On February 28, an article on BBC Sport featured an exclusive interview with an upbeat Stuart Harvey, founder of OWNAFC. Describing his app as “the ultimate experience of a being chairman” without “the boardroom nonsense we see at many clubs”, he talked of how it would allow shareholders to have a say in all aspects of running a real football club, for £49 a share.
Less than three weeks later, the dream seems dead in the water. A planned takeover of Evo Stik Northern Premier League club Hednesford Town fell through, and the BBC now reports that investors are demanding their £49 back, with complaints even being received by Watchdog Action Fraud.
A look at Twitter on any Saturday or Sunday afternoon between August and May will quickly show that social media loves football, and the capability of becoming involved with a football club remotely is clearly there, so why do concepts like this often fall at the first hurdle?
OWNAFC is not even an original concept. Back in 2008, the website MyFootballClub took ownership of non-league Ebbsfleet United, with a peak total of 32,000 ‘owners’ having a say on the running of the Kent football club. However, the majority of them lost interest after one season, and by 2013 – following one or two financial skirmishes – the website had relinquished control of the club.
Harvey stated in his BBC Sport interview that MyFootballClub came “10 years too early”, before smartphones and apps had really entered the mainstream, but it did last five years and didn’t prove to be a complete disaster for Ebbsfleet, who are still in top flight of non-league football as they were at the time of the takeover. OWNAFC, on the other hand, appears to have unravelled within a matter of weeks.
Ideas like OWNAFC appear to be aimed at players of management simulation games like Sports Interactive’s ‘Football Manager’ series. Speaking from personal experience, these games are fun and highly addictive, but in reality, running a football club is not something that can be done from the comfort of your bedroom or office desk.
In the case of OWNAFC, a big stumbling block appears to be acquiring a club in the first place, and understandably so. Why should supporters of Hednesford Town – a club that has existed since 1880, played at the top level of non-league football and once reached the Third Round of the FA Cup – be happy for an army of people with no emotional connection to the club to make decisions from behind a computer or phone screen? What sort of club manager would be content to sit in a dugout watching a team picked for him by app users? Is it fair to staff at the club that they could be sacked if that’s what the whims of OWNAFC shareholders decide?
Harvey argues that OWNAFC is a concept centred on taking club ownership ‘back to the people’ and avoiding situations like Newcastle United being in the hands of unpopular businessman Mike Ashley. Similar boardroom unrest has been seen in recent years at clubs like Blackpool, Bolton Wanderers, Chesterfield and countless other clubs with plenty of history and tradition. Supporter ownership is a great thing and is working well at clubs like Portsmouth, AFC Wimbledon, Newport County, Wrexham and (by and large) Chester, but ideas like OWNAFC are as bad as autocratic owners in that they turn clubs into playthings for people with only a half-hearted interest in their welfare.
The running of a real football club is far too complex to be gamified in this way. In England and Wales, nobody lives far from a non-league football club, and these clubs are usually very keen to get volunteers involved. Fans may find it much more rewarding to invest their time into their local team and meet new people, rather than spending £49 on what appears to be a poorly thought out pipe dream at best.