Worcester City FC: Fan-Owned and Heading Back Home
After vacating St George’s Lane in 2013, it has been a turbulent few years for Worcester City FC. Now plying their trade in the ninth tier of English football, the story of Worcester City for many has been one of frustration, disappointment and broken promises. However, as of December last year it was announced, after seven years of ground sharing and playing outside the City, the club would be playing their 2020/2021 season within Worcester at Claines Lane.
With enthusiasm high for City’s return, I spoke to Luke Cox who – while as a day job works in promoting fan ownership across Europe – has since May 2017 been a Worcester City FC Supporters’ Trust Board member and has been on the Worcester City FC club board since December 2018. In this interview, Luke discusses how he got involved with the Supporters’ Trust, how the Trust works, what their goals are in terms of fan ownership, and why the club being based back in Worcester is so important.
I want to start by asking what your role is within the Supporter’s Trust and Worcester City FC and how you came to be involved?
I’m on the board of the Football Club and on the Supporters’ Trust and that’s just in a voluntary capacity. The way I see it, it’s my passion and something I want to do. I finished University in 2018 and did a degree in Football Business down in London and was looking for some experience so decided to contact the supporters’ trust to see if there was any way I could help and sort of get some hands-on experience. I began just helping out designing the Trust’s website and then ended up getting more and more involved in it.
I was really interested in the fan ownership models and what the trust was trying to achieve with Worcester City FC. The Trust’s organisational model was really appealing to me in that it is a community benefit society so it’s equally owned by its members, it has a democratic structure and every year there is an AGM (Annual General Meeting) and people can stand to join the board. The whole idea of the Trust is to have an organisation based on transparency and accountability – two important things for an organisation that wants to build strong roots within the community.
Once I was elected to the Supporters’ Trust Board I got in contact with Supporters’ Direct, an organisation that helps groups through the difficult process of fan ownership, and interned with them for a while to gain some more work experience. I then ended up being elected to the board of Supporters’ Direct which then fed into my work with the Supporters’ Trust with regards to issues like fan ownership.
What are the ultimate goals of the Supporters’ Trust and what is its relationship with the Football Club?
The ultimate goal of the Supporters’ Trust, as well as getting the club playing back in the City, was to make Worcester City a fan-owned club, and the idea behind that was because the problem with football at all levels is there’s not a great amount of accountability to the most important stakeholders, which are the supporters. It comes down to a core belief that as a supporter you want your football club to exist in the future, you want responsible ownership, you want good governance, transparency and accountability, and fan ownership through a democratic structure gives you that.
The Supporters’ Trust owns 45% of the football club with the rest being minority shareholders, with our ambition being, and something we will have done by the end of this year, to own over 50% and then hopefully 100% of the football club in the future. In terms of the structure of how it works at the moment is you have the football club board, and on it there are three Trust Board members and then three other directors. Then separate from that is the Supporters’ Trust Board, who essentially set the mandate to the football club board and entrust them to carry out their wishes for how they want the football club to be run. Then, at the top of this pyramid, are the Trust members who ultimately the Supporters’ Trust Board are accountable to. At the AGM every year its discussed with the Trust members what do you guys want to see happen with the Trust and the club as they are equal owners of this organisation with the power of one member one vote. So there’s this important and democratic structure in place but fan ownership doesn’t mean the supporters are choosing who plays upfront on a Saturday. It’s more about creating levels of accountability and then perhaps consulting Trust members on the bigger issues.
Even with the model currently in place the Supporters’ Trust has a working majority on the board of the football club with our three board members and then the other three directors either being normal members of the Trust or at least sympathetic to what the Trust is trying to achieve.
Obviously fan ownership of the football club lies at the heart of what the Trust wants to accomplish. However, is there any pressure that to succeed on the pitch the Trust may have to give up on its goal of total ownership of the football club in order to encourage inward investment?
It’s important to remember that there is a common trap that football clubs fall into and we’re seeing the stark reality of that with the pandemic. Too many clubs in the footballing pyramid rely on benefaction from wealthy owners. Clubs will have one or two people pouring in money from their personal wealth with the football club itself barely breaking even each year. When these benefactors take their money away these clubs are fighting for survival like we’ve seen with Portsmouth, Bury and Bolton in recent years.
The idea that underpins fan ownership is that you build and grow the football club revenues off the pitch to then spend what you can sensibly on the pitch. Obviously this model does give you a glass ceiling in that your club will only go as far as your membership size and the size of the support for the club will allow you, but even then the possibilities are endless when you consider the models we see in Germany and teams as successful as Bayern Munich actually being fan-owned.
At the moment the Supporters’ Trust has got about 400 members. If we could get to 1000, 1500 or even 2000 Trust members, the sort of figures Hereford FC had when they formed, then you can start to see where you can go as a fan-owned club. But for me the success on the pitch is one thing but what you get with fan ownership is once you are part of a Supporters’ Trust like Worcester’s, and the ones I see with my job all over Europe, is that you become part of a community and you play a role in what I’d describe as a form of active citizenship, where people want to help out with the football club because its their club, they own a bit of it and they want what’s best for it. Even having 300-400 members like we have now all committed to getting the club to where it needs to be is more important than a £5000 sponsorship or investment from an outside investor.
