A FOOTBALL club that is owned and managed by its fans will be celebrating the part its co-operative status played in its revival of fortunes this weekend.
At Co-operatives Congress – the annual conference of the co-operative movement – fans will be sharing its success story with other community- and employee-owned organisations as it celebrates its return to the Conference League.
AFC Telford Utd was founded in 2004 as a co-operative owned by its supporters, after its predecessor – Telford Utd – was placed into administration.
Although successful on the field, the 132-year-old club was wholly owned by a businessman whose empire ran into financial difficulties.
Club chairman Lee Carter recalled: “The fans rallied round to rescue the club, and in four weeks we had raised £64,000.
“However, this was nothing like the estimated £6.5 million needed to rescue the club, which included £1 million of liabilities like players’ wages.
“It was financial armageddon. Debt had killed the club.”
Supports Direct, an organisation which promotes sustainable sports clubs based on supporters’ involvement, was soon in touch to offer advice and assistance.
It suggested the supporters form a co-operative to democratically decide how the £64,000 should be spent, which led to the ambitious fans forming their own football club from scratch – and less than a month later AFC Telford Utd was born.
Telford – one of the largest towns in the UK without a league football club – had always played at the top of the Conference League, in the fifth level of the English football pyramid.
After putting their case to the Football Association, it was agreed that the new club would not have to start again from county level, and AFC Telford Utd started the new season in the Northern Premier League Division One – three tiers below its former position.
The club’s ambition was always to return to the Conference within 10 years. And six weeks ago – seven years after the formation of the new club – 5,400 fans watched AFC Telford Utd regain its status.
“There have been so many highlights in the club’s seven-year run, said Lee. “League records have been broken and our average gate has doubled from a base of 900, with over 5,000 people watching some of the matches.
“But the best thing was right at the beginning, when the community came together to save its football club. Desire, passion, enthusiasm, commitment, and sheer pig-headedness have got us where we are today.”
Looking to the future, the 900 co-operative members – all shareholders with equal voting rights irrespective of their financial contribution – have set their sights on a place in the Football League, following in the footsteps of another supporter-owned club, AFC Wimbledon.
Meanwhile, Supporters Direct says the AFC Telford Utd story has inspired other sports clubs in the region to adopt a co-operative status.
“Telford is one of the few towns where you see people wearing the replica shirts of their home team,” said Jacqui Forster of Supports Direct.
“Now, Telford Tigers have become the UK’s first community-owned ice hockey club.
“The Tigers are pioneers in the ice hockey world, and as a result of their success, Supports Direct is talking to to other ice hockey clubs about community ownership.
“The co-operative model is ideal for sports clubs – it really takes them back to their roots,” said Jacqui.
For more information about setting up a business or community organisation that is a co-operative, log on to the Co-operatives West Midlands website at www.cooperatives-wm.coop
Co-operatives Fortnight 2011, the national campaign which unites the co- operative sector, takes place from 25 June to 9 July 2011 with the theme Yours to Share.