Should the Canaries take a leaf out of Pompey’s book and become a supporters-owned club?
PUBLISHED: 11:43 17 March 2017 | UPDATED: 14:06 17 March 2017
Is it time for Norwich City to consider becoming a supporters-owned club, asks Nick Conrad.
Sitting in the Barclay for the Blackburn match was like attending my local library rather than a football game.
Lots of people were there. However, at times, you could have heard a pin drop. Frustrated fans showed their clearest dissent through the occasional chant of disapproval and then at other times through their haunting silence. The hierarchy at the club couldn’t have helped but notice the chill in the air.
But whatever grievances the City faithful have had this season pale into insignificance in comparison to our visitors. I lived in the North West for many years and know first hand the passion of Blackburn’s fans. Blackburn’s travelling band of ‘very un-merry men and women’ must have been chuckling away at the demi-protest from the home support.
The long-suffering Lancastrians, in some commentators’ views, have become the textbook example of bad ownership. Venky’s are foreign owners, heading a consortium. Norwich have joint-owners. The two contrasting set-ups with a fast, similar outpouring of frustration gives me the excuse to rake over different models of club ownership...
The real issue in both cases can be summed up in one word - results. It’s worth remembering it’s the same board (minus the chairman and one member) which delivered four seasons of Premier League football for Norwich City. Rovers can’t rely on historic goodwill - it is six years since Venky’s, an Indian poultry firm, took over Blackburn, with great fanfare. The Rao family arrived amid bullish talk of delivering big stars. They promised to “think big, aim high” and “absolute respect for the legacy of Jack Walker”, the local benefactor whose largesse helped the club win the Premier League in 1994-95.
Instead, the majority of Rover’s loyal fans feel the food giant’s arrival ushered in an era of misery and turmoil. Along with Hull, Cardiff, Leeds and Nottingham Forest, Blackburn occupy a place in English football’s ever-expanding hall of shame. This category is purely the creation of fans, a collection of great clubs who’ve fallen on hard times, which is used to demonstrate the complexities of overseas investment in the beautiful game.
One Blackburn fan outside the ground (Mark from Chorley) reminded a few Canaries how bad it could be. His assessment ignited a frank exchange about the ‘perfect model’ of ownership. The billionaire backer with deep pockets vs the community-run concern with fans on the board. The conclusion, rather unrealistically, was a combination of both.
Few who invest in football see it as a viable business in its own right. Very often clubs are the token part of a wider business portfolio. Here might be Venky’s downfall. The board hoped that by buying Blackburn Rovers (then in the Premier League) the spotlight would help increase sales of their poultry products across the Western World. It most certainly increased their profile. In some cases when the initial investment and business plan doesn’t succeed some owners’ enthusiasm can cool. But can you blame them? It must feel like burning cash.
Does Portsmouth have the answer? Portsmouth became the largest fan-owned club in the country in April 2013 when the Portsmouth Supporters Trust bought the club for more than £3 million from the administrators. The new Pompey is built around the long-term viability of the business which runs the operation.
The club is owned by a supporters’ group. This ensures that at the heart of the club are its most valuable and long-term investors: the fans. There was plenty of cynicism for ‘fan ownership’ but now many clubs are looking at this model more seriously.
There are huge obstacles to overcome. Consulting passionate shareholders must, at times, be like herding cats. And supporters’ groups also tend to have shallow pockets, not the cash reserves aspiring Championship clubs need.
But ask many fans of troubled clubs if they’d swap riches for rags in their boardroom and you might be surprised by their answer. Fans are wise to the trappings of ‘bags of cash’ ownership. The supporters are the best custodians of the club; they understand its history and care about its future more than anyone else. The irony here is that all those on the Norwich board happen to be big fans too!