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Fans taking the opportunity to protect their spiritual home

A growing number of football supporters are setting the wheels in motion in a bid to protect their clubs’ stadiums being sold against their wishes.

Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Old Trafford

A growing number of football supporters are setting the wheels in motion in a bid to protect their clubs’ stadiums being sold against their wishes.

Fans of teams ranging from the Premier League big guns to non-league outfits have launched applications that will give them greater influence over any decisions about the future of football grounds.

Although it will not prevent stadium owners from selling to whom they like, it will give local groups a better chance of influencing the final decision by giving them more time to make counter-offers against any potential new owner.

And it means supporters are less likely to go through the pain suffered by Wimbledon fans a decade ago.

The concept of an asset of community value (ACV) was introduced as part of the 2011 Localism Act.

The idea was to help keep valued land and buildings in community use and to give communities a better chance of being able to bid for them if they come up for sale.

In the blurb that accompanied the introduction of ACVs, the Department for Communities and Local Government said: “All too often, community organisations find themselves without the time to prepare a bid before an asset is lost.

“We know that many communities, both urban and rural, have lost the use of buildings or land that were important to them because they were sold privately or without an interested community group having time to raise the necessary funds.”

Pubs and post offices might be amongst the most popular things that communities fight to save, but there’s no doubt that sports facilities tick the right boxes as well.

Any doubt that this was the sort of thing ministers had in mind when they introduced the Localism Act was removed by communities and Local Government secretary Eric Pickles.

“Football stadiums are not only the heart and soul of every team, they are rooted in and loved by the neighbourhoods that surround them,” he said.

“Thanks to the new rights we’ve created, football fans are exercising their community right to keep the beautiful game at their team’s spiritual home by protecting their stadium’s future.”

Supporters of clubs across the country will be only too aware of how these spiritual homes can be ripped away from them.

Just look at the example of Wimbledon. Numerous clubs have had financial difficulties thanks to mismanagement over the years, and it’s all too common nowadays for some teams to start seasons with points deductions.

However, those problems can usually be overcome, eventually.

But ask fans of the original Wimbledon whether they have got over the events that culminated in their move to Milton Keynes, and the chances are you’ll get short shrift.

Meanwhile, down on the south coast, things might be looking relatively healthy for Brighton and Hove Albion these days, but the past two decades got pretty grim at times – particularly when they had to ground-share with Gillingham after their former owner flogged off the Goldstone Ground. (That site is now a retail park.)

Speak to Rangers and Portsmouth fans, on the other hand, and they will tell you that despite anger, frustration and heartbreak over the past few years, at least they seem to have come through the worst and they can continue to back their team under their name at their own ground.

So it is no surprise that applications for stadiums to be listed as ACVs are becoming increasingly popular.

Oxvox, the Oxford United Supporters Trust, was told in May that it had made the first successful application for an ACV.

At the time, Oxvox chairman Mark Sennet said: “This means United supporters will now never wake up one morning to read in the paper that the stadium has been sold, with no recourse.

“The stadium is of huge local importance to the people of Oxfordshire, and the club’s role is a source of huge community benefit and pride.

“Because of this listing, supporters and the Oxfordshire community will be able to play more of a role in its destiny.”

More than a dozen other supporters’ clubs have since followed Oxvox’s lead, with fans of teams ranging from Manchester United to Nuneaton Borough taking action.

It has also led to a few surprising alliances.

James McKenna, of the Spirit of Shankly supporters club, revealed that old rivalries had been put aside in the north-west of England.

“We have worked closely with Manchester United Supporters’ Trust as they, too, have submitted a similar application for their stadium to be designated as an asset of community value,” he said.

“Safeguarding the long-term future of the club is vitally important to us.

"This application provides us with an opportunity to influence any future sale of the club by being part of that process.

“Anfield, as a stadium and what it represents, is incredibly important to both Liverpool supporters and the local community.

"It matters to so many people – be it those who attend football matches, those who work there or those who live within close proximity.

“Football clubs are of vital importance to their local communities and are best protected in the hands of their supporters.”

One set of fans currently going through the application process is Leicester City’s.

“The fear of any football fan is that the club they have supported all their life is suddenly moved to another location,” said Foxes Trust chairman Ian Bason.

“It happened at Wimbledon many years ago and more recently at Coventry.

“Such decisions give scant regard to how they affect the lifeblood of the club – its fans.”

It seems that applications made by the biggest clubs are acting as trailblazers for others.

Mr Bason said: “We decided to wait for either the Manchester United or the Liverpool nominations to be approved before we submitted ours to the local council, just in case a bigger club hit an unexpected obstacle, but went ahead as soon as they were approved.

“We had copies of the successful Oxford documentation and the Manchester United submission, which was subsequently approved, so most of our submission followed those templates, with a few additions.”

If the application proves successful, it will mean the owner of the stadium will be required to notify both Leicester City Council and the Foxes Trust if it wanted to sell.

The trust would then have six weeks to lodge a non-binding expression of interest, and that would then delay the sale for another four and half months.

That would give the trust – or any other community group – time to prepare a counter-bid.

None of this guarantees that the stadium will not be sold to someone unpopular with the club’s fans, but it does level the playing field a little in that it gives interested parties the time to regroup and consider their options.

All the signs are that ACV applications by football fans will continue.

It’s a trend that might not have as much immediate impact as, say, a new television-rights deal or even a new club sponsor. With a bit of luck, it is something that will never prove necessary to invoke at most clubs.

But for supporters who have been living in fear that their team might one day become the next MK Dons, it gives them a fighting chance of preventing that from happening.

 

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