I try not to spend my whole life thinking about Birmingham City but the worry about it lurks in the back of my mind. I can start off thinking about something completely different and my mind finds a way to relate it to the sorry state of modern football.
For example, I’m reading a book1 about British engineering and am on the chapter about the sequencing of human DNA. It describes the clash of cultures between the scientific community, who were used to sharing data, and the business world where information was sold. When it was announced that a private company was being set up to become the definitive source of genomic information, scientists in the public DNA sequencing projects were horrified. They wanted to keep the dataset that defined humanity in the public domain. So they needed to produce the data as fast as the private company and make it freely available on the internet. The Wellcome Trust gave them the financial backing to do that by employing more people and industrialising the process. The public project prevented the private company from gaining a monopoly and they did it by running their labs in a business-like manner but with a different motivation to private enterprise. The private company aimed to make a profit by selling data; the scientists in the public DNA projects worked to earn respect by giving data away.
The paragraph in the book that got my mind onto football was about the press release that announced the setting up of the private company. Spufford wrote,
“It wasn’t a scientific statement, although it was announcing a scientific programme. It didn’t obey the rules of scientific speech, which say that you should only claim what you are already sure of, what you have proved. Instead it followed the rules of good PR … you should claim everything that you can … that can’t be disproved. Claim Big, in other words, and Cover Your Back.”
This made me think about instances of football club owners who promised much but delivered little. Also about the clash of cultures between owners who view clubs only as businesses and fans who feel that they own the traditions and should have a say in how their clubs are run.
The world has changed and it isn’t possible to turn back the clock. Professional football clubs do have to be run as businesses even when fans are involved. Having supporters involved at board level doesn’t mean throwing away the business plan; it just means that the business plan must take into account the interests of the supporters. Portsmouth fans have taken their club into community ownership2 but that hasn’t put an end to all their troubles. There are no magic solutions to all the problems involved in running a football club.
Some Birmingham City supporters are prepared to welcome any new owner who will invest in the club. I also want the club to get out of the limbo we’re currently in but I’ll be wary of anyone who makes too many promises. We’re in a mess and it will take time to get out of it. I’d prefer an owner who acknowledges the difficulty of the road ahead and promises to work towards sustainability rather than promising instant success.
- Backroom Boys by Francis Spufford. This is a good read and contains chapters on six British achievements: the Blue Streak rocket; Concorde; Elite computer game; mobile phone technology; the human genome project; and Beagle 2.
- There is an interesting Case Study of Portsmouth FC in Supporter Share Ownership: recommendations on how to increase supporter ownership in football, click here to download it from the Supporters Direct website.