On August 24 2011, during Exeter City’s League Cup clash against Liverpool at St. James Park, the familiar home chant of “We own our football club, we own our football club,” proudly rang out around the 8,830 capacity stadium. As the mantra died down and a brief moment of silence descended upon the arena, a lone voice could be heard screaming from the rain-soaked away end: “Did you keep the bloody receipt!”
Of course, this rhetorical query was met with a chorus of laughter as supporters of both sides within earshot reacted to this typical example of scouse terrace humour. City supporters wasted no time in upping the ante by questioning the whereabouts of Andy Carroll’s caravan (a reference to his apparent gypsy looks) through the medium of song.
But perhaps behind the banter, there was a tinge of jealousy from the Merseyside supporters. Yes, their side had been led out by club legend Kenny Dalglish and yes, they easily won the game 3-1 thanks to goals from Luis Suarez, Maxi Rodriguez, and Andy Carroll. But, less than a year before, the club had been on the brink of administration following the disastrous ownership of American businessmen Tom Hicks and George Gillett.
During those dark days at Anfield, the ultimate dream of many hard-core supporters was to achieve fan ownership. As far back as 2008, a group known as Share Liverpool FC had been setup, with the goal of creating a Barcelona-style socio system that would put the club into the control of the fans and prevent it from ever being sold for profit.
Around the same time, the Liverpool Supporters Union, known as the Spirit of Shankly, was formed. Although their initial priority was to remove the American owners from the club, the cooperative group also sought to tackle issues such as ticketing, travel, and regeneration of the area around the stadium. However, their ultimate goal was to pursue a fan ownership model.
As a result of their common interests, the two organisations combined their resources and formed a new body known as SOS-SL. Since 2010, the group has continued to campaign, develop, and plan for a model of supporter ownership.
Of course, for supporters such as those on Merseyside, who crave a football club owned and run by the supporters and their elected representatives, Exeter City are an interesting case study. While the sums of money and the number of fans involved may be significantly different, the underlying principle remains the same.
Like Liverpool, the South West club are no strangers to suffering unscrupulous figures at the helm. In fact, it was the illegal financial dealings of former Chairman, John Russell and former Vice-chairman, Mike Lewis that prompted the takeover by the Exeter City Supporters’ Trust.
In 2003, with the club saddled with around £4.5m worth of debt, the Trust purchased the club for £20,000 and entered into an arrangement with their creditors. By 2005, and with the help of a pair of lucrative FA Cup ties against Manchester United, the club became debt-free and have maintained a zero or low-debt status ever since.
In 2009, a further development saw the Exeter Exiles supporters’ group combine with the Trust to set up the 1931 Fund. Each year, the fund raises money to purchase one first-team squad player who, as part of the deal, is required to wear the No. 31 shirt. By 2017, the fund had contributed over £130,000 to the wages of seven players.
Of course, just like with any business structure, it has not been all plain sailing for the Trust, who have taken their fair share of criticism for decisions along the way. But it is on the football pitch where club owners are ultimately judged and, from that point of view, Exeter City can hold their heads up high.
he common theme at the club, both on and off the pitch, has been stability. Current manager Paul Tisdale has been at the club since 2006 and has proved to be adept at operating on a tight budget while keeping the team competitive in the third and fourth tiers. When he arrived at the club, they were still in the Conference but within three years he had led them to League One thanks to back-to-back promotions in 2007/09 and 2008/09.
The club played for two seasons in League One on a budget that was dwarfed by those of illustrious opponents such as Leeds United, Norwich City, and Southampton. They eventually fell back to League Two but have been knocking on the promotion door once again, reaching the play-off final last year, where they were eventually beaten 2-1 by Blackpool.
This season, Exeter City have started well once again and can be considered genuine title contenders. They begin the second week of November in fourth place just three points adrift of the leaders. Despite this, they are available at a huge 16/1 to win the title – the kind of price that may tempt those looking to use their Oddschecker free bets. Even a price of 13/8 just to get promoted looks good value considering the way the West Country outfit has performed over the last 12 months.
So what does the future hold for the fans who can claim “We own our football club?” Well, the next obvious step is to seal a return to League One. Beyond that, the target will be to beat their best-ever league finish (eighth in League One achieved under Tisdale in 2010/11). Of course, achieving that feat would raise the possibility of reaching the League One play-offs but that kind of talk is still dismissed as the stuff of dreams on the terraces of St. James Park.
However, Exeter City is a club that is also no stranger to surreal occurrences. Way back in June 2002, when the club was co-chaired by world-famous psychic Uri Geller (it was Geller who would later tip off the police about the dodgy financial dealings going on at the club), a charity event was organised to raise money for the club and for children suffering from HIV.
Guests included magician David Blaine and soul singer Patti Boulaye, but the star of the show was Geller’s close friend Michael Jackson. The singer appeared on a stage in the middle of the pitch and ordered the 10,000-strong crowd to hold hands and tell the person next to them that they loved them.
There are still a few superstitious types in Devon who believe that the King of Pop’s appearance marked the turning point in the club’s fortunes. However, there are a few thousand Fulham fans who might argue that the late performer’s usefulness as a lucky charm is somewhat limited.