Could Celtic be Community Owned?

Date: 2nd November 2015

Could Community Ownership work at Celtic?

By Paul Goodwin of the Scottish Football Supporters Association

In a recent poll Celtic fans were asked the question could community ownership work for them. The results were maybe surprising to some with 37% saying yes and a further 48% saying yes – but if they has more information. Perhaps the biggest surprise was that only 13% of those who took part said No sitting next to the 2% who were unsure.

I have been involved in developing community ownership plans for the past 5 years and I have to say that the results did not come as a surprise to me. When the community ownership bandwagon started in Scotland with Stirling Albion and Clyde most folk had no idea what it meant and whether it would actually work. Now both those clubs might not seem to be the best examples to use as the on field performances have hardly matched the progress off the field. However, all members are treated equally as owners and the clubs are run openly, democratically and debt free. Further up the football food chain two other clubs who were in crisis, Dunfermline Athletic and Heart of Midlothian, have proven that the model can work at larger clubs in Scotland and that is despite the fact that both these clubs had to go through major surgery to get to that point. At Motherwell they are not waiting on the crisis to come but are organising an orderly change from benefactor to community ownership through the Well Society.

In Scottish Football since the Second World War we have depended on major benefactors “investing” or “donating” their own money to make the club successful. Indeed is some cases in recent times is was investing money they didn’t have to chase success. Of course the definition of successful is wide open to interpretation too but our research suggests is mostly that fans want their club to always be there for them and for future generations – it is part of your family / your DNA. Many of these so called benefactors have crashed and burned and others most notably Fergus McCann saw an opportunity, came in used his business skills left the club in a better place than he found it and enhanced his own bank balance along the way.

There is anything wrong with having a benefactor who runs the club they way that they want as long as the fans get what they want- which is that elusive success. Just ask the fans of Manchester City and Chelsea who not that long ago were sleeping giants in the third and second tier of English Football respectively. However, the market in Scotland is completely different and we are just never going to attract that type of investment. Finding new investment is of course a dangerous road as was demonstrated in Edinburgh at Hearts. Of course at Celtic fans know there is a continental model that works in Germany and in Scandinavia where supporters own 50 plus 1 % of the shares and the remaining 49% is held by businesses or individuals. This protects the interest of the club and its community from unwelcome predators and allows these clubs to be open democratic organisations. Don’t like your President then vote him out at next years election is a nice starting point.

The challenge for Dermot Desmond is actually the same challenge that Stewart Gilmour Chairman at St.Mirren has faced for several years. Gilmour is a Buddie through and through and given his all for the club including a stadium rebuild and getting them into a debt free position as well as major Cup win. However, he wants out and to get the money he and his fellow consortium directors invested years ago. The difficulty is that they only people who have come calling at St.Mirren Park, have left him feeling very uncomfortable as they are not Saints men and are not connected to the community. A series of Swiss agents, Argentinean agents and interesting folk from across the border have come and gone without a deal as Gilmour can’t take the risk on selling unless it is to the right people. If you look specifically at the Celtic scenario Dermot Desmond obviously cares about the club; but will not invest his own money to take the club on to the next level as it is unsustainable. At some stage in the future he will need to think about an exit strategy. At the age of 65 Desmond he is not getting any younger and he will need to think about – the what next scenario? He has two options either; sell his shareholding to another investor who would suit his criteria of having the best interests of Celtic at heart or could he not do what Ann Budge is doing and proceed with an orderly sale to the people who matter the most- the fans.

Finding somebody who is interested in a Scottish Club would be a challenge but finding somebody who is willing to pay what Desmond wants could be and even bigger challenge. Offering it to the fans in a transition period such as Budge is doing would be a sensible option and could bring in huge benefits. If the Foundation of Hearts can get over 8000 contributing £15.50 a month to be owners then Celtic might attract 40,000 in a huge engagement process across the world which is something that the club have always failed to do. If we worked on the Hearts figures that would be a benefit similar to the German clubs have of £7.4m in funds coming in from 40,000 benefactors each year. With that inward investment, those supporters would have a say on how that it is spent, how the club is governed and of course it’s future strategy. What finer way to leave a legacy than to give the club to those who love it the most in the knowledge it will be run sustainably for future generations to enjoy.

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