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Cash-strapped fans' group Supporters Direct faces merger threat

Published 20/09/2016

AFC Wimbledon are among the clubs to have benefited from the work of Supporters Direct
AFC Wimbledon are among the clubs to have benefited from the work of Supporters Direct

An organisation that has inspired football fans to save dozens of British clubs from bankruptcy is in financial trouble itself, according to documents seen by Press Association Sport.

Established in 2000, Supporters Direct has helped set up almost 200 supporters' trusts in the UK, with more than 350,000 members.

During that time, democratically-elected trusts have rescued numerous clubs, buying controlling shares in more than 40, including AFC Wimbledon, Exeter and Portsmouth, as well as branching out into ice hockey, rugby league and rugby union.

But a funding crisis has placed the continuation of this work in jeopardy and earlier this week the organisation emailed its members to warn them of the "ongoing uncertainty over its future funding".

Press Association Sport has seen SD's most recent set of financial figures and they reveal an organisation that has struggled to find new revenues and is having to dip into its reserves to meet its costs.

There are also allegations that the organisation has been unable to meet its financial obligations to a seriously ill member of staff, although SD's chairman Brian Burgess has strongly denied that, expressing his deep regret for the situation but saying company law prevents him from saying any more on the matter.

SD gets the vast majority of its money, currently almost £400,000 a year, from the Premier League's Fans Fund, a pot worth £3.5million a year that the league makes available to supporters' organisations " which improve the relationship between fans and their clubs, the way football supporters engage with each other and fans' experience of the game".

As well as SD, the Football Supporters' Federation (FSF), anti-racism charity Kick It Out and disability-access campaigners Level Playing Field also receive Fans Fund support, which has risen across the board by 66 per cent over the last three years.

In June, the Premier League wrote to SD offering it £330,000 a year until 2019 subject to the London-based organisation cutting costs and merging its "back-office operations" with the FSF and Kick It Out.

Press Association Sport understands the Premier League does not want a full merger between these separate bodies, and it has told SD it respects the different and vital role it has played over last 16 years, but some within the supporters' trust movement are worried the league wants to silence an organisation that has often been critical of football's governance by folding it into a larger organisation that has historically been less political and more focused on specific campaigns.

One long-standing trust member, who wished to remain anonymous, said: "Everyone in football has something to thank Supporters Direct for, though they might not realise it.

"We need to make sure that we don't stand by and watch it disappear, because its loss to a game that always needs to be kept in check will be incalculable, and by then it'll be too late."

James McKenna from Liverpool's Spirit of Shankly supporters' union told Press Association Sport that SD helped his group get organised when the club was under the ownership of Tom Hicks and George Gillett, to start a share scheme and get Anfield protected as an asset of community value.

"Supporters Direct has given more credibility to recognised groups of fans by helping them to become properly constituted and providing invaluable advice," said McKenna.

"It has also helped set up a network of supporter trusts and got fans from different clubs talking to each other - that would not normally happen.

"It has a vital function and most supporter activists would see the benefit of it. That is why I would be concerned about any threat to its existence or future direction."

There has, however, also been some criticism of SD's leadership in recent years, with some suggesting it has lost its purpose as the financial reforms the English Football League and Premier League made following Portsmouth's collapse in 2010 have made the kind of crisis SD specialised in fixing less likely to occur in the first place.

Others have also noted that FSF is the supporters' organisation making the most headway now as it has concentrated on topics of more universal interest, such as safe-standing and ticket prices.

But Conservative MP Damian Collins, an influential member of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, is adamant SD must be allowed to remain independent.

"Supporters Direct should not be amalgamated into a single fans' group and I back its efforts to remain independent," said Collins.

One possible solution might present itself if the Football Association, as is expected, fails to meet the Government's deadline to reform its governance structure later this year.

Collins said the Government "should not back away from going through with its threat to take money from the FA and give it to other organisations who have proven they can address issues of interest to football fans".

That would also fix what many have long recognised as the slightly odd link between SD and the Premier League, which was described as a "reluctant sponsor" of the organisation by an MPs' report in 2013.

Burgess, however, denied that the supporters' trust movement's champion is in serious difficulties and said constructive talks were ongoing with the Premier League about an increase to its grant. A final decision on that is expected by the end of the month.

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