Looking back on Ebbsfleet and the MyFootballClub experiment
“Being a passionate football fan I’m pleased I didn’t fuck up a football club. I was always very careful, I didn’t want to do anything too reckless because I know how important football clubs are to people. I was never going to do anything that was going to put that into jeopardy. That was an achievement. It could have been an absolutely monumental car crash and it wasn’t. We didn’t create absolute mayhem, which is what some people predicted.”
It was supposed to signal the dawn of a new age of football fandom. Although there have been plenty of imitators, Ebbsfleet United will always be the first professional sports club owned and run by an online community. With more than 32,000 members at the height of its popularity, MyFootballClub offered a form of wish-fulfilment for football fans – the chance to be a hybrid of manager and chairman – sanctioning transfers, choosing the team, propelling a little-known club up the league pyramid. It was a fantasy for armchair experts, but one which never quite became reality.
The concept came from former journalist and copywriter Will Brooks. As a Fulham fan, he’d witnessed their fundraising efforts in the 1970s and 80s – the crowd throwing coins into blankets being walked around the edge of the pitch. It was a haphazard and, to Brooks’s mind, inefficient process. He felt that a more co-ordinated effort could see those same fans owning the club they went to watch.
Inspired by the success of the Football Manager franchise, and supporters’ desire to simulate the experience of running a club, he wondered – why not do it for real? Initially, Brooks discussed his idea with a couple of club owners and potential sponsors. There was lots of enthusiasm, some reservations about the decision making process and no real progress.
In 2007 he took it upon himself to make it happen with a simple, one-page website. “I launched that website just completely speculatively and that was pretty much ten years ago, in April 2007,” says Brooks. “Those were the days when you’d email your friends links to stuff. You wouldn’t do it on WhatsApp or Facebook. I just started it like that. I sent it to about ten friends, who in theory sent it to ten friends. Luckily, what made it really mushroom was that the BBC Football website picked it up as a sort of curiosity story. From that moment, I never looked back.”
The MyFootballClub concept tapped into supporters’ deeply held beliefs that they know best. “Own the club, pick the team” was the simple yet captivating promise. A media scrum ensued, with Brooks fielding interview requests from around the world. Within three months, 53,000 people had registered. The finer details and legal issues were ironed out with the help of two friends, a lawyer and a web designer, and an appeal for money was sent to all those who had signed up. Brooks had no idea if their interest would extend to financial commitment.
“I was refreshing the PayPal account every five seconds and there’d be another three or four thousand pounds in it. It just exploded. It was a surreal moment but in a way I didn’t really appreciate it because I was thinking that wouldn’t be enough to buy a football club. I was constantly worried about it,” he says.
“Amazingly, in 24 hours we got £250,000 and then after ten days we had half a million. Then football clubs started getting in touch with us. I think we spoke to about 12 different owners wanting us to clear their debt and take over their club. It was a matter of trying to find the right one and Ebbsfleet ticked lots of boxes.
“The day we started taking money, we launched the forums. They were just awash with threads from different countries and people were meeting up in different areas and setting up little sub-supporters groups. It was a lovely, organic, happy kind of thing. In those early days of MyFootballClub the forums were very friendly. There was none of the nasty stuff that you can quite often get with social media. It had a lovely innocence to it and a real kind of hopefulness.”
Halifax Town, Leigh RMI and Mansfield Town were all explored as options. Although some members dreamed of rescuing one of English football’s grand names, with Leeds United and Nottingham Forest both struggling at the time, there was never realistically enough money to make that work.
Brooks was drawn to the idea of a team in the Conference, with the excitement of pushing for promotion to the Football League and the potential for coverage in national newspapers and on TV. MyFootballClub’s interest in Ebbsfleet was officially announced in November 2007, and after three months of negotiations a deal was completed in February 2008. It was put to a vote, with 95.89% of members in favour of making a collective leap into the unknown.
Previously called Gravesend and Northfleet and situated in the north-west corner of Kent, the club had only recently been renamed. It was now garnering international attention, with members from 120 different countries. Liam Daish had already been in charge for three years before suddenly everything shifted. A tough defender for Birmingham City, Cambridge United and Coventry City, he picked up five Republic of Ireland caps and was once bought for £1.5 million. Struggling financially under Jason Botley, Ebbsfleet United were secured for well under half that fee – £635,000.
“My first impressions were fine. They were good lads and they obviously wanted me to buy into what it was all about,” says Daish. “It was definitely new – no one had done it before. It was quite exciting, they had big plans. They were very professional, they showed me the website they’d built and that they had more than 30,000 members. It was a new concept that I’d never come across. It was something that I didn’t dismiss. I went along with it and tried to make it work.
“Initially I had to do a lot more work regarding the media. They clambered all over it. We were playing Oxford United away on the day of the takeover and everyone was in the press box. There was a lot of work with that. It changed my role in terms of me being more interactive with the membership, giving my views and thoughts on things. There was a lot more work I had to do off the training ground. Early on it was a bit of a rollercoaster.”
In theory, the new set-up undermined Daish’s position. One of MyFootballClub’s biggest selling points was the prospect of members being able to pick the team, putting their knowledge to the test. Fortunately for traditionalists, who thought it would compromise the integrity of the club, this never came to pass. Each week members were asked to vote on who should pick the team, themselves or the manager, and they chose Daish every time.
