Inside every football fan there’s a little Alex Ferguson fighting to get out. So when an internet entrepreneur created a football site where supporters could own and run a real-life club, it seemed an armchair enthusiast’s dream come true. Tom de Castella signed up.
On a sunny playing field in a corner of post-industrial Kent, footballs are being pounded into the penalty box for a line of young men to control and shoot past the goalkeeper. There is plenty of enthusiasm and banter, but the shots are wayward and the ball control aberrant. Yet on this run-down training pitch, what I am watching is nothing short of a football revolution. This is the story of Ebbsfleet United, a non-league professional team that plays in the fifth tier of English football, the Blue Square Premier.A year ago, Will Brooks, a 37-year-old Fulham supporter and former advertising copywriter, launched a website called myfootballclub.co.uk. The idea was simple and rather brilliant. He would persuade thousands of people to contribute £35 each to buy a football team, allowing them to not only own a share of the club, but also, crucially, have the power to pick the starting 11 and choose the tactics. The scheme took the popularity of football management and Fantasy Football games to another dimension, and played on the fact that inside many of us there is a little Alex Ferguson fighting to get out.
I meet Brooks for lunch at Pret a Manger in Fulham Broadway Tube station, not far from the flat that doubles as MyFC’s head office. Short and pale, he looks and talks like a bright, slightly geeky professional who is more into watching than playing sport. He first had the idea in 2005, but it took two years to work out a way of making it happen. Before his five years as a copywriter he had worked as a journalist for Match of the Day magazine, and felt that fans were often ignored by those who played the game. ‘I’d always thought, “Why don’t fans have a say in team selection?” We pay the wages. I thought this could be a viable alternative. I look at a lot of lower league clubs, all of them losing money, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense. I was always captivated by the idea of a club that does not have to rely on its local support but has global support, and the internet allows you to do that.’
By August 1 last year, 50,000 people had signed up to MyFC (without knowing or being able to influence which club they would be buying), the agreed point at which Brooks could request the money that had been pledged. Three months later, after detailed talks with the League Two side Mansfield Town and the Lancashire-based Leigh RMI of the Conference North, MyFC announced the purchase of a 75 per cent stake in Ebbsfleet United, a club which had been losing £30,000 per month. The deal cost £600,000, and included paying off the club’s debts.
Now, Ebbsfleet is ‘owned’ by nearly 30,000 paid-up MyFC members from 88 countries, and is the first business in the world to have been the subject of a successful internet community takeover.
‘We’ve got 2,000 people in America, 500 in Australia and 400 in Norway, people who have never been to watch Ebbsfleet,’ Brooks says. ‘But they’re really enjoying the whole experience, seeing a side of a football club you never get to see.’ He said that he receives messages from people around the world every week asking if they can replicate what he has done. ‘I tell them to go for it.’ He believes that MyFC’s internet take-over may have more impact on business models than in sport.
The club seemed a perfect fit. Only six months earlier, it had been known as Gravesend & Northfleet and had been renamed after the new nearby Ebbsfleet International Station, part of the high-speed rail link to the Channel Tunnel. (Eurostar has signed a three-year kit sponsorship deal.) It is effectively a new club for a new town, although as yet as there is no Ebbsfleet. As my taxi driver explained on the way to the training ground, ‘It must be the first village with an international station and a football team before it’s even got a house.’ Five villages are to be built in a region that will be known as Ebbsfleet Valley. The rail link will have a profound effect on this once-isolated part of the Thames estuary, with journey times to London reduced from 50 to 15 minutes by December 2009.
MyFC boasts that members will have the power to vote on everything from strategy to which players to buy or sell. But isn’t it madness to give armchair supporters such control? Won’t it, among other things, lead to demands to sack the manager every few months? Brooks believes the opposite will happen. ‘It’s very easy to scream at the manager from the terraces, but when you’ve got responsibility it’s not as easy to be trigger-happy.’
Football ownership in Britain is going through a critical phase, with many of the top clubs looking for or already beholden to rich foreign owners. Dr Rogan Taylor, the director of the football industries group at the University of Liverpool – and a passionate Liverpool supporter – is trying to implement a similar community ownership scheme on a grander scale. Horrified by the feuding between Liverpool’s American owner Tom Hicks and George Gillett, he orchestrated the launch of a website, shareliverpoolfc.com, to begin raising a takeover fund of £500 million from 100,000 Liverpool fans around the world – £5,000 each.’Fans have grown used to the idea that in order to get access to finance they have to let global businessmen in,’ he says, ‘but Britain is the most unregulated market in Europe as far as football clubs go. In Germany, Spain, Italy and France, football clubs are simply not for sale.’ He is sceptical about the idea of Ebbsfleet members having too much influence over what happens on the pitch. ‘It’s like an internet football management game, except you’re dealing with real people and their livelihoods. It’s like those communist troops in the Spanish civil war voting to attack or retreat.’
