The Supporters Trust is now up and running and will soon elect its first Board. The administration crisis has been resolved and the Club has sufficient funds to operate for the rest of this season and hopefully all of next, helped along of course by Ray and team's magnificent achievement in the Cup. But...the real issue remains unresolved: how do we secure Vicarage Rd for future generations?
Well, the best way to address this issue is by being realistic. Firstly, it's a long-term objective; secondly, it's achievable; and thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it's achievable only if the fans and the directors of WFC work in close partnership with one another toward that common goal.
This requires a new and different relationship to be established between the two.
I have been following the Watford Observer on the progress of the Supporters' Trust and the response of the board to it. In particular I've been surprised by the board's insistence on such a high membership/shareholding level as a condition for having an elected representative director. Especially when you compare the achievement at Watford with one of the few Trusts to have a higher membership. Leicester City have a much bigger fan base than ours and their crisis was very much deeper and yet they have approximately one thousand more members only. If you compare Trust membership figures as a percentage of the total number of season ticket holders theirs is approximately 25% whilst ours is approximately 20%. In other words the achievement at Watford is an extremely significant one.
Having said that I'm surprised, we have not done this before and everyone is learning as they go along. There will be understandable anxiety from some directors about the prospect of the door being opened for the first time and a little more transparency introduced as a result. However, I think the experience of other trusts with directors on the board ought to alleviate some of those fears.
It's very interesting to look at the journey made by Northampton Town Trust, one of the first Trusts. The experience there has been that in spite of fears and anxieties at the outset, having a supporter representative has brought about a situation, which Brian Lomax (the current representative) describes as "a feeling that everyone was now engaged in a common enterprise, rather than 'them' and 'us'". The representative's participation in the decision making process has resulted in an end to the old suspicions and divisions. That doesn't mean there aren't disagreements - of course there are - but the board has to take into account the fans' needs, at every stage and so a lot of potential conflict and misunderstanding is avoided.
This is in marked contrast to the early days when Northampton fans were saying that "The directors seem to believe that a seat on the board should be justified through financial commitment to the club. They conveniently forget the money that supporters put into the club via ticket sales". Brian also writes about the other advantages that representation on the board and its effects have achieved at his club. Increased attendances, the ways in which fans were enabled to play an active part, bringing their expertise and their commitment to bear not only in terms of fund raising but also in terms of their role in enhancing the club's standing and activity within the community.
He outlines some of the key factors that supporter representation has that makes it significantly superior to any purely consultative process, no matter how helpful, interesting and informative that process may be.
- Firstly, such representation is executive, the elected individual is not non-voting, does not have observer status only, but is registered at Companies House and has full entitlement to all board meetings in their entirety, and to all written and financial information available to other directors. The representative also has to take on board the responsibilities of the role, including any requirements for confidentiality. In other words the position is neither symbolic nor token. The elected director plays an active and constructive part in the decision making process, at the highest level.
- Secondly, the selection of the individual must be a truly democratic one, one member one vote, subject to recall once a year. This ensures that Trust members can have full confidence in their representative. It also ensures that other directors can be absolutely sure that the individual represents the views of the members and thus has a legitimate place.
- Thirdly, the position must be entrenched, that is it cannot be set aside at the whim of the board, either because of a change in personnel or because the representative says or does something they don't like or fails to come up with a sum of money requested. This ensures continuity, a scarce commodity at most football clubs!
- Finally, the position must be independent, the representative and the Trust retaining the right to criticise, but only when all other avenues have failed.
So the experience at Northampton is that supporter representation has produced significant commercial and social advantages for the club. Brian says: "Northampton Town Supporters Trust would strongly recommend that every football club should have elected supporter representation on the board of directors. Not only is it right, but it also works".
I hope and expect that the current memberships and shareholding figures will be reduced to a more realistic level as discussions continue. Not only because as a supporter I want a proper voice where it counts but also because the Northampton experience shows that it will benefit everyone, even those directors who may be a little fearful at first. You really cannot put a price on what the fans have to bring to the table.
Ultimately, of course, the Trust is only as strong as its members. If we are asking Graham Simpson and his colleagues to put aside old perceptions and open the door to us then surely we too must abandon the cynicism, about the directors and about each other? Perhaps that's as much (or more) of a challenge as raising £6m? If we can't or won't cast aside the old divisions, then Brian's image of a common enterprise and our dream of securing the ground may never be realised.
I'm confident that we can do both. Come on you 'Orns!