Why Supporters and Supporters’ Trusts Matter

by James A. Chisem, Huddersfield Town Supporters Association

When I first started thinking about what I wanted to say in this article, I gravitated towards providing a bureaucratic overview of the modern supporters’ trust movement, covering the key organisations and structures. I was going to discuss the Football Supporters’ Federation (FSF), Supporters’ Direct (SD), Football Supporters Europe (FSE), and how they all relate to football clubs, football supporters, football’s various governing bodies, and one another.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that this might not be everybody’s cup of tea. And I’m quite keen to avoid becoming the man who made football boring. That, as we all know, is Jose Mourinho’s job, and for the most part he excels at it.

I mentioned these concerns to our Co-Chair, Emily, and she agreed. Instead, she suggested that I should start by outlining my own idealised vision of what football governance should look like.

But again, the more I thought about it, the more I realised that this wouldn’t be appropriate either.

Football fans are nothing if not nostalgic. For better or worse, we seem to be drawn to the past, like moths to flames. Every supporter is a historian in some way or another, and football has generated and continues to generate more historiographical controversies than most wars. And like most wars, it has its orthodoxies and those who defend them, as well as an army of revisionists and post-revisionists waiting in the wings, ready to demolish those orthodoxies given half a chance.

History is important in football—some people, rightly or wrongly, view it as being more important than the present and the future. That’s why, when Nottingham Forest play any Yorkshire or Welsh club, they’re met with chants of “Scab!” and “You let the miners down!” That’s why MK Dons are the most hated club in England and Wales. After all, they’re guilty of the worst sin of all—they have no history. That’s why teenaged Town fans sing “all the while upon the field of play, thousands gladly cheer them on their way” to the tune of ‘Till We Meet Again’, an American song written in 1918 that tells the story of a lovesick soldier and his expectant sweetheart.

With this in mind, I want to touch upon two fragments of Huddersfield Town’s history, and use them to highlight, one, the symbolic function of football clubs as working-class or community institutions, and two, the central importance of supporters’ trusts in protecting and promoting these institutions and the complex ecosystem that surrounds them.

I

So, let’s start with fragment number one.

As most of you no doubt know, Huddersfield Town Association Football Club was founded in 1908, and by the Grace of God, we were admitted to the Football League just two years later. What’s less well known is that in 1919 the club was facing liquidation due to spiralling debts incurred during the construction of the old Leeds Road stadium and the then Board’s questionable interpretation of the F.A.’s maximum wage rules.

But there’s an unusual twist in this story, one that seems utterly mad to those of us who were born and raised in the West Riding. You see, Town’s money troubles coincided with the expulsion of Leeds City from the Football League due to, and I quote, “financial irregularities.”

Proof enough that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Anyhow, the people of Leeds soon came up with a proposal to raise Leeds United Football Club, phoenix like, from the ashes of Leeds City. There was, however, a problem. If United were to form as an entirely new entity, they would have to work their way up from the bottom, which meant playing in the Midland League, before applying for election to the Football League in due course.

The only way to avoid the rigmarole of election, was to, in the words of Jim Brown, “piggy-back on another club.” Ever the pragmatists, Town’s main benefactors and owners, the Crowther family, smelled an opportunity and soon initiated secret talks with their counterparts at Elland Road with the aim of “[transferring] the Town club in its entirety over to Leeds.”

When news of the talks leaked, the club’s hierarchy were taken aback by the scale of the public backlash. The Examiner went with the rather dramatic headline ‘Town Club Dead’, and from that moment, the campaign to save professional football in Huddersfield took root and gathered momentum.

The only way to achieve that goal was to pay off the Crowthers and buy a controlling stake in the club. From the off, local businessmen, captains of industry, and civic dignitaries rallied around the cause, pooling their resources, tapping up their contacts, and calling in long overdue favours. Public meetings were called, telegrams were sent, and local cinemas were commandeered to show slides packed with explanatory charts and graphs.

Protests, both spontaneous and planned, popped up across Huddersfield and the Colne Valley, while fund raising efforts began in earnest. Several dozen supporters even invaded the pitch at Leeds Road and demanded an explanation from the occupants of the directors’ box perched above the main stand. The next day, thousands of locals turned up at the stadium in search of the same thing.

On every street corner, people ran the risk of being accosted by enthusiastic campaigners asking for £1 in return for a share in the club. According to some accounts, St George’s Square was particularly bothersome, plagued as it was by a gauntlet of determined bucket shakers. For the most part, though, the dutiful citizens of Huddersfield were only too happy to part with their hard-earned cash, their ever-dwindling time, or both.

Confronted by the prospect of yet another Leodensian incursion, they turned out in record numbers to back their town’s team, and in the space of a month or so, Leeds Road saw attendances double. By June 1920, enough money had been raised to persuade the Crowther family to sell up, which they duly did. Amos Brook Hirst and his backers took over the Board, Hilton Crowther jumped ship to Leeds, and Huddersfield Town went on to become the first team to win the English First Division three times in a row, adding an F.A. Cup to the trophy cabinet on the way.

And wouldn’t that be a pleasant end to the story? It would, but as Hegel once observed, all historical facts and figures appear at least twice; “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”, as Marx would later add.

II

Hence, fragment number two.

