Ebbsfleet United and MyFC: Where do they go from here?

As seasons go, Ebbsfleet United’s 2007/08 can rank as a successful one. Their first appearance at Wembley resulted in a well-deserved victory over Torquay to take the FA Trophy. Liam Daish’s team also had another top-half finish and, in a strong league, kept in touch with the playoffs until close to the end of the season. And, of course, there was their take over by internet site MyFootballClub.co.uk – a site runs by football fans all contributing £35 a year for the privilege not only acting as owners, but picking everything from the team down to the kit design.

The takeover gave Ebbsfleet more column inches than any other non-league club this season and, if the coverage from their FA Trophy final was anything to go by, the silverware was a real victory for fan power. Except that’s not quite true. Yes, MyFC were the owners but the takeover didn’t go through until the end of January meaning any on-the-pitch benefits for the latter half of the season, bar a bit of extra cash available to strengthen in the last few days of the transfer window, were negligible.

Moreover there was no fan power on the pitch on Ebbsfleet’s big day. MyFC had wisely decided that since Daish had negotiated their path to the final, he was best qualified to pick the team for their Wembley appearance, a decision that was vindicated with the 1-0 victory. Nonetheless, by delaying the main selling point of MyFC, it’s led to repeated asking of one question: “What did I pay my £35 for?”

One area where the fan power was seen in evident was in the seats at Wembley. Ebbsfleet supporters comfortably outnumbered and outsang Torquay and the passion for the team was evident. Indeed, a large proportion of MyFC’s 30,000 plus members had made the trip, along with many long-standing Fleet supporters who’d chosen not to sign up to the project.

But if Wembley created a feelgood factor around being a Ebbsfleet supporter/owner 2008/09 will be the season where MyFC’s ownership finally gets put to the test and questions will be asked of Will Brooks, the head honcho of the internet site. Fleet have potentially a strong squad and a good young manager and should, in theory, be challenging for a top five finish – and even if MyFC falters somewhat that still could be achievable. But, both for next season and the long-term future, there are several issues that need to be addressed:

1. Apathy

The most concerning aspect of the MyFC membership is the number of members who are actively participating. When, in January, the site asked members to approve the takeover of Ebbsfleet, 95.8% said yes. But that number was made up of 18,112 members – which meant that around a third of those who’d signed up couldn’t even be bothered voting for what was one of the most important votes in the short history of My Football Club. Recent voting has not been any more encouraging. A recent vote on season ticket prices say just a total of 6765 members vote across a range of six options. Although this may not be as glamourous as the fantasy football element of MyFC, it’s nevertheless an important aspect of the responsibility of running the club and the diminishing number of active voters is worrying, to say the least.

Then there’s reports coming out of the site that a very small number of members are taking up the plethora of information available to them – videos of all matches, prozone stats, etc – to enable their team-selection choices, whenever (if ever) this comes on stream. Given that picking the team is still the key selling point of MyFC, what does it say about its members if they’re not interested in taking the time to study their team properly?

Then there’s the lifeblood of any club at Conference level: attendance numbers. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that Ebbsfleet have seen a rise in attendances since news of the takeover was announced as fans flock to see their newly-purchased team in action. In fact, the opposite has been true. This season the average gate numbers are down from last season by just over six per cent and stand at 1087. Take away the opposition fans and the Fleet faithful, both members and non-members of MyFC, and the influx of new fans is very small to say the least. Although a fair proportion of MyFC members are based a long way from Kent (with many not even in the UK) you’d still expect a slight upturn in gate receipts.

Northfleet is not hard to get to – a short journey out of Charing Cross or London Bridge – which could lead to the conclusion that while a good deal of members like the idea of owning a club or playing a real-life version of fantasy football, going to the game is a step too far. Indeed, why would you want to spend money on several trips to Kent when you could watch the whole season’s games on the web for just £35 a year. That’s assuming many of the new fans don’t decide that there’s better things to spend their £35 on and not renew.

2. Pick The Team

If apathy is the biggest concern for the owners, picking the team is one of the biggest complaints for the MyFC members and, oddly, the FA Trophy is one of the biggest reasons for this. Had Daish not led the team to the final, then MyFC could have trialled the Pick The Team element during a meaningless end-of-season dead rubber. As it was, Daish kept pushing the message that all the team were playing for their place at Wembley. Indeed, there was a big debate whether or not Daish would be allowed to pick the team for their big day.

While it’s easy to see why MyFC demurred on allowing the membership to pick the team for the final, but with no firm date as to when this will be introduced it’s lead to disquiet among those who signed up with the express intention of picking the team. This – plus the issue of voting on transfer policy – needs to be resolved sooner rather than later.

While the idea of picking the team was undoubtedly attractive to those who signed up, it goes without saying that what happens on the pitch at Stonebridge Road is not the same as Championship Manager. While some bosses undoubtedly make mistakes, they train with the players day in day out and can see their strengths and weaknesses and how these would apply to opposition teams – teams which many MyFC members won’t be watching on a regular basis. Even the most loyal Conference fan couldn’t tell you the minutia of Woking’s tactics.

As for transfers – the market moves quickly and if you’ve got several teams chasing a player then the club and manager’s got to move quickly. Can this happen if members need to vote on it, and how much information will they get? Wages? Bonuses? What if it’s a straight choice between a big name and an unknown? And how many members really want to take the time to study all this data?

