13/11/2007

Trust in Dreams?

As we approach the second AGM of the Robins Trust, it is time to take stock of the project. Not surprisingly, that while the project is far from being an unmitigated disaster, it also has not been an overwhelming success. The question in my mind is whether the Trust has failed to live up to its potential due to failings of myself, and my fellow board members, whether other factors have kept us down, or whether my initial imagination of the potential of the trust was wildly unrealistic.

Achievements. As an enthusiastic and fund raising organisation, the trust has been as good as any in the past, there has been the ‘Sporting dinner’, quiz and race nights, regular raffles and the Christmas parties. All those involved were very proud of the achievement of the sponsored cycle ride, while the Sponsorship for youth scheme is still well supported. As a result of this, we have raised enough money to pay over £10,000 for club shares, and added significant amounts to the youth pool and to charities.

Dialogue with the club. One of our aims was to open up a dialogue with the board of the club, especially the chairman to put supporters’ views, etc. We do have dialogue running at all levels, but most of this is to do with our own organisation and how best to raise money. At the start of the season, there was talk of a fans charter to formalise how a supporter with a grievance could take this to the club – constructive talks have been held, and this is being taken forward by Brian Lancaster

Membership Numbers. The membership number is currently around 170 – and is showing a slow decline. This is equivalent to about 5% of the support the through the gate on any particular match day.

To be honest, the trust has done only a little better than other, earlier supporters organisations at Cheltenham. As a group, we do have the ear of the directors, but we can weald no influence, as we cannot truly say that we talk for the bulk of the support. I would have liked the trust to send a message urging caution, to the directors during the week before Keith Downing was appointed manager – but it would have been difficult to get agreement within our board on the wording, and it we could not be certain that the trust board would agree to send such a message – even though I believe our thoughts on the appointment were unanimous

In terms of the trusts other briefs when we started, (as opposed to the old CTISA), we have not yet achieved much – we have not really done anything to improve the clubs standing in the community, nor have we approached the business community in any significant way.

In comparison with other trusts, we are ‘ordinary’. Some trusts boast around 30% of the regular support as membership, and have members of the football club board, but these have almost always come about through a financial crisis at the football club in question. As we have no desire to make a crisis out of any drama here. Most trusts of clubs that have not had to face any crisis appear to be of a similar size to our own (source, Football Governance Research Centre, Birbeck, University of London).

Where do we go from here? It is quite clear that our trust is a critical point. The membership is in decline, and around half our initial board membership has left – without replacement. Several other board members, including myself would like to take a back seat for a while and let others take the lead. I think it would be advantageous if the trust board could take on some of younger blood and organise more events that appeal to the younger sections of the support.

The most likely course over the next few months for the trust is more of the same, with similar types of funding raising events and regular raffles. In this case, I can see the overall membership levels continuing to decline. The fact that the football club appears to already be preparing for relegation at the end of the season means that the general mood will remain one of depression for the foreseeable future, but we do not have the crisis of the type that has galvanised support of other clubs into action.

What I would like to see at some stage is a big push forward by the trust board, with a sudden rise in membership numbers. I still imagine a trust with over 1000 members – a figure that would make us a force to be reckoned with. I think a 1000 member trust would be able to force its way onto the board (not that there would be a great opposition here, so long as it was understood that certain details, like individual employees pay would remain confidential). A 1000 member trust needs a board of around 15-20 members (some could be sub-committees) in order to keep regular events going on – not just in Cheltenham, but in other towns in the area.

It would be expected that a larger trust would have a larger influence on the community. I could see the Trust, and hence the football club playing a larger part in other events in the town. This is a festival town, with a series of festivals; literature, music, cricket and racing – there is no reason why the football club cannot be part of these festivals, and that the trust should be the key link.

The biggest change in trust activity though, would be with the business community. And it is to forge these links that we need to first have a sizable group. When we first started, we negotiated an agreement with McDonalds for our members to buy cheap meals from the High Street branch. I believe this is still valid, but I do not know if anyone takes advantage of it. It is poorly advertised at our end, and I suspect at their end as well. I wanted to see this as the first of a number of links, but I cannot go up to a shop or restaurant and try to negotiate a discount for our feeble membership numbers. I want to see ways of the trust presenting benefits for its members within the town and the surrounding areas, but at the same time building up the profile of the football club within these establishments. I want the whole town to feel that the Football club belongs to them

The trust started at just the wrong time for me, personally. I had been unemployed for a couple of months prior to start up, but I have been in near continuous employment since, and my employment has continually been over 100 miles from the football ground. I have my dreams of how a football trust could run for the benefit of all, and where the town pulled together to support the club – rather than asking the nearest single rich person to subsidise it.

But, if I am being truthful, I know these are just dreams and here in Cheltenham, apathy will continue to rule.