Trust issues

Can supporters save Bolton Wanderers from financial oblivion?

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The emergence of a supporters trust has given hope to Bolton Wanderers, the once proud football club that now stands on the point of administration.

Bolton Wanderers Supporters Trust (BWFCST), which has more than 6,000 members despite only being set up a month ago, wants to buy the debt-ridden club using a model that many hope could save other financially troubled sides.

Despite mourning the loss of longstanding chairman Phil Gartside, who died from cancer earlier this week, some Wanderers fans believe there are tentative signs of hope for the club, particularly as seven points from the last three league games has lifted them off the foot of the table for the first time since November.

At the start of this year, Wanderers – a Premier League side just four years ago – were crippled by debt of almost £200 million, with no prospective buyer and monthly costs of £1 million.

Last November, Gartside instructed football finance executive Trevor Birch to find a buyer for the beleaguered club, and the need to do so only intensified.

In January the club avoided an immediate winding up order by the High Court for an unpaid £2.2 million tax bill.

It has until 22 Feb to resolve the situation by finding a rescue scheme, raising significant funds or concluding a sale.

BWFCST held its first meeting on 6 Jan and received its official registration nine days later.

By the end of January, it officially stated its intent: to lead a takeover of the club, in partnership with local institutions and businesses, and secure the club’s future for the benefit of supporters, community and the town.

“The members of the BWFCST Steering Group are humbled by the numbers of supporters pledging their support.”

The attendance of 1,000 people at its inaugural meeting and support it has received in its infancy has been extraordinary, but not surprising, according to BWFCST steering group spokesman Ian Bridge.

“The members of the BWFCST Steering Group are humbled by the numbers of supporters pledging their support, and the enthusiasm is shared by many former Wanderers players,” he says.

“More and more are coming forward on a daily basis to get behind the trust’s efforts, and this support is crucial.”

Each member is pledging £10 to support the club and, although everyone involved knows things could get worse before they get better, there is hope.

The period from registration to AGM and trust board elections is usually around six months. But with the guidance of Supporters’ Direct, the trust is trying to accelerate that process.

Bridge hopes the election can take place within six weeks and that could mean that an elected trust board is in place in three to four months.

“We are moving as quickly as possible to firstly enable supporters to turn their pledges into full membership status by making payment,” he says.

“Once members have been registered, we will be able to commence the trust board election process.”

The death of Gartside has cast a long shadow over the club, with executives and former players offering condolences to a man who oversaw some of the club’s most successful times and darkest hours.

Taking over as chair in 1999, Gartside oversaw 11 seasons in the Premier League between 2001 and 2012, three successive top eight finishes and European ties with Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid.

But despite appearing established in the top flight, it all came crashing down for Wanderers on the final day of the 2012 season when they were relegated by a single point.

Since then it’s been a steady decline for Bolton – each year their debt rising, and results in the second tier deteriorating, finishing seventh, fourteenth and most recently eighteenth in the last three Championship campaigns.

 The club is facing having to sell prized assets to remain afloat

With an unsustainably high player wage bill and dwindling Premier League parachute payments, the club is facing having to sell prized assets to remain afloat – a car park here, a training ground there, possibly even the stadium and hotel to follow.

Regardless of whether Bolton preserve their Championship status, which is no guarantee, big changes are needed off the pitch, Bridge says.

“If BWFC can avoid relegation, that would be great.

“It is generally accepted that the Championship is probably the most challenging of all the divisions from a financial point of view.

“But whatever division we are in next season, there will need to be some major restructuring works undertaken. This work will be crucial to the future of the club and must be undertaken no matter which division we are in next season.”

The trust, supported by former Bolton players Kevin Davies, Nathan Blake and Henrik Pedersen, has appointed John McGinlay as its first ambassador, and has pledged to work only with those committed to bringing the club back to the community.

“Working together with like-minded institutions, business and individuals we can put our club back at the heart of our community,” the trust says.

“The trust is being established to allow the fans to have a say in the future of their club and the chance to become involved in this is massive.”

According to researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Centre for the Study of Football, the key to the trust’s success could lie with how the organisation copes in these formative stages.

“It matters how it starts as to how it finishes,” says the centre’s Dr Annabel Kiernan.

“It’s important to get the structures, constitution and decision-making processes right at the outset. From my own point of view, internal democracy is vital but actually difficult to achieve – the fans’ voices must be heard effectively and inform the strategy of whatever board emerges.”

Kiernan says it is important to understand whether the system will be one-member-one-vote or if more investment can buy more influence.

Additionally, establishing a working relationship with fans, integrating them into the decision-making process and clearly defining “community interest” are key to making progress, she says.

Supporter ownership and meaningful supporter stakeholding are a serious option now, thanks in part to the work of Supporters Direct, according to Kiernan.

The Bolton model has a precedent at Portsmouth, which also suffered financial difficulties but was rescued by supporters

Portsmouth’s Pompey Trust has been advising BWFCST, with its chairman Ashley Brown telling Bolton supporters that there is a “real possibility” of saving and owning their club.

Kiernan believes these relatively new business and ownership models are emerging because of the failure of current football finance structures and governance, and the amount of debt clubs have.

“Success can be very short-lived and then the weaknesses become very clear.”

“Success can mitigate some of the uncomfortable detachment that this kind of casino football can have from local fans and local communities,” she says.

“But as we all know success can be very short-lived and then the weaknesses in the ownership, management and player wages structures become very clear.”

In the case of a club like Bolton, which relies on a network of local support, the meltdown of the club is more than a sporting loss, according to Dr Anthony May of the Centre for the Study of Football.

“A popular local institution will be lost if the club does get wound up – local identity is particularly important to fans of clubs like Bolton.”

“The fans who have pledged their support to BWFCST are supporting more than a football club or a business model, they are supporting the town itself.”

Photo: John Naylor

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