One year on...
PUBLISHED: 17:00 21 January 2009 | UPDATED: 10:24 23 August 2010
SOME of the doom and gloom merchants didn t even think it would last this long. Yet, one year from a new beginning ; one year on from a football revolution, when Ebbsfleet United was sold to 30,000 paid-up members of MyFootballClub (MyFC), each of whom
SOME of the doom and gloom merchants didn't even think it would last this long.
Yet, one year from a 'new beginning'; one year on from a football revolution, when Ebbsfleet United was sold to 30,000 paid-up members of MyFootballClub (MyFC), each of whom had purchased a £35 stake to have an equal say in the running of a football club, 'The Fleet' are still standing.
Tomorrow marks one year since 98% of MyFC members voted overwhelmingly to proceed with the purchase of Ebbsfleet United. The takeover was officially completed the following month, but January 23 represents - for the vast majority of members - the first anniversary since they started running a football club.
"It's gone as well as we can hope for," says Will Brooks, the former football journalist who came up with the idea and the man known to MyFC members by his website alias, 'Westerly Ware'. "It's hard to judge, but we have got through the first year and may end up with some of that membership money left over. To me, that means it has worked.
"At the moment, Ebbsfleet is losing money like any other club, but we're not reliant on one or two owners. We've got many thousands which could, potentially, put us in a pretty strong position. It's gone very well in terms of how the model has worked and sets us up nicely for Year Two - as long as we get the right number of renewals."
Normally, the 'R' word feared by most football clubs is relegation. But, for Ebbsfleet, it is all about renewals. More renewals means more members paying £35 a head, and that means more cash flowing into the coffers.
On February 19 - 12 months after the deal to take over Ebbsfleet was officially confirmed at an Extraordinary General Meeting - the website will find out how many of the vast proportion of its 31,800 members have agreed to renew their annual subscription. Brooks says that the MyFC model needs to have between 15,000 and 20,000 members in order to be able to progress with confidence into the second year and begin the process of consolidation.
The biggest fear is that the majority of MyFC members have been turned off the whole idea and will not come back for a second 12-month period. In fact, more than 8,000 people have not even logged on to the MyFC website since July and there is no guarantee they will do so in order to renew. It is the single issue that is at the forefront of most MyFC minds right now and will be the strongest indication to date of the long-term sustainability of the entire venture.
Ebbsfleet chief executive David Davis admits the model is about to be put to its biggest test. "It's make-or-break time," he says. "We can have plenty of contingency plans in place at the club, but the bulk of our dependence is on funds from MyFootballClub. Normally, you can have a pretty good stab at your sales revenue and be within 10 or 15 per cent. But, with MyFC, there could be a 70 per cent variance and that makes it quite hard to do any long-term planning.
"You can't turn that situation around overnight, but I genuinely feel that if we can get through the 2009/10 season, then we'll have cracked it. It's a sustainable model, but the problem is knowing what our revenue is going to be."
One of the society members at the forefront of trying to ramp up the enthusiasm among disaffected shareholders is Paul Charnock. The 49-year-old resigned as the chair of the Society Board - the seven-person committee that was set up to represent the wishes of MyFC members - at Christmas, but remains part of a group of volunteers known as the Retention Team. He is contacting those who have been 'inactive' on the website for seven months or more and agrees with Davis that they are at a critical juncture.
"It's not as simple as: 'We need 16,000 members'," he says. "Last year, we did the best we could. We didn't have a CEO and had the web team trying to operate the club. They did the best they could, but they are not football club administrators.
"It's going to be more difficult. There's no way we'll have the same number of members after February 19, but we will have a membership with a much greater unity of purpose. There's plenty more ways we can engage with them and, if we last the second year, we're made. I promise you."
As he speaks, MyFC clocks up another new member. "Nine people joined yesterday as well," he says. "When we had the big vote on whether or not to sell John Akinde, we got 420 new members in less than a week. Ninety people signed up in 36 hours following a single article in the New York Times.
"I am confident that we will get at least 14,000 people renewing without any extra work on our part."
Even if the renewal date is passed safely, there are still plenty of problems on the horizon for MyFC, including its unique selling point - Pick The Team (PTT).
When Brooks first began flogging MyFootballClub's wares to the general public in May 2007, the marketing slogan was 'Own The Club, Pick The Team'. It has not quite worked out that way.
One year on and Liam Daish, the head coach, remains in charge of first-team affairs. He continues to pick the side week-in, week-out because a majority of members have yet to vote in favour of selecting the team. They have come close - 47 per cent voted in favour ahead of the postponed Wrexham fixture and 43 per cent before the FA Trophy match against Stalybridge Celtic - but it is the lack of numbers getting involved that has surprised Brooks more than anything. Anything around the 1,500 mark would be considered a good turnout, with the number of people actually selecting a team often less than half of that.
"I did think it would be a bigger part of it, but it hasn't played out that way," he says. "I was very hopeful we would have far more participation - more people writing match reports, coming up with theories and generating their own statistics - but it hasn't happened.
"That isn't a problem, but it has meant the numbers doing it have been much less than I thought, so that side is disappointing. PTT does polarise people, but it's refreshing how much the owners have backed the coaching staff. It could be argued that they might not have got as much backing at a traditional club, but they still have the option to pick the team, and that's healthy."
So what does the future hold for MyFC and the fans of Ebbsfleet United? Jessica McQueen, chairwoman of the Fleet Trust, an old-school supporter and now one of the members of the MyFC Society board, acknowledges a level of anxiousness.
"I would be foolish not to be concerned about the longevity of Ebbsfleet United. My main concern, as someone who supported the club before the takeover, is what is going to happen if the membership money doesn't come rolling in?
"However, this time last year we were in a worse position. The difference is that the fans were not as aware of it as they are now. Things are pretty dire for many clubs in the Blue Square Premier right now.
"David Davis is trying to make that club more self-financed - through gate revenues, sponsorship and other incentives. But that is unlikely to happen in the coming year and all the time, the club will be reliant on MyFC. The Fleet has to progress, but we need more investment in order to grow.