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Is there a sustainable model for supporter-owned clubs?

THE good news for football supporters seeking greater empowerment is that clubs seem finally to be recognising what they can offer.

Hearts supporters have rallied around their stricken club
Hearts supporters have rallied around their stricken club

The bad news, however, is that such acknowledgement tends to arrive only in times of emergency. When money is running out and bills are mounting up, then it is to their fans that many beleaguered clubs turn in desperation, realising that no other group will give so much and ask for so little in return.

Witness the phenomenal response by Hearts supporters over the past week or so when it first became apparent that their club was in genuine danger of going to the wall, willingly emptying their pockets to buy tickets, merchandise and shares or just to donate to the cause. Those fans will have felt closer to their club like never before this week as they scurried around trying to find increasingly innovative ways of raising money to keep Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs at bay. A supporter's relationship with his club can often feel like unrequited love – with little attention coming back the other way – but it has been different around Tynecastle this week, with the Hearts board offering warm thanks to the fanbase for their efforts.

That whirl of fundraising activities will likely end when this tax bill is finally settled – another for £1.75m remains in dispute – but there is growing enthusiasm among the Hearts support to form a lasting link. Taking on ownership from Vladimir Romanov and the Ukio Bankus Investment Group (UBIG) is the ultimate goal but achieving it will not be straightforward. Already the back-and-forth verbal sniper fire from Hearts and Alex Mackie, chairman of the Foundation of Hearts consortium keen on buying the club, suggests any transition will be far from smooth.

Still, that the club is willing to sit down and talk about such a possibility, through an intermediary in Supporters Direct Scotland, is a positive step in itself. Such has been Romanov's intransigence during his time in charge at Tynecastle, it would have not been entirely surprising if, out of stubbornness, he had ended up dragging the club into liquidation simply by refusing to budge from what he feels is a fair price for his shareholding. For a company that is in debt to the tune of around £22m, has an annual funding gap of £2m and whose only real tangible asset is the stadium, finding a compromise between Romanov's desired pay-off and what any supporters' group can afford or is willing to pay will be the first important step of any fan takeover.

"Asking somebody to take on something that is loss-making in the first instance and then pay money to the person who has overseen this chaotic situation is quite a high-level expectation," is the view of Stephen Morrow, senior lecturer in sport finance at the University of Stirling. "But he [Romanov] does hold the shares so the only way to get him out of this scenario might depend on the discussions between him and prospective bidders."

Those looking to take charge will therefore need to source the money to fund the takeover and then put together a business model that will allow the club to run on a sustainable basis. How such a model is structured will depend on the individual wealth of those involved, as well as the number of supporters willing to make a regular financial contribution. In an ideal world, supporters would inherit 100% of the club and run it as they see fit but sometimes such schemes falter when the initial enthusiasm that greets a fans-led takeover soon withers and it becomes a bind to have to continually plough in money just to keep the club afloat.

This model would seem to be the preferred modus operandi of the Foundation of Hearts, with Mackie revealing it was his intention to follow the fabled Barcelona model and have 25,000 members contribute £10 each month. What is yet unclear is just how the group would buy the club from Romanov – their original offer seemed to suggest they wanted it for nothing if they paid the £450,000 tax bill – or whether a club with an average attendance of around 12,000 could convince double that number to make a regular monthly contribution. If there were no wealthy individuals willing or able to meet Romanov's price, then the Hearts supporters may find themselves going down the route proposed by 10,000 Hours, the community interest company which tried to buy St Mirren by taking out a loan to buy the club and using the monthly contributions from fans to pay that back.

The alternative to full ownership would be the 50+1 model prevalent in German football where supporters retain a majority shareholding to stop any single entity taking control but are backed by business investors who make up the other 49%.

"There are strengths and weaknesses in both those models," added Morrow. "The most important thing is broadening the framework of ownership so that you involve supporters and community to a greater degree and give them a proper say in running the club."

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