My first experience of watching the Fleet (as they are known) in action came at Burton Albion in the quarter-finals of the FA Trophy, the nationwide cup competition for non-league teams. Burton has a nice little ground with terraces on three sides. The away end was not full, but there were about 300 Fleet fans making a decent noise as a harsh Staffordshire wind swirled around us. The match itself was poor: no goals and not much fluency. But at the final whistle the 0-0 scoreline was greeted with cheers by the away supporters. There would be a replay at Stonebridge Road, Ebbsfleet’s home ground, which would give the team a good chance of getting to the semis and generate more cash (though financially stable, the club’s coffers are far from bursting).
At my next match, an away tie in the league against York City, I chat to some of Ebbsfleet’s new fans. I wonder what kind of people are signing up, apart from football anoraks and internet junkies. For the most part, it is people looking for adventure, and fans of bigger teams who miss the intimacy of what football used to be. Mark Rowly is an amiable Manchester United fan who originally hoped that MyFC would buy nearby Leigh RMI, but is now fully behind the Ebbsfleet project. He estimates that out of the 29,000 members, just over half are ‘real fans’, in other words those who regularly contribute to online votes and debates. He believes that many members have lost interest because MyFC did not buy a bigger club, such as Leeds United (which at one stage it was rumoured to buy).
On my left is Siuann, an effervescent Liverpool-supporting Mancunian-Chinese woman who joined MyFC last August after reading an article on the BBC website. At the time, she hoped it would buy a club in the north such as Bury or Accrington Stanley. ‘When they bought Ebbsfleet I’d never heard of them, but thought I would support them anyway.’ This is only her second game, but already the MyFC Manchester branch has developed a social scene, with members meeting up between games. When I look at Siuann’s profile page on the MyFC website (there is a social networking dimension to the project) I see she has posted the following: ‘I joined myfootballclub so I could meet lots and lots of men. Fit and single? Please apply here.’
I talk to Tony, a Blackburn Rovers fan and MyFC member, who is concerned that interest is already declining. ‘For the whole thing to work, the fans have to be involved. We don’t have anything like the 29,000 involved now, so sign-ups for year two are going to be crucial.’ MyFC expects to maintain 15,000 members next season, though there is no limit to the number of people who can sign up – the more the better.
My first sight of Stonebridge Road (average attendance 1,000) comes at the beginning of April, in a league tie against Woking. From the outside it looks like a cluster of sheds, but pushing through the turnstiles I am confronted by a lovely, atmospheric old football ground with two terraces and two seated stands. Above the away supporters’ open terrace a huge pylon looms and you can just make out the tops of passing double-decker buses. Beside the home terrace a hut sells tea, hotdogs and burgers. In the bar and around the ground I bump into old friends and new disciples.
The most surprising is an American, Robert Sheard, standing in the drizzle with his son. They have come from North Carolina to fit in four Ebbsfleet games over a 10-day trip. Sheard, a high-school English teacher, has followed football – he is careful not to call it ‘soccer’ – for the last five years, supporting Newcastle United. ‘But I had never been to Newcastle and hadn’t supported them in any way other than buying a shirt and watching them on television. MyFC has given me the chance to feel a tangible tie to a club, and the thought of it being a small club on the rise is exciting.’
I leave them in the rain and bump into Tony Stanley, a local abstract artist and longstanding Fleet fan who hands me a flier for his private view. It is all rather heartwarming, which even a late equaliser from Woking can’t spoil.
At a training session soon after, the players, who earn up to £400 a week, seem happy if a little bemused by the takeover. I approach fans’ favourite Sasha Opinel on his way to the changing rooms. Has this peroxide-haired French defender come across anything like MyFC before? ‘Only on the PlayStation,’ he laughs. ‘It’s a bit strange, but the idea is brilliant.’ I ask if he is worried about fans in other countries voting to select the team when they might never have been to a match or seen a game on television. ‘There are forums and statistics on the website, so as long as they take it seriously, it could work,’ he says, philosophically.
The man with most to lose is the manager, Liam Daish, 39, who for three years has steadily improved the club’s league-table position. He is an old-school football man who played for Cambridge United and Coventry City and for Jack Charlton’s Republic of Ireland side of the 1990s. He appreciates that the takeover has stabilised the club’s finances, preventing Ebbsfleet from having to abandon its professional status and cut its wage bill. It is clear, though, that the media interest in MyFC irks him. So far he has been quoted as being guardedly positive about developments. But face-to-face, he sounds much less certain, especially about the possibility of supporters picking the team, which was one of MyFC’s enticements for attracting members, though the details have not yet been agreed.
