An interview with Phil Sumbler of Swansea City’s Fans’ Trust for True Faith Magazine issue 90:
Swansea City are the first top flight club substantially owned by supporters (Arsenal fans Trust holds a tiny percentage of their club for instance) in this country, via the 20% stake their Supporters Trust hold. I asked a few questions of Phil Sumbler of the Swans Trust :
What first got people interested in a Swansea City Supporters Trust? Was there some situation which got people thinking that way?
Definitely. The Trust was formed back in the summer of 2001 and although interest was high it became higher when Tony Petty took over the club and went ahead to try and sack some players. That definitely increased momentum and people started taking more interest in the Trust and working with us.
Was there a general upsurge in interest initially or was it just a few people set things up at first?
The working party was relatively small but there was early interest as mentioned before. I think the key was that Swansea City had been mis managed and the development of the internet meant that many people were like minded on wanting to change things.
How many members do you have now, and how long did it take to reach something approaching that level?
Currently we have in the region of 15000 but that is at its highest as we have given membership to every season ticket holder this season. Our average has been 1000-1500 in recent years – success of the club on the pitch tends to reduce the interest/desire that people have to join a Supporters Trust.
You have a 20% stake in the club, how did that come about? Was it all acquired in one go or was it built up over time?
We were lucky to be in at the beginning of the current club ownership. We started with £100,000 and have increased in two stages to get to the £200,000 (20%) When momentum was high people gave plenty but recently we have struggled to gain funds but thankfully we already have an influential stake.
Was there help from Supporters Direct along the way? What did they do?
Supporters Direct were there at the beginning with advice on setting up and have always been available to us with answers when we have been unsure where to turn.
Were the owners of the club generally cooperative with your aims? If not initially, did they eventually come round to see the benefits of Trust involvement?
We were part of the consortium that took over the club in 2001 so they were totally cooperative and I believe they still believe in Trust involvement within the club.
Were there any hiccups along the way, unforeseen problems which threatened the project?
To be honest not a total threat no. Again as we were there at the start and got quick momentum the Trust was always a big player in the day to day running and that helped us no end.
What do you see as being the benefits, both to fans and to the club itself, of Trust involvement in the club?
It’s the voice that fans need. You can always get your views into the boardroom and although that doesn’t always make things change it is always better than no voice at all. In terms of the club it is difficult to gauge the benefits but it does mean that they can get closer to their fanbase through our social events and the like
Do you have ambition to increase your stake in the club over time, or even to buy the club outright? If so, how do you plan to do that, in terms of raising funds etc?
Increase maybe not but certainly maintain. We have pushed for regular donations this year and now have some that helps financially but it is difficult to keep pace when the club is growing so quickly.
Do you believe a top-level club could be funded on a day-to-day basis if wholly supporter-owned, knowing the finances involved in buying and paying top players?
There are those that believe that but I am not one of them. I do not believe that a club can manage purely on Trust ownership because of the finances. That is unless one of the backers of the Trust is a multi millionaire!!
A few interesting points raised then. The Swans Trust were part of a consortium that took over the club. This will have given the new owners the backing of supporters when most needed. From an NUFC point of view, perhaps this would be a more realistic route into the club than persuading an existing owner to sell a portion of their holding. The Swans Trust is a comparatively small operation in terms both of members and finances. A £200,000 stake, though 20% of Swansea, would be around 0.2% of NUFC based on a £100m valuation of the club. That lower valuation of the club also made it easier for fan-donated money to buy a significant stake, giving them a real voice at the club, though the downside of this is that further outside investment in the club dilutes the initial investment more. Phil says financing a top-flight club solely from Trust money would be very difficult. Buying the club is only the first step. After that the day-to-day running must be paid for, transfers, wages etc. As we appear to be heading towards being a club which is self-sufficient financially anyway though, one does wonder what difference there would be if a Trust were demanding the books balanced rather than Mike Ashley. Even so, I believe that partial ownership of NUFC by the Trust is probably the best that can ever be hoped for, purely because of the colossal sums required to buy outright. The best chance of this happening is as a minor partner in a buyout, so the main hope of the Trust securing involvement in the club would appear to be persuading a future buyer that enlisting the support of fans in this way would be desirable.