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May 11, 2010

Clubs risk ruin if they ignore their roots

LPL recently highlighted the growing interest in strengthening the bond between football clubs and their local communities – supporters’ trusts being the principle means of reclaiming some control and ownership.   As the overblown finances of the English premiership claim the first victim – Portsmouth – it was interesting to read that at least one of their overpaid stars genuinely seems to understand the importance of community

David James, Observer

Something special happened when Portsmouth won the FA Cup two years ago. I’m not talking about the atmosphere in the stadium, or what happened on the pitch or in the Wembley dressing room, unforgettable though they all were. I’m talking about what happened in the town when we set off on our victory parade. To my absolute amazement, more than 200,000 people gathered on Southsea Common to cheer us on. Pensioners, waving, cheering and clapping, people hanging out of windows – locals who possibly had never even set foot in our stadium before. It was some sight.

That show of appreciation made for a very, very special moment indeed. The events of that day got me thinking about the relationship between a football club and its local population. It seemed to me that too many clubs take their community responsibilities all too lightly. Having players visit a local hospital every Christmas is a nice gesture, but what about sustained relationships with the local community, and the mutual benefits they might bring? The game appears to have forgotten its community roots, lost in a glitzy world of superstars and big transfer fees. But what might be the result of a more holistic focus?

The experiences Portsmouth have gone through this past year should be a warning. Football needs to learn that when the cost of trying to survive in the Premier League threatens the very existence of your club, the price is just too high. Killing yourself off in an attempt to stay in a league you can’t afford is pure madness.

Perhaps it is time to look at alternative ways for a club to exist: no longer in a financial bubble that could burst at any time, but in dialogue and accordance with the local community. It still amazes me that big investors can buy into football clubs, spend millions on transfer fees and wages, and yet have so little to do with their club’s community.

Yes, most clubs do have community programmes – and Portsmouth have one of the best I’ve experienced in my career – but what if we all went further? A club who engage with their local community are more likely to be supported when they fall on hard times and over the years there have been numerous examples of this – from fans here bailing out the club through the SOS Pompey campaign in the 1970s, to Charlton’s supporters armed with picks and shovels, volunteering to help renovate The Valley. More recently, Exeter showed what can be achieved by a supporters trust. After private ownership almost sent the club into administration, with two board members convicted of fraud, the Trust took over and the club have since climbed the divisions from the Conference to League One. It seems clear to me: the more supporters are involved in a football club, the greater the likelihood of accountability and, crucially, greater financial responsibility in the boardroom.

I didn’t always feel so passionately about community. As a young man in the 1980s I thought all that stuff was a bit soft. I had grown up with the idea that football was a man’s game and clubs should have an equally hard persona. I used to go to with friends from school to watch the north London derby and we’d point out all the hardnuts kicking off in the North Stand. I remember seeing Graham Roberts put Charlie Nicholas in the front row and thinking: “Yeah! Get in there, you’re hard!” There was a lot of testosterone going round.

When I joined Watford things began to change. It was there that I experienced my first encounter with community work. As young players we were expected to visit the hospital on matchdays, two or three of us sent round the wards every week to speak to the patients. It was a genuine commitment and it brought out a different side of me.

I have seen similar things at Portsmouth, a community that has benefited from club projects and support – from the local Reading Stars literacy bus that helps children and families reconnect with each other, to the Beneficial Foundation, an independent charity that looks after the needs of people with learning difficulties. They have a fantastic project that helps to maintain old people’s gardens as a burglary prevention strategy.

At Portsmouth we may be down, but we’re not out. With a creative outlook, and the backing of the town behind us, we could find ourselves going from strength to strength.