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Never say the British public, and indeed the world, can’t be persuaded to vote when the matter at hand is football. While the rest of England reluctantly headed to the polls to register their disapproval of the government, members of MyFootballClub.co.uk were being balloted not just once but three times for several key votes on the future of Ebbsfleet United.
The internet fan-owned Blue Square Premier football club have seen their budget slashed and many of their stars leave the club, but fans have still been having a say in how the squad will looks next season.
As per other major issues, the fans voted on manager Liam Daish’s future, along with decisions whether or not to accept bids for star players Michael Gash and Darius Charles, but it still looks set to be a long summer for the Kent club.
Scaled back ambition
In the wake of MyFC’s purchase of Ebbsfleet nearly 18 months ago, the membership rose to just over 32,000 at its height and Fleet won the FA Trophy five months after the takeover. Since then it’s not been an easy time for the website-owned club.
Daish’s team was expected to push for a playoff place, but instead they found themselves struggling at the wrong end of the table, although relegation was avoided with several weeks left to go. What’s more, when dissatisfaction with Daish was at its height, members nearly voted to pick the team ahead of the manager.
Except just 492 voted on this matter of picking the team, with a difference of 38 between the two votes, which would have been just 0.8% of the membership picking the team ahead of the manager.
Indeed, MyFC spent much of its first year suffering from voter apathy that makes the turnout at the recent European elections look impressive. The voting numbers on the site steadily decreased (the 18,112 who voted on the takeover issue remains a record high) to the point that, out of a membership of 32,000, between 3-7k were regularly voting on the big issues.
The first year renewals were a watershed moment for the club, when membership dropped from 32,000 to just over 9,000 on deadline day. The club had said that 15,000 was the minimum needed. Although numbers have slowly been increasing since then, MyFC are still well short of that target.
Less members meant less income and suddenly the £10,000 weekly wage bill voted for by members at the start of the 08/09 season became a heavy financial burden on a club hardly flushed with funds.
That budget has now been slashed by 50% to just £5,000 per week, which will be one of the lowest in the Blue Square Premier. Although Fleet officially still remain a full-time side, they will have less to spend than part-time sides, and the newly promoted teams from the Conference North and South are, on paper, stronger than the four promoted last year.
In addition, Fleet has had to release many of their key players to balance the books and don’t necessarily have the means to bring in players of similar quality of experience.
Star midfielder Stacy Long has signed for title hopefuls Stevenage, while Mark Ricketts departed for newly-relegated Woking. Full-back Sacha Opinel also dropped down the leagues to sign for Farnborough, while Conference new boys AFC Wimbledon snapped up striker Luke Moore.
That leaves Daish with just three contracted players: goalkeeper Lance Cronin, and Gash and Charles, and the future of the latter two is far from certain.
Other lower and non-league clubs will have been watching the Ebbsfleet exodus with interest and, hoping to pick up a bargin, unnamed clubs have put in offers for both striker Gash and player of the season Charles.
Both players have their own small section in MyFC history. Gash was signed from Cambridge after a proverbial whip-round from MyFC and Fleet faithful alike. The 22-year-old repaid them by leading the Ebbsfleet scoring charts last season with 13 goals.
Defender Charles became the first player to officially be signed by an internet vote last January when MyFC members said yes to signing the 21-year-old from Brentford for £25,000, and helped the Kent club steer away from the drop zone.
But both players have their admirers and at the start of last week York City put in a bid of £10,000 for Charles. This was rejected by the MyFC membership, with 1,977 voting to keep Charles an just 60 saying yes to the offer.
Meanwhile, a £30,000 bid came in from another Blue Square Premier Club for Gash and again this was rejected with just 250 of the 2,835 voting in favour of selling the striker (37 abstained).
But the MyFC members will have to go back to their keyboards as another (as yet) unknown club have put in a £40,000 bid while a third team is rumoured to be monitoring the Gash situation.
Making the right choice
Here’s where the limitations of the MyFC mechanism come to the fore again. The voting numbers are still low, although the votes were organised at short notice and ran for a limited time, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that not everybody would have been able to vote during that period. It’s also encouraging that the turnout was higher for the second transfer vote for Gash, as it suggests that the desire to have their say is still strong with the membership.
But, again, the nature of transfer dealings mean the timescale on voting is necessarily rushed. It also means that players and clubs could get frustrated, or, in the case of other clubs, keep slowly raising the price triggering multiple votes until the membership decide enough is enough.
There’s also the issue of price for the players concerned, as there doesn’t appear to be any indication from the board as to what a fair price for Gash or Charles would be. Certainly, it would be unlikely to be anywhere near the £150,000 Fleet received from Bristol City for John Akinde last August, which the membership also voted on.
Some fans have suggested it would be helpful to have a minimum price for the two players, and if the bid is below this price then it doesn’t go to a vote. Certainly it’s in the Fleet board’s power to do this, and it’s somewhat of a surprise that they allowed the Charles transfer to go to a vote for just £10,000, given they paid much more for him six months ago. Given his performances, you would have expected Charles’ value to have risen not dropped.
So does this, then, suggest that Ebbsfleet are willing to listen to offers for all of their squad and putting all offers to vote is somewhat of a fudged compromise? Or is this genuinely a sign that MyFC are finally delivering on the long-promised democratisation of the club?
And how would it affect Fleet if they needed to get one or both of these high earners off their books yet the fans kept voting no, holding out for an unrealistic amount of money? Certainly, any money from the sale of Gash would free up wages for a good three or four cheaper players.
Taking MyFC into the future
It’s only now that the sometimes harsh realities of running a football club are filtering down to the membership. Yes, this transfer may be more open and above board than the majority of player dealings, but it doesn’t make it any easier for the fans to make a completely informed vote.
Similarly, MyFC may have cleared the clubs debts when they took over Ebbsfleet, but the subscription and FA Trophy prize monies not been spent as well as they could have been, which is why the drop in membership – and the loss of income that goes with it – has been so problematic.
How long Ebbsfleet will be able to hold onto Gash and Charles is one question. How long they’ll be able to hang onto the Blue Square Premier status is another. With such a small budget, large amount of their team gone, and strong clubs around them, Ebbsfleet may struggle next season. Part-time status may be forced upon them, whether they like it or not.
But if there is any positives to come out of Fleet’s problems, it’s that both the financial shortfall and the transfer bids have re-energised the membership and could be just what MyFC needs to get the project back on track.
This may involve a certain amount of pain for the supporters and members, especially if the star players are sold and the club is relegated. But they do have over 9,000 paid up members and around 3,000 regular, engaged fans (not even counting the Fleet regulars who haven’t signed up to MyFC). This is much more than many other clubs their size can boast.