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A Magazine for Sheffield

Is it time for the fans to take control of Sheffield Wednesday?

The Owls won a fairytale promotion in May, but a series of screw-ups and disappointments have left unhappy supporters pointing blame at the club's owner. Is a fan takeover the answer?

Sheffield wednesday hillsborough stadium

The sale of Hillsborough to a company owned by Chansiri saw Wednesday docked points under financial fair play rules.

Arne Müseler at Wikimedia Commons.

Stripes ditched. Late kits. Unpaid players. Sale of Hillsborough. Darren Moore. Record losses. Points deduction.

These are just a few of the 42 controversies and cock-ups listed by Sheffield Wednesday supporter @KivoLee on Twitter, spanning the last decade at Hillsborough Stadium.

"Just off the top of my head," he writes. "Owt else?"

"No gravy on pies in the north [stand]," another fan adds. "A disgrace."

The unprecedented level of disquiet among Wednesday fans is all the more surprising when you remember that the club bagged a fairytale promotion to the Championship mere months ago.

After finding themselves 4-0 down to Peterborough in the first leg of the play-off semi finals, they went on to score five goals in the second leg, in what has been described as "the greatest comeback in English Football League playoff history."

The Owls went on to win the Wembley final 1-0 against Barnsley, but only three weeks later their victorious manager Darren Moore – one of the only Black managers in the entire football league – left the club after failing to agree terms for a contract renewal with its owner.

That owner, since 2015, has been Thai canned tuna magnate Dejphon Chansiri, who bought the club in a deal worth £37.5 million and who said that he would "do whatever is appropriate to invest in the club to get them to the Premier League."

But the then-Championship club, who have won the top flight trophy four times in their history, did not make a return to the highest echelons of English football. Instead, the club were relegated to League One (the third tier) in 2021.

Despite a relatively speedy return to the Championship, Moore's departure has seen the mood among fans sour, and many of them lay the blame at Chansiri's door for a series of off-pitch own goals over the past decade.

“Since Wembley, Chansiri has created a vacuum where community, optimism and pride were thriving,” long-time supporter Bethany Clements-Patrick told Now Then.

“The termination of Darren Moore’s contract, rightfully credited with cultivating an atmosphere around the club again, chipped confidence going into our season, but didn’t fully take the wind out of supporters’ sails.”

Darren moore

Darren Moore speaks to journalists after Wednesday beat Cheltenham 4-1 in March 2022.

Tommiebabs on Wikimedia Commons.

“But Chansiri’s familiar churn of questionable appointments, finger-pointing and neglect have sent perspectives around the club into free-fall. The same ownership that relegated us in the first place is dragging us back down.”

Gaffes and own goals

These controversies include a baffling decision to drop the club's iconic blue-and-white stripes before bringing them back a season later, and a tone-deaf congratulations message to arch rivals Sheffield United after they secured their own promotion in 2019.

Then there was a bizarre tribute from the club following the death of the King of Thailand, which was apparently made "in a show of unity and reverence for our chairman Dejphon Chansiri" (this reverence is evidently not universal).

On a more day-to-day level, there has been a widespread feeling among fans stretching back to the start of Chansiri’s ownership that they are being ripped off and that their beloved club is being used as a cash cow.

The average price fans have paid for a season ticket is the second highest in the Championship this season, coming in at £623 (only Norwich is higher). The most expensive single matchday tickets have also shot up to a hefty £59 a game.

These price hikes might be more acceptable if fans were seeing the money reinvested into Hillsborough stadium, whose 2018 sale to another company owned by Chansiri saw the club docked points under financial fair play rules.

Instead, supporters report a lack of running water in the toilets and no tea or coffee available from the Kop stand due to there being no hot water (as well as the aforementioned gravy situation).

The prevailing sense is that one of England's most beautiful and characterful stadiums has been left to a managed decline. The same could be said of the club itself – it looks unlikely that Wednesday will survive this season in the Championship without a serious reversal of fortunes.

“I may not have been born here and I will probably not die here”

Disquiet among fans came to a head last Friday when Chansiri released a bizarre, rambling statement on the club’s website which triggered a fresh wave of protest against his ownership.

In the seemingly unedited 1,500-word message, the owner berated fans for “crossing the line” with their protests against him, which he said were becoming too personal, and that as a result he would no longer be investing money in the club.

“Some fans say I am the custodian, not the owner. Who say they were born here and will die here,” wrote Chansiri.

“I may not have been born here and I will probably not die here but one thing I can say is that I will always try and do my best for Wednesday. Even though I have been involved for less than 10 years, that does not make my love for our club any higher or lower than anyone else.”

Play off

Wednesday celebrate winning the play-off final in May.

Andrew1829 on Wikimedia Commons.

“To those who are trying to create trouble damaging the club, I ask, what have you done that is good for your club, why are you trying to harm it? If I am such a bad owner, what are you doing on your side?”

The petulant tone of the statement attracted derision from well beyond the boundaries of S6, and fans of clubs across the country expressed sympathy with Wednesdayites on social media about their dismissive treatment by the club’s owner.

On Monday, the Sheffield Wednesday Supporters' Trust, which represents the interests of fans, said they had contacted league officials “to help us understand the statement's impact on the Club's funding & potential effects on the Club's staff & immediate future.”

“Since Friday’s statement, the mood around the club is ominous,” said Clements-Patrick. “Chansiri’s version of generosity – large sums of money seemingly spent on little-to-nothing – has been weaponised, with a threat to withhold club funding until fan protests cease.”

