when it is relatively successful, though. To get fans to put their hands in their pockets has been a little bit harder because they maybe don’t see the immediate need for it. The model we have today is one where people pay a regular, small amount and it seems to be working. I have no doubt if clubs were going down the drain, you would see fans ploughing more money into them.
Motherwell’s fortunes as a club and a town are often linked to the old steelworks at Ravenscraig. How much does its closure still impact the identity of the club and its fans today?
The club’s nickname is the Steelmen, which I guess answers your question. Motherwell is a post-industrial steeltown and the football club won its last trophy in 1991 – at a time when our steelmen and women were battling with a Thatcher-led Conservative government over proposed closures to what was once the largest steel plant in Europe. The ‘Craig fully closed in 1992 and took 770 jobs directly out of our community, but the knock-on effect is said to be in the tens of thousands. Walking around the town today you can still see the impact.
Like many similar towns across Britain, the one thing that still brings a sense of pride to the community is its football team. It gives us hope, it allows us to dream collectively, it unites people from all walks of life. For that 90 minutes on a Saturday, it allows many to escape the realities of modern Britain. The cup win in 1991 was the perfect example.
Surrounded by uncertainty, facing the reality of being on the dole, unsure how they would make ends meet, Steelmen celebrated long into the night with the local pubs all putting prices of a pint back to what it would have been in 1952, the last time we lifted the Scottish Cup. Standing pitchside, the first-team manager Tommy McLean dedicated the victory to the supporters. I think there’s still that level of shared identity despite the plant being closed for three decades.
Do you think fan ownership keeps alive that connection with the community?
It’s vital that Motherwell and other football clubs remain engaged with the community around them. It’s a place that people feel part of, and have come to from a very young age with friends and family. It is the only place in the town and within North Lanarkshire in general that regularly has 4,000 people meeting together.
These same people come week in, week out. It’s an emotional purchase when you buy a season ticket for a club. Especially as a small club on the outskirts of Glasgow. We don’t win a lot of trophies, we haven’t won one in 30 years. You aren’t coming to watch the greatest players in the land, but you’re parting with cash that you’ve spent hours working for in a tough economy.
Football clubs need to ask themselves why people do that. They need to realise that, ultimately, the community and the fans are the lifeblood of the club. They have to make sure that when they turn up, it’s more than just the 90 minutes and that they feel part of something. The club has to reward them for their loyalty.
When you look at some other clubs, particularly down south in the Premier League or even with the European Super League, this isn’t the case at all. Take the TV rights, for example, where they are moving games to 7pm or 8pm on a Monday night in order to make more money. How does that suit people with a regular working pattern?
It is important that Motherwell continues to bring in a regular stream of income and that we are financially sustainable, but every single decision we make is with the fan’s best interests at heart. That is a big difference. You would find it more difficult to say that about clubs that are owned by international billionaire tycoons who don’t know about the club, its history or the local area that surrounds it.
As well as fan ownership giving the community more power in the club, it has also made the club more active in the community. That’s a real benefit on both sides.
I touched on some of the initiatives that the Community Trust are involved with in the local are, but also The Well Society has done a lot of fundraising for local suicide prevention charities. We’ve done initiatives which have brought Syrian refugees to the football club for the first time when they are rehomed in the area. It’s something that I hope we continue to do again in the future with other groups who move to the locality.
Essentially, The Well Society looks at the local community and explores how we can help out. A regular income allows us to do that. There was also a situation where a family home burned down not too far from the stadium. The Well Society made a significant donation to make sure that the supporters got their house back to a liveable standard.
It is small things like that which a community club can do to make a difference. I think if more clubs were owned by the fans, this kind of thing would happen more regularly and on a larger scale.