John Joins Parliament Debate on Fan Owned Football Clubs

On Tuesday (April 22nd) the Scottish Parliament debated fan ownership of football clubs. Below you can see the speeches from John and his colleague Alison Johnstone MSP.
S4M-09518, in the name of Alison Johnstone, on fan ownership of football clubs

That the Parliament believes that football clubs are at the core of their communities across Scotland; supports ownership of football clubs by fans’ trusts, which, it believes, can deliver more responsible and representative long-term stewardship for their clubs; welcomes the efforts of individual supporters’ trusts, Scottish Fans and Supporters Direct Scotland to give fans a stronger say in how football clubs across Scotland are run; notes that four clubs playing in the SPFL are already owned by their fans and wishes the Edinburgh-based Foundation of Hearts well with its work to add its club to that list, and believes that widespread fan ownership of football clubs could be a sustainable and stable basis for the future of Scottish football.

Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green): I offer many thanks to the MSPs who have supported my motion and to those who will speak in the debate tonight, including the new Cabinet Secretary for the Commonwealth Games, Sport, Equalities and Pensioners’ Rights. I congratulate her on her promotion.

This opportunity for members’ business was meant to be Margo MacDonald’s. I do not know what relevant and incisive topic Margo would have brought for debate today, but I hope and trust that, as an advocate for sport her whole life and a loyal Hibs fan, she is content with my choice.

I imagine that there are football clubs that are important to each and every MSP’s region. Some members can claim the biggest and most successful clubs; others will be equally supportive of smaller clubs or amateur teams. Some MSPs I know even dare to support a team from outside their region. The point is that football is important to Scotland, and our clubs are often at the core of our communities. Football clubs provide excitement and drama and a sense of belonging that people care passionately about. However, I have seen too many Scottish football fans go through painful cycles of boom and bust with their clubs, not in terms of sporting success, which is par for the course, but financially. In response to those money woes and instability, the exciting yet—to be honest—not so new idea that the supporters of a football club should own the club is coming back into vogue.

I am delighted to congratulate Heart of Midlothian and all the fans and supporters in my region who have demonstrated the power of that idea so dramatically. It has literally been fans digging deep into their pockets who have kept the club afloat, along with the hard work of many people to bring the deals with shareholders to a close. Hearts is not yet out of administration, but most of the river has been crossed and we can look forward to building stronger foundations for the future. Chairwoman-elect, Ann Budge, has ushered in a new era for Hearts, which will become the biggest fan-owned club in the country.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP): I congratulate Alison Johnstone on securing the debate and commend what she is saying. Would it be a good route for clubs to go down—as Clyde, which is fan owned, has done—to have no debt built into their constitution, so that they cannot borrow?

Alison Johnstone: That sounds like a sustainable and sensible model, and the issue will certainly be considered, not least by the body that the cabinet secretary will no doubt tell us about later in the debate.

Annan Athletic, Ayr United and Motherwell are all progressing in the community-ownership direction, with plans to be community owned by the start of the 2014-15 season. Clyde FC, East Stirlingshire, Stirling Albion and Dunfermline Athletic are already enjoying majority ownership by supporters, and Livingston FC announced only last week its desire to join that club.

It is important that we counter any negativity that suggests that supporter ownership cannot be done; the model is the norm for clubs in Scandinavia and Germany. Last year’s UEFA champions league final was between Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, which are both community owned. In Scotland, individual supporters trusts, community interest companies, Scottish fans and Supporters Direct Scotland have all worked hard to demonstrate that supporters can be the most responsible and successful owners of their clubs in the long term. I believe that with ambition and vision from the Scottish Government and the Scottish Professional Football League, supporters have the chance to put more Scottish football clubs on a sound and more stable and successful footing.

The Scottish Greens are proposing support for more community ownership. I recently had what I hope was a productive meeting with the now Cabinet Secretary for the Commonwealth Games, Sport, Equalities and Pensioners’ Rights and the Minister for Local Government and Planning, at which we discussed a range of options. The idea fits squarely within the community empowerment agenda. The proposed community empowerment bill would provide an opportunity to support genuine fans’ trusts, which are developing serious and sustainable business models for their clubs.

When supporter ownership has come about, it has generally been during financial crises and against a backdrop of debt and failure. There is a need to ensure that there is a route for community ownership that does not involve crises of finance or governance. In many countries sports teams have a dedicated legal form that can allow supporters the right to influence that governance. The power to define corporate vehicles lies with Westminster, so that option is not available to us at present, nor is the power to alter insolvency arrangements. However, we do have the opportunity to build on the community right to buy that is enshrined in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, which the Government proposed be extended to urban areas. That right to buy is based on the idea that land may be bought from landowners when it is demonstrated that to do so would be clearly in the public interest.

For our football clubs that are owned by transient or absentee masters, many of the same public interest arguments apply. Most clubs have dedicated and committed owners but could still benefit from greater community ownership and involvement to ensure that long-term success is the ultimate goal.