‘At the end of the day I’m paid for whatever they want me to do,’ he says. ‘So if they don’t want me to pick the side, fine. But if you are asking my opinion, they’d be fools not to let me pick the side. You know, if I book my car in to get serviced I don’t go in there and tell the mechanics what to do. You’d be asking for things to go wrong. They should value my input and I’d be disappointed if they didn’t. Very disappointed.’ It is said more in sadness than anger, and despite signing a contract for next season you wonder how long Daish will stay at a club where thousands of opinionated amateurs are given the opportunity to force decisions with which he is not comfortable upon him.Opinionated amateurs like me. My Ebbsfleet adventure began at the end of February, when I registered with MyFC and was given a chance to take part in one of the regular online votes. ‘Are you happy for Liam to extend the contracts of some existing Ebbsfleet players, and to potentially bring in one or two players on loan?’ I voted yes and the motion was passed by a margin of 97.35 per cent. Not only were we working as a democracy, but we were unified in the decisions.
Or so I thought. But as time went on, I was reminded that any internet-based community is awash with diverse and often outlandish opinions, spiralling feuds and conspiracy theories.
A storm erupts over the results of the election of the MyFC Trust Board, in which all members have a vote. A longtime local fan, Jessica McQueen, has topped the poll and the Trust Board is packed with other locals. The forums are thick with conspiracy theories, and anger that despite the international fanbase the most far-flung fan on the newly elected seven-member board is Paul Charnock from Leicester. From a field of 11 locals and 95 non-locals it was the locals who prospered. ‘There’s some unpleasantness on the forums saying it’s unfair, but people could vote for who they wanted,’ McQueen says. ‘We’re all supposed to be supporting the football club and working together. The accusation that annoys me the most is that I shouldn’t get the job because I’m not posting on the forum all the time.’
This is perhaps the crux of the problem. There are two types of Ebbsfleet fan; those who supported the old Gravesend & Northfleet side, and the Johnny-come-lately internet crowd. Often they do not want the same thing. The MyFC fans tend to want to pick the team (which is how the buy-out was sold to them) while older Fleet fans like McQueen prefer to let the manager do his job.
Watching a cracker of a 2-2 draw at home to Aldershot I talk to a bearded man called Ken who has supported the club he still calls Gravesend & Northfleet since 1962. ‘There are 29,000 of them but how many are here tonight? Thirty? If they had a bigger presence it wouldn’t feel so bad.’ Like a lot of local fans, he has no intention of signing up to the MyFC revolution.
As a fan on the forum going by the name of ‘Vornstyle’ sums it up: ‘I think people are slowly coming to realise that they want two incompatible things from MyFC – one is for free and creative input into the running of a football club, the other is to respect the pre-existing fans and the club’s traditional identity.’
All too aware of this division within its camp, MyFC executives have quietly shelved the much-trumpeted proposals for members to pick the team – the main selling point of the scheme. But a poll of the membership shows the idea is still alive, although maybe watered down. Twenty-eight per cent of voters say they ‘want to pick the team and I’d like the manager to consider, but not necessarily follow, the members’ selection’. Almost 26 per cent say they are not interested in picking the team.
Just when it seems that Brooks’s vision is turning into the football equivalent of Animal Farm, something magical happens. Ebbsleet defeat Burton in the FA Trophy quarter-final replay, and then win their semi-final against league leaders Aldershot. We are going to Wembley, the pinnacle of every English football team’s hopes, and the biggest match in the Fleet’s history (which can be traced back to Northfleet United, formed in 1890).
The optimist in me likes to see Ebbsfleet as a corrective to the oligarchs taking over British football, a small club that can rise up the leagues through the collective will of its supporters. But the pessimist wonders whether membership will lapse and this experiment will become just another non-league club struggling to survive. But these are philosophical questions for another day.
I ask Daish about the prospect of leading his team out to face Torquay United at Wembley (the Fleet expects to take up to 25,000 fans) and he seems to relax, glad to be talking about football again. ‘Torquay are going to be very tough, they’re a strong side, so we’re going to have to match them physically,’ he says. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience for these men who may never get to play in a stadium holding 10,000, let alone a 90,000 seater arena like Wembley. ‘We’ll just try and get the players relaxed and breathe in the atmosphere. You’ve just got to enjoy it.’