Putting the fan ownership model to one side, many of the club’s problems come back to issues surrounding the lack of a ground within Worcester since the decision to leave St George’s Lane. With the announcement the club will be moving back to Worcester next season, could you explain some of the troubles regarding finding Worcester City a home and why you’ve chosen Claines Lane?
I actually have made the joke before that if anyone mentions in Trust meetings about the old ground or Worcester Warriors or Sixways I’m going to make them put money into a swear jar because it’s been a real shadow that’s hung over Worcester City’s head for such a long time. Yes, we are starting out at a lower level of football in what is now a modest facility at Claines Lane but it’s a nice, firm foundation for us to build on and opposite to the Worcester City of old trying to run on quicksand to try and get a ground sorted.
When these issues arrived and when this downward spiral began, I was actually still in secondary school – to get a sense of how long Worcester have been having issues. It started really with the sale of St George’s Lane, and there was a lot of controversy around that. There were questions surrounding a lot of aspects of that sale. From what I understand the idea was to sell the ground to finance a new one, but the club didn’t necessarily have the required details in place like planning permission et cetera to actually do that. It was around this time that the Supporters’ Trust, which came into being in 2003 and had been looking at fan ownership models since then, just got fed up of banging their heads against the wall and getting nothing from the football club. The Supporters’ Trust then put a plan in place to try and secure Perdiswell as a venue for the club to play at and the club itself explored its own options. During this time the money that had been made from the sale of the stadium had seriously decreased due to the sheer costs of being in the National League North and not having your own ground. After its triple relegation due to a mistake on the part of the club board, the Supporters’ Trust went to the club and said that perhaps it’s time for the Supporters’ Trust to take on the running of the club. Then, from within, the idea of fan ownership was driven by Trust members and fans of the football club.
We moved out to Perdiswell but the proposed plans of development there got extremely political and it got really nitty gritty and got to the point that the time and resources that were needed was simply outside of the scope of what we could do as a volunteer-led organisation. So really the move to Claines Lane was a case of the stars aligning as the Worcester FA who own the ground had already started developing it into a modest stadium and, after some discussions, we were able to move in. The important thing as well is that at this ground there is scope for improvements.
You look at a club like Hereford FC who had a huge advantage of having their own stadium and a base to start some serious revenue building opportunities. Obviously, that’s why the stadium issue has been so important for Worcester and that’s why the fact we are now going to be playing back in Worcester is so important. Worcester haven’t played in the city since 2013 – I haven’t even ever seen the club play a competitive game in Worcester. It’s going to be such a momentous day when we play our first game back. Where we’re going to be playing next season isn’t this all-singing all-dancing stadium, but it’s a great place to start from.
What have Worcester City FC and the Trust been doing in the city in terms of community projects?
We’ve always understood that a football club has massive potential to do a lot of good socially in the community. We’ve started some really good initiatives such as last year when we linked up with Age UK because we wanted the older people that could watch us when we were in Worcester to come and watch us at Bromsgrove. We saw that the move to Bromsgrove and the difficulties getting to the ground meant that older people may have lost a big social aspect to their life with the football club gone, and we wanted to help with the loneliness and isolation problem that is very common amongst older people. As a result, we put on free mini buses where people could ring up or call up for a friend or family member and a bus would take them from Worcester out to Bromsgrove and then back after the game. That’s just one of many things we’ve done, on top of things like working with local mental health charities.
During the virus, we’ve looked at how can we help the local community as well so we’ve made donations to the foodbank, helped fund the creation of PPE masks through a local school and we’re continuing to look at a range of ways we can help problems that people are facing in the community. Now we’re back based in the city from next year we want to continue this trend of being very community-focused.
We’re seeing a lot of disruption in terms of the football pyramid due to COVID-19 and as you referenced earlier some clubs may go out of business. How has the pandemic affected Worcester City and how can people help the club’s survival?
We’re actually in a unique position in that we’re in this transition of moving grounds so we don’t have any significant costs, meaning that in the short-to-medium-term we don’t have any major concerns. My message will be: we want more people to join the club’s Gold Bond Lottery, Team Builder draw and become Supporters’ Trust members and get involved. I want our work as a Trust to bring back a bit of pride in Worcester City and the sense of being part of something. It’s going to take time and the Club has had problems, but we want to win the city’s trust back with the move back to Worcester being step one.
For someone that hasn’t seen a Worcester City FC game as of yet or hasn’t really engaged with non-league football in general, what would you tell people to convince them to go and see Worcester play next season?
Non-League football is imperfect and its authentic and I think that’s the best way to describe it. It’s about being part of something and there’s a real familiarity to it. You’re not stuck in one seat – you can move around and chat to people, it’s just completely different to the sanitised nature of football higher up the leagues.
I think even more important is the fact that you, whoever you are, going to support and follow a non-league football club really matters. If you are a Man United fan and don’t turn up to one game, it doesn’t matter because of the TV revenues and everything else. Whereas at Worcester if you turn up, pay for your ticket and have a burger and a pint that’s massive for the club and massive for its success.
With the footballing calendar temporarily suspended and all non-league football seasons cancelled, it is still very much up in the air in terms of when Worcester City FC will play their first home game back in the city. In the meantime, if you are interested in becoming a member of the Supporter’s Trust and want to have a say in how the Trust and the Football Club is run, you can sign up for just £10 a year. As the Trust’s website says: ‘By joining the Trust, which is equally owned by its members, you become an equal owner of Worcester City FC.‘– an exciting opportunity for football and non-football fans alike.