There are plenty of options available, such as a right for fans to buy at the point of sale; fans’ right to a say when clubs are being sold or go into administration, which could incentivise potential buyers to offer fans trust shares or seats on the board; a right to buy at an independently assessed price at any time; or a right to buy a proportion of shares when fans cannot or do not want to own the whole club.

Scottish Greens released the results of polling today that demonstrates massive support. Of those who expressed a view, 72 per cent support there being a fans’ right to buy their clubs at any time, and an even larger 87 per cent supported there being a fans’ right to buy at point of sale. Those rights could be enabled through legislative amendments that would broaden our understanding of community assets from just land and physical assets to other assets that have significant common good.

The most straightforward way for progress to be made on supporting fan ownership would be if the sports’ governing bodies were to enshrine it within the terms of their membership codes. I am sure that many would warmly welcome any moves that the SPFL and the Scottish Football Association made to support fans who have solid business models.

Government financial support can also provide the opportunity for successful models to flourish. Our proposals provide something as important as money to fans who are looking to take over clubs: belief and opportunity. These proposals create a great goal-scoring opportunity to be taken by all the fans who want to do the work. I hope that the cabinet secretary can offer those fans, clubs and communities firm support.

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Ind): I, too, congratulate Alison Johnstone on bringing the debate to the chamber and the cabinet secretary on her new appointment. I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests and the various references to Heart of Midlothian Football Club therein.

There are different sorts of communities. There are geographic communities and communities of interest. People talk about local clubs. My local club is the Lochaber Camanachd shinty team. The football team that I support is the team that my father supported—Heart of Midlothian. I come from rural Lochaber and I have a real affinity with the land. That is expressed in ways that would not necessarily be meaningful to anyone who is not from the area. People talk about where the deer go, the big rock that we used to play on and where big Davy lives up the glen.

There are significant issues around land ownership in the Highlands, which have similarities to the topic that we are discussing. In the song “Homeland”, Dougie MacLean sings:

“Now you’ve bought a little piece of something

That you don’t understand and you’ve misunderstood”.

The other community to which I belong is the community of Hearts fans. If I say things like “Fozzie on the fence”, “Tommy Murray sitting on the ball” and “Robbo’s 27 goals”, that paints a vivid and exciting picture for many, although I suspect that those phrases are meaningless to non-Jambos such as Alison Johnstone. There was outrage when a previous owner of our club changed the badge and when an abbreviation was used on the players’ socks that did not reflect the abbreviation that the fans used. Fans have the attitude,

“Yes Sir you may have paid good money for it but no it’ll

never belong to you”.

I am a member of the Foundation of Hearts and various other groups that have combined, and I have two lots of shares—my only dip in the waters of capitalism. Both of them are with Heart of Midlothian, which is not a lucrative investment, as members may imagine. I have two lots of shares but only one certificate because the second lot of money was appropriated by someone who is presently a fugitive from justice, shall we say, to pay the tax—and I think that it is important to pay the tax. The shares have zero monetary value but they have a big emotional value.

The Foundation of Hearts is a not-for-profit organisation that was created in 2010 by a group of lifelong Hearts fans. I quote its objective from its website:

“We have a shared and passionate vision for the future which is based on bringing Heart of Midlothian back to the people who are truly passionate about this wonderful club—the fans.”

The foundation has been joined by various other groups and has been supported by Supporters Direct. We are also ably supported by our chair, Ian Murray MP.

Patricia Ferguson mentioned the co-operative movement. Supporters Direct helps fans to set up democratic co-operatives that are known as supporters’ trusts with the express purpose of gaining influence over the running and ownership of their clubs. In the “About” section of its website, under the heading “Why we exist”, Supporters Direct states:

“We exist because we are needed: The game can be better run and should be more responsive to the needs of its fans and local communities.”

A number of genuine football clubs have been mentioned. Dundee Football Club and Dunfermline Athletic Football Club have been in difficulty, and fans from my club have helped them out. Ross County fans travelled free of charge to the game in Edinburgh on Saturday courtesy of the generosity of their club, although there was a whip-round on every bus and an extremely generous donation was made to the club. There is a warmth across fans. The motion talks about being responsible, and I think that fans would abide by the state’s rules—taxes would be paid on time; local suppliers and staff would be paid on time; and staff and customers would be respected—and they would certainly abide by football’s rules. For all the trauma that is associated with the fans, the fans have never cheated, although individuals may have done.

There has been a lot of talk about the various models, and I hear Graeme Dey’s wise words of caution. Those are words that every group considers when it considers fan ownership, but they are the same words that would have been said to the Assynt crofters: “Ye cannae dae it.” They are the words that would have been said to people on the isles of Eigg and Gigha, but those are positive examples of what can be done.

The Foundation of Hearts states its objective as being

“to ensure a stable financial future where all funds generated by the club,”

the Foundation of Hearts

“and the fans are reinvested in the football club.”

That is responsible, sustainable and stable.

I am grateful that we have had the opportunity to discuss the motion.