In 2003, after years of corporate mismanagement overseen by Barry Rubery and Ian Ayre, Huddersfield Town Association Football Club entered into administration and once again teetered on the brink of financial ruin. Faced with a swarm of creditors and outstanding debts of around £20 million, it looked as though the three-time champions of England were headed for the history books.

But if those history books tell us anything, it’s this: the people of Huddersfield like those kinds of odds, or at the very least, they’re used to dealing with them. And so, armed with nothing but their Nokia 3210s and a vague sense of injustice and hope, a group of resolute supporters set about the small task of conjuring a modern-day miracle.

They called themselves the Huddersfield Town Survival Trust, and with the help of thousands of their fellow Terriers, they managed to raise enough money—over £100,000—to keep the club afloat until a new owner could be found. If they’d failed, it’s almost certain that HMRC would have issued a winding up order against the club, leaving the Football League with little option but to vote for expulsion. Indeed, I have it on good authority that the situation was so dire that the trust took the precaution of registering a variant of ‘Huddersfield Town’ in the Northern Counties League for the 2004/2005 season.

The rest, as they say, is history.

III

The Huddersfield Town Supporters Association was born out of the experiences of the administration period. Its founding members, several of whom served on the committee of the Survival Trust, realised early-on that the long-term future of the club—of any club—depends on the existence of a strong, independent body of supporters who are committed to holding the Board and ownership to account.

Today, the good ship Huddersfield Town is sailing in the clear blue waters of the Premier League under the watchful eye of lifelong fan Dean Hoyle. Thankfully, his commitment to the club isn’t in question, nor are his leadership qualities. When Mr Hoyle first took the reins at the Galpharm Stadium, as it was known back then, he said that he would listen to and work with supporters.

As ever, he was true to his word. HTSA and the club have had a positive working relationship during the Hoyle-era and both have got a lot to show for it.

But, if the two fragments I’ve mentioned teach us anything, it’s that supporters and the trusts that often represent them cannot afford to rest on their laurels. We know that owners can be good, bad, ugly, or all three—that’s never really been the point. The point is that they come and they go. It’s supporters who turn up week in, week out, generation after generation, come rain or shine, hail or snow, whether it’s a ten-minute walk or a six-hour coach journey.

At this stage, if you’re still awake, you might be wondering, who cares? Surely it’s just twenty-two blokes kicking a pig’s bladder around a patch of grass!

Who cares if Lewisham’s dodgy Labour council are attempting to complete a compulsory purchase of land around The Den on behalf of a shadowy offshore developer? Who cares if Karl Oyston is systematically running Blackpool FC into the ground based on some bizarre personal vendetta? Who cares if Charlton FC have become the plaything of a Belgian egomaniac? Who cares if Coventry City are owned by an autocratic hedge fund? And who cares if football’s governing bodies are either unwilling or incapable of doing anything about any of it?

Well, the answer is simple: a lot of people care.

In so many provincial, post-industrial areas, particularly in the North, football clubs are the only working-class institutions left in town. They provide a sense of community and certainty in a society and economy that appears to value neither. Burnley, for instance, regularly get attendances of 25,000. That’s in a town of around 75,000 people, which means that on any given Saturday, roughly a third of the town are watching their local football team. And that’s just the people who have the time, inclination, money, or bad sense to turn up in person.

What else motivates people in that way? Not much, I’d wager.

But if I’m going to sit here and suggest that the past can provide us with meaning, it would be remiss of me not to point out that it can also serve as a prison. If you’re a woman, or black, or Asian, or gay, then it’s doubtful you’ll have a rose-tinted view of the terraces and fan culture of the decades gone by. That’s why it’s vital that we’re as critical of some aspects of our past as we are proud of others.

In fairness, as maligned as they are in some quarters, the Taylor Report and the Football Spectators Act of 1989, as well as the work of FSF-backed campaigns such as Kick It Out! and Football v Homophobia, have helped drag football out of the Dark Ages when it comes to certain issues.

During the Hoyle-era, HTSA have embraced this agenda, putting community outreach front and centre of our vision for the future.

Together with the club, we’re currently working on bringing a nationwide initiative called Women At The Game to the Town Ground before the end of the year, and we’ve recently teamed up with Cowshed Loyal and the Welcome Centre to launch the Fans For Foodbanks initiative, with the aim of helping those in our communities who need assistance over the winter period.

And that’s just the beginning.

The club, too, are committed to promoting community cohesion through football, and the Foundation, Supporters Services, and SLO deserve a lot of credit for the work they’ve done and continue to do on behalf of often marginalised groups.

IV

So here we are, little old Huddersfield Town, going toe-to-toe with the Big Boys in front of 24,169 people almost every week.

It’s been a long time coming, and somewhere on that list of people and groups who deserve a pat on the back, it says “everybody who stuck it out, through thick and thin.”

Look, we know the supporters’ trust movement isn’t perfect, and we’re not going to solve all of football’s problems, nor do we claim that’s our job. But I think it’s fair to say we’ve made a lot of progress on the issues that matter. And if we’re to continue to make progress, then it’s more important than ever for supporters to have a voice; and that voice is always louder and more effective as part of a chorus—a chorus that needs to be as loud in 2017 as it was in years like 1919 and 2003.

Why not join it?

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