11:10am Friday 18th May 2012
By Dave Peters
EXETER City are one of the teams owned by their supporters. Bucks Free Press assistant editor Dave Peters explains the highs and lows of their fans’ takeover – which could give a glimpse into Wycombe Wanderers’ future.
‘WE own our football club’ is a chant bellowed out by Exeter City supporters every Saturday afternoon.
But while there’s a huge sense of pride in being able to take the moral high ground over all those high-risk strategy win-or-bust clubs we know it means we’re probably destined to only ever tread the League’s lower ground in footballing terms.
The Trust model served us brilliantly as we climbed out of the Conference to reclaim our Football League status , winning the play-off final in front of more than 20,000 Exonians at Wembley.
Then we won promotion to League One at the first attempt and the season before last, finished just one point off the play-offs and a possible place in the Championship for the first time in our history.
For once it was glory, glory Exeter City and it tasted all the sweeter because we had done it ourselves.
As fans we had saved the club when everyone was telling us to switch off the life support machine and adopt a Premiership club instead.
With our former chairman John Russell in jail for fraudulent trading, debts in excess of £4m and the team having been relegated to the Conference, City’s situation looked terminal.
But the fans refused to accept it. Red or Dead was launched with supporters pledging to raise £500 each, bucket collections were held, even coffee mornings – anything to keep the club afloat – pride went out of the window as every penny counted.
Our efforts were rewarded when the Supporters Trust won control of the club – and fortune smiled on us when our numerous creditors agreed to accept seven pence in the pound.
A £1million FA Cup tie at Old Trafford and replay followed. Then came two trips to Wembley for play-off finals before another promotion the year after - while, each season, we sold a player for good money to supplement the income that 3,000 loyal fans chipped in each month by direct debit.
We were people’s favourite second team and for the first time ever people were envious of us Exeter fans.
But the trips to Wembley stopped, the law of Bosman hit hard, and instead of selling our best players we were losing them on free transfers to clubs who could pay bigger wages.
We lost four of the team that took us to the brink of the Championship without a penny in return. We couldn’t afford to replace them and went down.
The signs aren’t any more encouraging for next year.
City’s budget has been slashed back to what it was in the Conference – and is only £500,000 bigger than Chesham United’s.
Instead of looking forward to entertaining the likes of Norwich, Southampton, Leeds and both Sheffield clubs who all bought more than 1,000 away supporters with them to St James’ Park we are now going to host clubs who will struggle to bring 100 fans with them to our South West outpost, which will barely be enough to cover the police or stewarding bill.
Reality has bitten. Twenty pounds a month or even £100 a month from those that can afford it among the the 3,000 die hard Trust members isn’t enough to compete.
City are coming up to their tenth anniversary as a Trust run club. During that time we have enjoyed the best times in our 108-year history, beating Leeds, doing league doubles over Sheffield Wednesday and Charlton and of course the aforementioned Wembley trips and more importantly we still have our club.
But it is now at a crossroads. The Championship dream seems as far away as ever and while many fans would never go back to the days of letting an outside businessman take over, there are others who feel that the Trust has taken us as far as we can go.
The work will continue. Fans will continue to give up their time to paint the ground in the summer and do other voluntary work. My friend Neil will continue to catch the early train down from London every Saturday so he can open up the bottle bar to make the club a bit more money and after the game fans will continue to stay behind to clear rubbish from the terraces.
‘We own our Football Club’ will continue to ring out at St James’ Park next season – but I suspect it will take some time before chants of ‘We are Top of the League’ will accompany them.
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