The Leeds United Supporters Trust’s developing plan to buy shares in Leeds United comes at a time of relative calm at Elland Road.
Were a stake to fall into their hands next week – which, by LUST’s own admission, it won’t – the organisation would not be buying into a club in genuine crisis. In that respect they have the time and flexibility which Swansea City’s Supporters Trust worked without in 2002.
The YEP revealed last Saturday how LUST are piecing together the money and regulatory paperwork needed to bid for a 10 per cent stake in Leeds. They are attempting to do what their counterparts in Swansea did almost 12 years ago when, with City suffering at the hands of businessman and owner Tony Petty, they joined a local consortium and bought shares: 20 per cent of Swansea for a fee of £200,000.
City were part of England’s old third division back then. At the end of the 2002-03 season they finished 21st, marginally above the Football League breadline, but a decade in bed with the Supporters Trust has been exceptionally kind.
They won promotion in 2005 and again in 2008. A custom-built stadium became their new home. Two years ago they broke into the Premier League and have never looked like falling away. That remarkable timeline holds Swansea up as evidence of the view that the involvement of fans in the management of professional clubs can be advantageous and highly profitable.
“From our point of view supporter involvement is a no-brainer,” says Alan Lewis, the Swansea City Supporters Trust’s media officer. “But it’s right to say that we had a unique set of circumstances which were particularly suited to supporter involvement.
“When we bought shares we were buying them as part of a consortium made up primarily of local businessman so the majority of people involved in that deal were fans of the club, regardless of whether they were members of the Trust. You had fans right across the board.
“Other clubs, other ownership structures, might not be so accommodating. It’s a case of horses for courses and the fact that it worked at Swansea doesn’t mean it would work the same way at Leeds. But for obvious reasons we can see the benefits of fans buying shares.”
LUST would have to pay considerably more for a stake in Leeds than the sum raised by SCST in 2002.
A rough calculation values a 10 per cent share in United at around £2m but LUST have already secured a six-figure sum in pledges and held positive meetings with members of United’s board and Leeds City Council. The next hurdle is to meet the requirements of the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), one of the bodies responsible for regulating Supporters Trusts.
Swansea’s Supporters Trust are presently the second largest shareholder in the club and they have had a representative on Swansea’s board of directors since their investment in 2002. The first, Leigh Dineen, is now City’s vice-chairman. Current incumbent Huw Cooze has been repeatedly re-elected by the Trust.
“The way we work is that our members elect the Trust’s board and every two years the Trusts’s board elect a representative to be the supporters director at Swansea,” Lewis says.
“Initially we weren’t sure how it would work but essential the Swansea board is a democratic organisation. Huw has an opinion and a vote like every other director and sometimes he’ll be outvoted. Sometimes he’ll be in the majority.
“The Trust don’t tell him how to deal with every tiny issue but on certain matters he’ll come to us with the information and our members decide how he should vote. It’s a mandate and it works.
“We don’t have a magic formula down here. What we have is a football club where most of the directors are fans anyway. So supporter involvement is a way of life, if you like. But it’s a good thing to have someone who is the eyes and ears of a large group of fans on the ground.”
LUST’s chairman, Gary Cooper, told the YEP last week that any bid for shares in Leeds would not necessarily involve a demand for a seat in the boardroom at Elland Road.
“There must be people among our fans who could occupy a position, possibly below board level, which allows some sort of direct feed into the boardroom,” Cooper said. “What we’re aiming to do is involve ourselves in a way which actively helps to make the club stable, sustainable and in-touch.”
Sustainability is also on the minds of City’s Supporters Trust. As orderly as life is at the Liberty Stadium, the ownership structure of major English clubs has been known to change overnight.
“We tend to look at our shareholding as a little bit of an insurance policy,” Lewis says. “If anything drastic happens or anything changes then we’re in a position to affect it.”