By Matt Badcock
A group of people each paying £49 to own a Non-League football club and make every decision? For now, you’ll have to file the majority of us under sceptical.
Among the promises on the OWNAFC website, once the decision of which club to takeover has been voted on, subscribers can expect to: Make new signings, hire and fire staff, negotiate contracts, set admission prices, full financial control, select the squad, plan training sessions and make history. Owners will call the shots via an app on their mobile phones.
Northern Premier League Premier Division club Hednesford Town – who are up for sale and debt free – are the main target with OWNAFC founder Stuart Harvey having already attended games and met officials. In an interview with BBC Sport, Harvey explains his vision of allowing people to live out their dream of owning a football club and taking the game back to the people.
“It replaces the boardroom nonsense we see at many clubs with the people that matter,” he says.
There’s nothing wrong with that and a glance across English football’s landscape shows there is a lot to be desired when it comes to some of the ownership of clubs in this country.
But even the less observant will point out that an online community taking on a team is essentially an updated version of MyFootballClub, who took over Ebbsfleet United in 2008.
Again the promise was the chance to live out the real-life version of Football Manager. Membership numbers topped 27,000, initially it saved Fleet and there was an FA Trophy win at Wembley.
But, with no vote on the actual picking of Liam Daish’s team – the big selling point – and perhaps the lack of a star name club, renewals dwindled. Eventually the Kent club were running on empty, bargaining with clubs who had sell-on fees with players, like Stevenage with Michael Bostwick, to bring in quick revenue before they eventually dropped out of Non-League’s top flight in 2013 on the brink of non-existence before being taken over again.
Harvey says it is, “… giving people a second club to grow to love – for the football fan who is out priced in the modern game.”
If it is Hednesford, what about their fans? The people actually going to games every week. Suddenly the big decisions, all the decisions, are being decided by a majority vote by people who have may never heard of the Pitmen, despite their illustrious Non-League past.
How much they pay to watch their team, who signs, who doesn’t, and, potentially, who plays can be signed off at the click of a button by somebody on the other side of the world waiting in the queue at McDonalds for a burger.
To those who follow football from the top, where anything outside of the Manchester Uniteds, Liverpools, Real Madrids and Barcelonas barely exists, Non-League football maybe does seem a bit inconsequential and somehow less important.
But ask anyone at this level if it matters. These clubs are part of people’s lives. Football at this level isn’t a giggle. They may be fewer in numbers, but to supporters those three points on a Saturday mean just as much in the Evo-Stik Premier as they do in the Premier League. For players, what happens on and off the pitch can impact the rest of their career. The club’s long-term sustainability is hopefully a responsibility that will be underlined to any ‘OWNAs’ should it go through.
Running a football club through a mobile phone isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. There are rules and regulations to be adhered and there needs to be a long-term plan.
Any takeover will have to be signed off by the authorities and you’d hope robust questions are asked and business plans are poured over.
A football club as a plaything will make many people uncomfortable. Maybe it will work and others will follow. As the headline on OWNAFC’s website asks, ‘Do you have what it takes to run a real football club?’ Time will tell.