Ben Shave on how a small Derbyshire town and its football club have been reverberating around the corridors of power.
Since becoming Prime Minister, David Cameron has consistently referred to his ‘Big Society’, describing it as his “passion.” Emphasising the collective role that communities can play in their progression and development, Cameron declared that the initiative is intended to “turn government on its head.”
This philosophical declaration has manifested itself in many ways since Cameron made that speech in Liverpool this past July, some of which have had a profound impact on the landscape of spectator sport, and football in particular. In May of this year, the Coalition Agreement stated that “we will encourage the reform of football governance rules to support the co-operative ownership of football clubs by supporters. Hugh Robertson MP, Minister for Sport and the Olympics, recently expressed his determination “to make progress and to push ahead with both the wider reform agenda and football supporters’ involvement.”
Fine words, but as ever in politics, the proof will be in the policy-filled pudding. Today an opportunity has emerged for the new government to make a real difference to the future of a true community club.
Ilkeston Town FC of the Blue Square North division were wound up by court order on September 8th. Owing £47,000 to HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), the club had pleaded for the decision to be delayed in anticipation of an expected cash injection from player sales. The club’s lawyers also put forward an offer of structured repayment via instalments of £1000 per month, but Registrar Christine Derrett took just two minutes to declare that the company was “clearly insolvent”, and confirm the winding-up order.
On the same day, League One Sheffield Wednesday were saved from a similar fate by a last-minute payment of £780,000 to HMRC from the Co-Operative Bank. Whilst Wednesday clearly has a larger fan base and creditors with more to lose had they gone under, the timing of the two outcomes was unfortunate for fans of ITFC. Their club had endured years of financial hardship, and a succession of private owners with little regard for the community aspect at the heart of a modest institution.
The club was officially liquidated on the afternoon of September 14th. The playing staff were informed that they were free to seek new clubs, and although the official website reported the continuation of services such as the Clubhouse bar; Ilkeston Town FC’s record for this season was expunged from the tables and they have ceased to have a place in the football pyramid.
Since then, a familiar story has emerged. As with previous cases such as Chester City, the internet proved a fruitful environment in which to begin the construction of the new club. A message board, presumably populated by those who had seen the writing on the wall, moved swiftly to establish links with Supporters Direct and local MP Jessica Lee, with a view to ensuring that football would continue to be played at the New Manor Ground.
The board has fostered a mixture of polemic, the inevitable intrigue over the motives of the former administration(s), and crucially, an emerging appetite for a new club, with a new way of doing things and a recognition that maybe, just maybe, the ideas ran out for the old club sometime before the money eventually did. In a meeting on September 15th, attended by over 120 frustrated supporters, the groundswell of public opinion in favour of a new dawn was made clear. Erewash Councillor Michael Wallis stated that “whatever route we decide to go down, you will be able to play at the New Manor Ground.” Following this welcome pledge of support, and the passion displayed by those who were present at meeting venue Gladstone Lodge, a group of fans decided to put together a bid to purchase the club; and ensure that football in Ilkeston would never again be controlled by those without the interests of the community at heart. Jessica Lee MP, a Conservative backbencher elected in 2010, was asked to spearhead the campaign begun at that meeting.
With the legal expertise of Supporters Direct, who have assisted all the reformed clubs in whose footsteps the new club hopes to follow (and who have all helped with advice and support) and the backing of the local MP, the group, who are set up at www.ilsonfootball.co.uk, are preparing to fight for the future of football in their community. The next stage will play a major part in determining the path of that future. The assets of the former club are in the hands of the liquidator appointed to sell them off, using the proceeds to pay the creditors. Critical amongst these is the stadium, which is leased from the local council.
The liquidator wants as much money as possible for the creditors. The council wants…well, the council can choose what it wants. Here’s where it gets interesting.
They might decide that the best way to decide what a new club for Ilkeston looks like is a bidding war, with the right to play at the New Manor Ground the prize. This would clearly align their interests with the limited financial remit of the liquidators. But the hope is that they can be persuaded that it is the interest of the community which deserves priority, not those of the creditors who forced Ilkeston Town FC out of existence.
Despite the welcome declaration from Councillor Willis, the position of the Council is far from certain. Dave Boyle, Chief Executive Officer of Supporters Direct, is in no doubt that paramount amongst the benefits that the Council can consider is sustainability, telling the Ilkeston Advertiser that “the first thing a new club can do for the community is be a club the community doesn’t need to keep bailing out.” Jessica Lee MP stated in a press release that she was “delighted and flattered to be asked to spearhead the supporters’ campaign to take control of Ilkeston Town Football Club. I will do all that I can to keep the club in the control of the supporters.” The group themselves have issued a blueprint for their vision, which encompasses a democratically elected board, and assurances that any future profit will be reinvested into both club and community. It’s a compelling vision which after the experience of Telford, Scarborough and the rest, is based on reality not rhetoric.
So where does our Prime Minister fit into all this? Well, in Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions, Jessica Lee posed the following to her party leader: “Will the PM join with me in backing the supporters of Ilkeston Town Football Club in my constituency, who are working hard to put together a bid to save the club? If successful, that will be the first supporter-owned football club under the new coalition government, and a real asset for us in Erewash.” To which Mr Cameron replied: “I think the Honourable Lady makes a good point. Many Honourable Members will have football clubs in their constituencies that sometimes do struggle financially, and I think seeing one owned by supporters is a very positive move.”
An endorsement and word of encouragement from the Prime Minister is a start, but- to borrow a cricketing metaphor- a great stance is nothing, without a proper follow through. Mr Cameron’s Big Society speech and the sentiments contained within have been subject to varying levels of ridicule, cynicism, bewilderment and enthusiasm. But what is it? What does it involve? Ilkeston might just provide the answer for what it is- and how government can encourage it. Here we have a community asset which has been forced out of existence by financial mismanagement at the hands of private individuals. Private ownership failed the public interest, and now the club’s supporters, disgusted and depressed at this state of affairs, have elected to take matters into their own hands and return football to the community.
Erewash Council has the power to award the lease as they see fit: to do so on commercial grounds would maintain the status quo, which, as the whole saga has shown us, simply isn’t working. However, if the Council were to award the lease on the basis of a business plan which placed long-term community growth at its core, then not only would they be ensuring the future of football in Ilkeston, but also providing substance to Mr Cameron’s rhetoric. It would be the Big Society in action.
But these seemingly opposite poles, of community activists intending to run the new club as a co-operative and the process which will reward those with the most cash to put down in the short-term; are the key tension at the heart of the notions behind the Big Society. Erewash Council is run by the local Conservative party, Jessica Lee is a Conservative MP, and David Cameron is…well, you know the rest. If our Prime Minister wants to prove that the BS isn’t just bs, then the political alignment in this small Derbyshire town needs to deliver.
A copy of the petition supporting a community-owned club in Ilkeston can be found here: http://www.petitiononline.com/29oct10/petition.html