As Arsenal fans protested in their thousands against owner Stan Kroenke last week, one slogan stood out in the crowd. Above the red, white, and yellow haze of the smoke bombs, amid the swaying forest of banners, flags and placards, one man held up a sign which read: ‘Kroenke Out, fan ownership now!’
Before the attempted European Super League breakaway, Arsenal supporters—or any supporters of the self-appointed ‘Big Six’, for that matter—calling for fan ownership would have been in the minority. Now there is a groundswell of support for radical reforms which give fans control of their clubs, even if the exact nature of those reforms is still up for debate.
Guaranteeing fans an equity stake, golden shares with specific voting rights, automatic positions for supporters on boards: far-reaching changes are suddenly on the agenda. The idea of adopting something similar to the German 50+1 rule has entered mainstream political discourse, with over 85,000 people signing a petition demanding its implementation. While few expect professional clubs to be handed over to supporters overnight—that would require a drastic overhaul of football’s economy, given the finances involved—there is now an urgent demand for reform to allow fans to reclaim the future of the game.
While the collapse of the Super League has opened up a new window of opportunity for supporters, fan ownership is not new to English football. In fact, as a model, it has a remarkable legacy of success. Supporters have shown time and again that they make for responsible custodians and creative administrators, though not as yet at Premier League level. Nonetheless, the history of fan ownership holds important lessons for those who want to seize the present moment and empower those in the stands and on the terraces.
Traditionally, the fan ownership model has been closely associated with phoenix clubs formed in response to individual greed, failures of governance and existential crises within the game. The parallels to the Super League are obvious and, in one case, there’s a direct connection: the Glazers.
Formed by disillusioned Manchester United supporters in 2005 after Malcolm Glazer’s debt-laden takeover, FC United of Manchester are now one of the most famous fan-owned clubs in the country. ‘Really, I think the European Super League was a natural progression from that day in 2005,’ says FC United chair Adrian Seddon. ‘The Glazers’ interest in Manchester United is purely a balance sheet interest. They’ve been brought up on American franchise sport and, for them, the Super League would have been a way to maximise the value of the club.’
Though Malcolm Glazer died in 2014, his son Joel—now Manchester United co-chairman—was one of the main protagonists of the failed breakaway. While the Glazers have spent the last 16 years progressively alienating supporters, FC United have followed their own path and shown that better ownership is possible. Operating on a one-member, one-vote basis which gives everyone an equal share in the club, they have built their own ground, experienced four promotions—with one relegation—and recorded some of the most impressive attendances in non-league football. They have also weathered financial struggles, internal discord and the pandemic, showing that a fan-owned club can be just as resilient as its bankrolled competitors.
The one-member, one-vote system has its roots in the cooperative movement and represents a fairly radical approach to fan ownership. ‘That’s the pure model where the fans make basically every major decision, from electing the board to deciding ticket prices… whether that’s the right model for everyone is another question,’ says Seddon. ‘FC United is one end of the spectrum, but we’ve seen from the German 50+1 model that it can be done a bit differently and scaled up.’ Were fan ownership to come to the Premier League or Championship, for instance, a hybrid model which allowed for a mix of fan shareholders and outside investment would be much easier to implement.
When it comes to fan ownership’s success stories, it’s hard to look past AFC Wimbledon. Founded in 2002 after the hugely contentious decision to allow the original Wimbledon FC to relocate to Milton Keynes—and soon to become MK Dons—they have risen from the ninth tier of English football to the third, League One, earning six promotions in their first 14 years of existence. Owned by the Dons Trust, a democratic supporters’ organisation which also operates on a one-member, one-vote basis, they made a homecoming last year by moving into their new Plough Lane stadium only a few hundred yards from Wimbledon’s old ground of the same name. The club’s success is testament to the fact that fan ownership can work in professional football.
‘A lot of things that happen in football are a tipping point,’ says Dons Trust vice chair Charlie Talbot, drawing a comparison between the circumstances which led to AFC Wimbledon’s formation and the attempted franchising of European football. ‘It feels like the European Super League has been that moment for a lot of people… even fans of the so-called ‘Big Six’ are saying: ‘This isn’t on’. Other people have obviously been saying that for a long time.’
The obvious lesson from the formation of AFC Wimbledon and FC United is that, to reclaim football, fans need to organise. Both clubs were born out of vocal protests—not unlike those which have erupted in response to the Super League—and supporters taking a stand against unaccountable private interests making unpopular decisions without their consent.
