There’s a financial crisis at an English football club. No, it’s not the obvious candidate of Newcastle United, where Mike Ashley has only just begun to attend games again after the police warned him about threats to his well-being. Not Chelsea, where the Russian oligarch owner seems to hemorrhage billions a day and the English red tops openly challenge that his interest in the SW6 outfit is dropping just as quickly. I’m talking the biggest, most important purchase of 2008: Ebbsfleet United Football Club.
The Blue Square Premiership outfit was the football feel good story of the 2008. After generations of supporters chanting “Sack the board,”“Owners OUT!” and “You don’t know what you’re doing,” over 53,000 myfootballclub.co.uk members joined the cause, decided to put their money where their mouth was, and buy a club. That’s really where the warning signs started to show.
Will Brooks, the creator of myfootballclub.co.uk figured that 50,000 members would establish a war chest of £1.3 million to use toward establishing ownership of a club. While official membership numbers topped 53,000 only about 30,000 eventually ponied up the cash (£35) to make it happen. In fact, when it came time to actually vote on the purchase of “The Fleet,” MyFootballClub.co.uk boasted over 95% support. But that was only 95% of about 18,000 voting members. Only about 35% of the actual members of MyFootballClub.co.uk showed the staying power to actually vote.
Nevertheless, hysteria ran high around the Ebbsfleet purchase, buoyed by press coverage unprecedented for a club so far down the English football league system. With promises of votes to choose everything from kit supplier (Nike decided that the grassroots movement was too good for a multinational to pass up and voters lapped up the offer a swoosh-laden kit) to selecting the weekly lineup, fans of “real football” jumped on board to the tune of 30,000 members. The club even went out and earned their first trip to Wembley, winning the FA Trophy in the process. Emotions were running high.
However, simple math points out that while 30,000 paid up supporters is impressive and almost twice as many as voted for the initial take over, it is still 40% short of the 50,000+ who agreed to pay up before money was actually expected. “Own the club, pick the team” was the rallying cry for owning members, but apparently fewer than 500 actually participated in the vote to decide who gets to pick the team. Thankfully, gaffer Liam Daish was spared the blushes of managerial emasculation, but more concerning is the undeniable fact that the sincerity of the MyFootballClub.co.uk owners was, pardon the pun, “fleeting” from the start.
The Ebbsfleet experiment is now just a shade over a year old. It’s time for owners to renew their membership. Instead of funds, however, it appears that excuses seem to be flowing in.
No doubt, we’re going to hear those two words everyone is sick and tired of hearing: “credit” and “crunch.” The global financial phenomenon that reduced Ashley to only hundreds of millions of pounds, and Roman Abramovich to his last handful of billions will legitimately cost little Ebbsfleet some of its owners. Especially at this time of year, with Christmas bills still sitting in the “to pay” file, finding an extra £35 can be a little tricky. But it would be disingenuous to blame the drop in support entirely on finances. Clearly, the club with a revolutionary ownership scheme is little more than the Christmas puppy who grew up. The novelty has worn off and it just doesn’t seem so cute anymore. If not for the international press, I bet that less than 1% of owners had even heard of Ebbsfleet United before MyFootballClub.co.uk started throwing the name around, and far fewer would have gone so far as to name “the fleet” as their favorite, or even one of their “pet clubs”. The interest was in owning “a” club, not Ebbsfleet, and now that’s it’s time pay up, far too many fair weather fans are abandoning the Fleet.
It is true that the initial purchase helped Ebbsfleet United cover a £500,000 debt, but the false dawn of the irresponsible of the MyFootballClub.co.uk venture has now left the club in a dangerous position of being too big for its budget. If MyFootballClub.co.uk walks away, it will be the Fleet that needs to do some heavy financial bailing. Before long, Ebbsfleet will be back to the financial dire straits it faced just a year ago. With a misleading financial package at the basis of its budget, it won’t be long before they’re in more trouble than ever before.
In the meantime, the MyFootballClub.co.uk “owners” can all get together for a rousing chorus of “We don’t know what we’re doing!” If you can find enough of them.