These are interesting times in the evolution of football clubs owned by their fans. AFC Wimbledon – a club very much seen as the posters boys for the fan power movement — recently rose to their highest position in the football league and in their history, above their nemesis Milton Keynes Dons in the process too. This story was widely reported in the national media and was celebrated by many neutral football supporters as a triumph for good versus evil. However, ignoring the AFC Wimbledon/MK Dons debate for now, the rise of AFC Wimbledon in particular has very much given hope to the fan ownership model about what can actually be achieved without Russian Oligarchs, Middle eastern Sheiks and rich businessmen just pumping money in .However, there can also be pitfalls for the fan ownership model too. Whilst things currently look very rosy for AFC Wimbledon, elsewhere in English football the future for some fan owned clubs isn’t as clear cut.
AFC Telford United and FC United of Manchester are two such fan owned clubs who are experiencing a crossroads in their history. Both clubs are currently residing in the National League North, two promotions from the Football League, both having rapidly risen through the Non-Leagues but very much under two very different circumstances. Back in 2004 Telford United FC were very much a club on the up and up and a club that had Football League aspirations and a support base to match those aspirations. The Shropshire club were enjoying life in their new home at New Bucks Head when suddenly towards the end of the 2003/2004 season their whole world came crashing down with one almighty bump. The Telford United chairman at the time, Andy Shaw, was also the owner of Miras, the company who bankrolled Telford United. Unfortunately when Miras went bust the football club was like a ship suddenly without its captain and its wheel. The news rocked everyone who was involved in the running of Telford United, not only because many never saw it coming, but because suddenly the football club had big debts and a high wage bill they just couldn’t sustain without the financial input of Miras. All of sudden there was also a very real threat that the football club wouldn’t be able to fulfil the rest of its fixtures as every player was put on the transfer list and told they were free to leave and find other club. As for the supporters, they were left in the dark whether they would have a club to support ever again. Fortunately for the supporters of Telford United the club did struggle on to the end of that season, but in the summer of 2004 Telford United went under and suddenly football in Telford looked gone forever, 114 years after Wellington Town, the former name of Telford United, had played their first ever match in 1890.
If all looked lost for the supporters and communities of Telford and Wellington, the council and the people who held the club so dear their hearts weren’t about to let football end in this corner of Shropshire just yet. After meetings with the council and members of the Telford United Supporters trust that summer, a new football club AFC Telford United was born and a new way forward for football to thrive and survive in Telford was mapped out between all interested parties. The council also managed to secure the ownership of the stadium which was crucial to getting the new club up and running. Lee Carter and Mark Donovan were two such supporters whose involved in the supporters trust played key roles in setting up a new club with the assistance of the council. The Football Association placed AFC Telford United in the Northern Premier League Division One(NPLD1), four leagues away from the Football Conference where Telford United had been playing before their demise. A third placed finish and Playoff success in their first season in the NPLD1 meant promotion in their very first season, and two more promotions in the next six seasons had the people of Telford and surrounding areas flocking back to the New Bucks Head as success just kept coming the way of the new club. By 2011, just seven years after the new club were formed, AFC Telford were back playing in the top tier of Non-League football the Conference National. It was a memorable and proud day for the Trust and council who refused to just let football in Telford cease.
In their first season back in the Conference National in 2011/12, the new club finished in 20th position which should have meant relegation back to the Conference North, but the demise of Hereford United and Salisbury City that season meant AFC Telford had a stay of execution and began life the following season still playing in the Conference National. Unfortunately, the following season the football club finished dead last and were this time relegated. The club managed to bounce back at the first attempt by winning the Conference North title at the end of the 2013/14 season, but again life back in Conference National was a struggle and they finished in 23rd position which meant a second relegation in three seasons at the end of the 2014/15 campaign.
Despite the ups and downs on the field in their short history, off the pitch the Telford United Supporters trust have the run the club with great success since its re-birth in the summer of 2004. However, without any outside investment coming into the club there can be a limit on what can be achieved on the field when you’re ambitious to move forward as a club but revenue steams dry up or attendances start to drop off. In October 2016 with the club needing to raise £25,000 and another £25,000 the following month, members of he Supporters Trust voted in favour of selling their shares to the football club which would open up the club to outside investment for the first time since the original club went bust after relying on the cash of Andy Shaw and Miras . What this means for the future of AFC Telford United is hard to judge at this point, but the survival of football in Telford again hangs in the balance not for the first time this century.