Despite some scepticism from existing Ebbsfleet supporters, they were generally pleased that the club had been saved from financial ruin. The experiment started well, as Ebbsfleet won the FA Trophy just months after the takeover, beating Torquay United 1-0 in front of a crowd of 40,186 at Wembley. They finished the 2008-09 season in 14th place in the Conference and Daish was able to retain players he couldn’t have afforded to without MyFootballClub’s investment.
The club tried hard to keep members engaged with player interviews, interactive content and live streaming of games online but there were already signs of waning interest. 5000 members had never returned to the website since paying their £35. Numbers continued to fall from then on and, once the novelty wore off, many were disillusioned with the limited extent of their influence.
Votes were held to decide on Daish’s weekly playing budget, potential kit designs and, most notably, the sale of promising striker John Akinde. A graduate of the club’s academy he was keen to move up the divisions. An offer of £140,000 from Bristol City was put to the members. For the first time, transfer policy and a 19 year old’s future were being decided by public consensus. After Daish explained that Akinde wanted to leave and wouldn’t sign a new contract, a deal was approved.
Much of this windfall was spent on clearing debt. With finances tightening as the membership declined, Ebbsfleet proceeded to bounce between the divisions. In the first full season of MyFootballClub’s ownership, they were relegated from the Conference before making an immediate return via the play-offs. Brooks, who had been employing six people to help run MyFootballClub, stepped away from the project, unable to deliver the service he wanted to. A scaled-back website was handed over to existing members. The dream began to die.
“One of my biggest conclusions is that perhaps the idea was more exciting than the reality. I think people loved the idea of it and the media loved the idea of it, but then when you announce that you’ve bought a Conference club and nobody’s heard of the players, then people began to potentially switch off a bit,” says Brooks.
“Perhaps understandably MyFootballClub became less welcome at Ebbsfleet when the money started to dry up. While we were there bringing enthusiasm and finance it was fine, but as soon as we were running out of money it became more difficult.”
Ahead of the 2012-13 season, there were just 1,300 members left and the club was haemorrhaging money. Winning matches became a secondary concern for Daish, who was preoccupied with trying to keep the club afloat. As well as running the team he had to manage expectations, give guidance to members with limited knowledge of the mechanics of a non-League club and source external funds.
“It just wasn’t sustainable. In the end I had a budget of £4,500-£5,000 a week to run a team in the Conference National that was full of ex-League sides and it just sort of fell apart really. Because they still owned the club, we were probably in a poorer position than we were before because there was no real influx of money. A club of that size is not sustainable on people who come through the gate.
“In the last year the club was on the brink of basically folding. We were trying to organise events to bring money in – dinners and things like that. We were going cap in hand to clubs who had sell-on fees on players. Michael Bostwick was one. He was at Stevenage. We didn’t get a lot of money for him but we had a sell-on clause. With the taxman and HMRC knocking on the door it was a case of going to the chairmen of these clubs and asking if they could do a deal on the sell-on to get us through to the end of the season. We got relegated but that was the least of our worries.”
What started out as a bold attempt to transform football ownership ended badly. A potent mix of financial problems and fan protests brought everything to a head and in April 2013, MyFootballClub’s members voted in favour of handing two thirds of their shares to the Fleet Trust and the other third to one of the club’s major shareholders. KEH Sports Ltd, a group of Kuwaiti investors, arrived to take over within a month and remain in place to this day. Despite seeing the club through a tumultuous period, Daish was ousted as manager.
In the four years since, Ebbsfleet have been consistently pushing for promotion, which was finally achieved in May with a play-off final win over Chelmsford City. Even now there are still thousands of supporters across the world who look out for their results, buy replica shirts and make occasional pilgrimages to Stonebridge Road. Lifelong friendships were formed and at least one marriage came about through MyFootballClub. It also spawned plenty of copies, from Japan to Germany.
The man behind this unique chapter in English football history is conflicted about what it achieved. Brooks believes the model was ahead of its time in terms of crowdfunding and mobilising online communities and, with a few significant tweaks, may still work. MyFootballClub still exists, with a much reduced membership, sponsoring Slough Town.
Largely forgotten about in the intervening years, it represented a profound shift from localised and concentrated support of lower-league clubs to something more global and diffuse. For some this was anathema to the essence of football, for others it was the answer to fans being marginalised and taken for granted. Now living in New Zealand and once more working as a copywriter, Brooks is protective of the idea.
“I never want to call it a failure. It had a bit of everything really. But I suppose the fact that it’s not still going means it didn’t achieve its ultimate aim,” he says. “In some ways I think we might have been 10 years too early. Had this been happening now, as a fresh idea, I think we’d have a lot more members simply because of the way social media works. The website could have been a lot better, so I think there is potential for it.
“I think what’s quite interesting is that at the time it was a really big story – it was in every newspaper, it was on the 10 o’clock news on the BBC when we bought the club. It was huge. But I almost feel like it’s as if it never happened. I think there’s definitely something in the idea still, but I don’t know what the formula is for it.”