If the voting trend continues to be in the low thousands, this creates a problem for picking the team as it suggests the majority of members aren’t really bothered about making player selections, in which case why should they be picking the team ahead of Liam Diash? If close to every member votes then you have another problem insofar as experimental or bold choices will probably be voted down in favour of a consensus team, although it does prevent a small faction (perhaps from rival teams) banding together to pick a potentially poor and suicidal selection. But it does create a rock and a hard place with precious little space inbetween.

But while MyFC grapples with these issues, those who’ve paid their money in are getting restless. A decision on how the team will be picked and what degree of influence members will have on the team needs to be made soon.

3. The future of the manager

These issues don’t exist inside a vacuum and central to any discussion is Daish, a no-nonsense manager who has gradually been building a decent reputation in both Northfleet and the Blue Square Premier. Publicly he has sounded optimistic but there have been several notes of caution, most notably in a feature in The Telegraph:

“At the end of the day I’m paid for whatever they want me to do,’ he says. ‘So if they don’t want me to pick the side, fine. But if you are asking my opinion, they’d be fools not to let me pick the side. You know, if I book my car in to get serviced I don’t go in there and tell the mechanics what to do. You’d be asking for things to go wrong. They should value my input and I’d be disappointed if they didn’t. Very disappointed.”

Daish is not daft and knows that if the team underperforms, he’s facing a large group rather than a couple of owners to make his case to, and that this large group could potentially tie his hands when it comes to making decisions, not to mention making him a convenient fall guy if the experiment goes wrong. Like everyone else, he needs the issue of voting sorted quickly, and he needs clarification of his role within the setup at the club.

Interfering owners in football are nothing new – just look at Chelsea and Manchester City currently – but at this level MyFC don’t have the cash or the history or success behind them to make them an attractive proposition to an independent-minded manager needed to get promotion. In Daish they have somebody capable of building the squad into playoff contenders. If he was sacked or left because of the way MyFC was run then the club will lose a big asset and one that would be hard to replace.

4. Long-term planning

Tie the above three issues together and you’ve got a club that may be geared up for success in the short term but will be very hard to plan for beyond one season. The online apathy suggestions membership renewals may dip, and that’s even more likely if the ‘pick the team’ element is removed. Although several thousand are signed up for longer than a season, until a large enough number of members renew, it’s difficult to make any long terms financial plans, and that includes the possibility of a new stadium which has been mooted.

As long as Ebbsfleet are successful, they should keep a decent level of membership – and the FA Trophy will have helped. But the longer the club stay outside of the playoffs, the more the appeal of renewing the subscription becomes. It’s worth re-emphasising that not all members are Ebbsfleet fans first and foremost and while some may now look out for the results, as they signed up without knowing which team they’d be owning, it’s easier to walk away from another year of £35 without feeling too much guilt, especially in the current economic climate. The membership will probably stabilise on a core number, likely to be significantly lower than the current number. Only at that stage will MyFC really be able to start putting down long-term plans, providing the level of funding is still there.

Conclusions, if any are possible

This piece may come across as if I’m willing MyFC to fail. I’m not, not least because it’ll be the fans who were there long before the internet was invented who’ll have to pick up the pieces if it does all go wrong. When MyFC was conceived it sounded like a great idea and an interesting experiment, but converting a great idea into a great reality isn’t always easy, and there are many unanswered questions and potential pitfalls that mean I’m sceptical of whether the scheme, in its present format, will succeed in the long-term (in the short-term it may well be successful, as long as Ebbsfleet the club continue to be so).

There’s also no doubt, reading many fans testimonies, that many MyFC members, especially those living abroad, have really taken the Kent club to their hearts and Fleet have definitely gained some fans for life out of this, and these are the fans likely to stay with the club even if MyFC doesn’t succeed.

But for the project to get anywhere, the issue of voting has to be addressed and, painful as it may seem to those who took the principle to heart, perhaps even dropped for the majority of on-the-pitch activities. Being fan-owned does not necessarily mean getting involved at every last detail, but making a real difference to the club’s infrastructure. Stockport, Exeter, and AFC Wimbeldon are all fan-owned and have all gained promotion this season, while Swansea have significant fan-input. The Supporters’ Trust model isn’t perfect but it’s one the MyFC owners and members should be looking careful at if they need to refine their plans.

In an email to the fans just after January, Daish wrote of the difference MyFC had made to the club in terms of injecting funds into the playing budgets, buying new training kit and expanding Ebbsfleet’s work within the local community. If the club is going to move forward then it is these behind the scenes and off the field activities that will be key to any future Ebbsfleet success, and where the money and votes can make a real difference.

My Football CLub and Ebbsfleet’s FA Trophy win wasn’t a victory for fan power – the website, in their most basic terms was no different from any outside owner who buys into a football club and makes the changes they, as an owner, want. Fleet may be fan-owned but they are not owned by their fans, but that gap can be bridged and MyFC aren’t your ordinary owner. The input they have could be positive and next season the website could make a real difference to how Ebbsfleet is run. Whether that will be for better or for worse – and whether it will becoming anything other than a curiosity in the annals of football – remains to be seen.

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