As for FC United of Manchester(FCUM) the picture is very different one to that of AFC Telford. Despite moving into their new home Broadhurst Park at the start of last season, a crucial move which would allow the club to move forward off the pitch and start to create their own revenue steams, the later half of their first season in their new home was overshadowed by board room battles and power struggles making the headlines for all the wrong reasons. After promotion to the Conference North was finally achieved by winning the Northern Premier League at the end of the 2014/2015 season, Karl Marginson and the players have found life at the higher level a tough test but eventually managed to secure their survival their first season in the higher level. This start of this season has also been a mixed bag on the pitch, however off the pitch the all to recent clashes in the board room have been a dark cloud over the Moston skies. Andy Walsh, the now former General Manager of FCUM, stepped down at end of 2015/16 season and he has recently been followed by other members of the board who disagree with the way the club is moving forward and the direction it’s taking. Many supporters have also openly questioned the board on message boards and other social media platforms, which has also seem some supporters also openly questioning if manager Karl Marginson, who has been in the dugout since the birth of FCUM, is still the man to keep the club on an upward trajectory. The other worry for FCUM has been a recent drop in attendances at Broadhurst Park, still comfortable higher than many clubs at their level mind you, but not as high as the Halcyon days when 3000 plus would regularly stream through the gates at Gigg Lane, their formed shared home. Going forward the future of FCUM will still very much rely on the supporter ownership model, and unlike AFC Telford, the 3640 current members who each hold a share and not about to relinquish that control anytime soon despite the off field trails and tribulations.
In an interesting twist of fate FC United recently made the journey to the New Bucks Head to clash with AFC Telford United in the National League North fixture as the supporters and owners of AFC Telford got the buckets back out agin in the hope of raising some much needed funds.
Saturday 15th October 2016 – National League North – AFC Telford United 1 v 0 FC United of Manchester – New Bucks Head – Att : 1706
The message on the front cover of the programme told its own story. “Thank you, On behalf of the board of directors I would like to thank you all for all of your support. We need football in Telford, you can help us keep it” It was a simple message but one that painted a picture of a club once again needing help from its supporters and local community much like it had done in those dark days of April 2004. The New Bucks Head is a fantastic facility and a ground more than capable to hosting football as a much higher level than step 6. AFC Telford, with regular attendances of between 1200 and 1500, are a well supported club at step 6, but recent cash flow problems and an actual drop in attendances has forced the hand of the Trust board to find a possible alternative to their fan ownership and community model.
The National League North is a strong league this season with the likes of AFC Fylde, Salford City, Darlington 1883, Halifax Town, Kidderminster Harriers and Stockport County all in the mix along side both FCUM and AFC Telford. AFC Fylde currently lead the way at the top, whilst these two clubs came into the fixture struggling in the wrong half of the National League North, FCUM lying in 14th place having gained 14 points from their 13 games, and AFC Telford down in 19th position having gained two points less.
The buckets had already been shaken and walked around the ground as the game got underway in the late autumn sunshine. A first half that produced very little in the way of quality would have been quickly forgotten by the healthy crowd of 1706. The home side went the closest to breaking the deadlock with a header that rattled off the crossbar. A few tasty challenges had the home crowd calling for the referee to take action as players squared up to each other. During the half time break the PA announcer informed the biggest New Bucks Head crowd of the season that they had collected a four figure amount of money from their collections, A loud cheers went around the ground and I’m sure it would have helped lift the home side as they began the second half with a spring in their steps.
FC United looked dangerous going forward when winger Jerome Wright had the ball at his feet, but his first chance that came early in the second half after a great ball over the top played him in on goal, was superbly blocked by a Telford defender. Tom Greaves was the next to go close for United when his shot smacked against the crossbar. The home side defended well throughout though, and when their chance came they took it. A superb cross was volleyed home by Connor McCarthy who did well to arrow his shot beyond the drive of FCUM’s shot stopper David Carnell. Carnell was having an excellent game between the posts and he had to be at his best do deny Sean Williams when he sprang the offside trap and was one on one with Carnell. Wright was still causing Telford defenders problems as the game drifted to its conclusion but again he was to denied when his goal bound shot was saved on the line to the frustration of 300 plus traveling fans. The last action of the game saw FCUM sub Dale Johnson received a straight red card for a nasty elbow.
It was frustrating and sour ending to the game for FCUM who had, had the chances to leave Shropshire with at least a point but ultimately it wasn’t to be their day. The home side collected the three points, which along with the bucket collections, was a welcome boast to morale and their finances.
Where AFC Telford go from here off the pitch will depend much of the ability to raise the much needed funds in the uncertain weeks and months ahead. The fans, the real guardians of the club, will hope the fan owned community model can continue to grow but that looks increasing unlikely at this point in time. The real worry for the Trust is if they cant’t raise the funds, where and whom do they turn to next?