But after the protests have died down, then comes the hard part: meetings, logistics, votes, resolutions, budgets, and administrative work. There are signs that more fans are ready to get involved in light of the Super League proposals, with several Premier League supporters’ trusts seeing a spike in new membership applications as people start to recognise that they are potential vehicles for change.
AFC Wimbledon and FC United also bear witness to what supporters of different clubs can achieve when they work together. ‘A big part of being fan owned is that you are part of the wider community,’ says Seddon. ‘When we were formed in 2005, we were helped significantly by AFC Wimbledon… they put a lot of effort into helping to set up FC United.’ FC United have tried to do the same for Bury AFC, the fan-owned phoenix club formed after Bury FC’s financial crisis and expulsion from the Football League in 2019. ‘I’m sure that, in two or three years’ time, Bury AFC will be doing the same for the next club that’s coming up through the ranks.’
FC United also have a policy of committing at least a third of their pre-season friendlies to other fan-owned clubs in an effort to champion the model. They will play Bury AFC this summer: 2,000 tickets to the match sold out in 24 hours. If supporters want to take control of football, they will have to find that same sense of common purpose. English football is often defined by bitter partisanship, but the coordinated backlash to the Super League—with fan groups from all six Premier League clubs involved coming together to condemn the plans—shows the power of cooperation.
Democratising the game also requires fans to work together to overcome their disagreements. When AFC Wimbledon ran into difficulties in financing their new stadium and there were fears that the Dons Trust might lose control of the club, fans raised over £5 million through the Plough Lane bond scheme. FC United also had a period of intense unrest after moving to their ground, Broadhurst Park.
‘The good thing about fan ownership is that you get a platform for airing those disagreements in a meaningful way,’ says Seddon. ‘It’s not like at Premier League clubs where people are left to vent their anger on social media… you have a direct line into the decision-making process, with meetings where you decide things by vote, and you may not always like the result but the fact is that you get a democratic say.’
For all the setbacks along the way, the rewards of fan ownership are enormous. Formed in 2001, the first fully fan-owned club in England, Enfield Town have seen it all in the 20 years since their foundation. ‘If you’re supporter-owned it’s ingrained in the psyche of the football club,’ says club director Andrew Warshaw. ‘When you do get success, if you’re supporter-owned, the feeling of euphoria is so much greater than if you’re owned by an individual businessman or whoever else.’
One of the thorniest issues for those who advocate fan ownership is the handful of clubs which, having been supporter-owned, have sold up to private investors. Prominent examples include Portsmouth, Wycombe Wanderers, and Wrexham, where, despite stepping in to save their clubs from catastrophe, supporters’ trusts have willingly ceded control.
‘The division with Wrexham fans was that we were proud to be fan-owned, then all of a sudden the big hand came out of the sky, plucked us up and we were the chosen ones… then the whole ethos has gone completely,’ says Ap Dafydd, editor of the socialist and republican SHAG fanzine. Wrexham are now owned by Hollywood actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, with 98.6 percent of the members who voted on the takeover in favour.
At clubs like Wrexham, where fan ownership was necessitated by disastrous mismanagement as opposed to being a foundational principle, it’s easy to see why a good offer which promises to transform the club’s finances is tempting. Currently in the fifth-tier National League—Wrexham are one of a select few Welsh clubs to compete in the English league pyramid—they have historically played at a higher level. If supporters are going to have a permanent stake in their clubs elsewhere, there needs to be a sea change in the way people perceive fan ownership. Rather than seeing themselves as temporary caretakers when disaster strikes, fans need to see their custodianship as non-negotiable.
Where the fan ownership ethos is a fundamental part of AFC Wimbledon, FC United, and Enfield Town’s identity, that isn’t the case for the clubs that tried to form the Super League. ‘It’s hard to embed a culture of: “This is ours, we own it,”‘ says Ap Dafydd. ‘You have to move away from abdicating responsibility and turning on each other when things go wrong.’
More than that, for supporters to win power at all levels of English football, there may need to be a fundamental shift in our understanding of fandom. Having been treated like passive consumers for so long, it will take a major readjustment for fans of Premier League sides to become active participants whose voice genuinely matters. The mass mobilisation against the Super League has to be the first step on the road to recovery for football. As demonstrated by AFC Wimbledon, FC United, Enfield Town, and so many other fan-owned clubs, supporters are more than capable of running the game themselves.