“Fans have been dubbed ‘selfish’ for their passion and protectiveness over the club, in the same week that they have raised over £25,000 for charity to change the narrative around the fanbase.”

She went on to suggest that this could be Chansiri’s “final straw”, describing the current situation as “the strongest discontent towards the chairman I can remember.”

By fans, for fans

But opinion towards the club's owner stands in stark contrast to that of the club's staff and supporters, who are widely recognised as one of the strongest and most characterful fanbases in the UK.

The club is notable for its blossoming LGBTQ+ supporters group, its 300-member strong Women's Supporters Group and its community work in the area around its S6 home. In response to rocketing prices, club staff have set up a scheme to provide disadvantaged supporters with subsidised tickets in response to rocketing prices.

Famous fan Pete McKee recently completed work on a new mural round the corner from the stadium, capturing the moment Wednesday scored a winning goal against Sheffield United in 2012. McKee described the work as “a statement that the fans are the lifeblood of the club, and we will be there while managers, owners and players come and go.”

It's clear that this 156-year-old club already does belong to its fans, in spirit if not financially. But could this strong sense of community on the terraces go one step further? Is it time for the supporters themselves to take control at S6?

Fan ownership of football clubs is a rarity in the UK, but is more common in other countries, especially in Germany. Clubs competing in the top two tiers of the Bundesliga must be majority owned by members of that club – usually fans – in what is known as the 50+1 rule.

Bayern munich

Bayern Munich, one of the world's most successful teams, is majority fan-owned.

JasonParis on Wikimedia Commons.

This stops private shareholders or cash buyers taking over a top German club and making decisions that run contrary to the interests of its fans, as has been the case in the Premier League with the two decade-long protest by Manchester United fans against the Glazer family’s ownership.

According to the Bundesliga, the rule “simultaneously protects against reckless owners and safeguards the democratic customs of German clubs”, leading to “the highest average attendances in world football, low ticket prices and a great fan culture.”

The lack of such a rule in the UK means that fans of Sheffield Wednesday – who would be subject to it if they were in the second tier of German rather than English football – must watch on powerlessly as the owner makes decisions that many see as embarrassing to the club.

“Football clubs are community anchors,” Labour councillor Minesh Parekh, Deputy Chair of the Economic Development Committee, told Now Then in response to Chansiri’s statement. “We need to move the game away from treating them as global brands to be bought for profit and return to clubs rooted in and working for their communities.”

Enter Exeter

Exeter City were in the doldrums in 2003. Formed in 1901, the Devon club were relegated from the Football League entirely for the first time in their history, and in the process had racked up £4.8 million of debt.

Adding insult to injury were a series of embarrassing off-pitch incidents that have uncomfortable echoes of the charges levelled by Wednesday fans against Chansiri two decades later.

A low point came in 2002 when the club’s owners (who were later convicted for fraudulent trading) invited Michael Jackson, Uri Geller and David Blaine down to their St James Park ground for an ill-fated fundraiser, in an incident described by the Guardian as “a travelling circus troupe”.

The club was a laughing stock when it was bought the following year by the Exeter City Supporters' Trust, who have been the majority shareholder ever since.

Over that time, the roughly 3,600 fans who are members of the Trust have turned the club around, propelling Exeter City up to the third tier of the Football League. But perhaps more importantly, profiles by the Guardian and the BBC to mark 20 years of fan ownership reveal the unique sense of pride and connection supporters have with their club.

“I’m sad at how other clubs judge success,” Trust chair Nick Hawker recently told the Guardian. “It doesn’t have to be on the pitch. It can be good financial performance, what you do in the community, how you treat your supporters... if the fans feel that ownership, why would you boo?”

Exeter City are one of the biggest fan-owned club in England but there are other examples further down the pyramid, including one only a few miles from Hillsborough. After a run of poor performance that, like Exeter, saw the club relegated from the Football League for the first time, Chesterfield FC were bought out by their fans in 2021 through the Chesterfield FC Community Trust.

While performance on the pitch has been patchy, the Trust have turned the club’s finances around and launched a range of projects designed to give supporters more agency. “It’s given us a unique opportunity to embed the club in the community,” the chief executive said in 2022. “While multimillionaires might buy a club, I’m not sure they ever truly own it.”

One consolation for Chesterfield supporters about their continuing spell in the National League (the fifth tier) is that, unlike most football fans in the UK, they can change the manager if they want to, and ultimately have democratic control over the players.

Owls of anguish

The home of the Spireites is only a short train ride from S6, but the approach could not be more different. “Sheffield Wednesday Football Club Limited is 100% owned by Mr Dejphon Chansiri,” the club’s website states flatly.

In 2018, three years into his ownership, Chansiri told fans he was going to sell the club, but that did not take place. For long-time supporters, the situation is becoming increasingly desperate, especially since the ecstasy of a fairytale promotion was so quickly dampened by squabbles over spending.

“What will it take for Chansiri to sell?” reads a post from late September on popular fan forum Owlstalk. In the thread, supporters suggest increasingly radical protest tactics, some inspired by the match-day demonstrations mounted at Old Trafford by Manchester United fans.

One supporter suggests a complete boycott of the club, with several weeks of “complete non-attendance and spending”. Others suggest ramping up pitch-side protests, and refusing to buy the early-bird season tickets that are a key source of income for the club.

But the reality of English football rules mean that nothing – not even social embarrassment on a massive scale – can actually force Chansiri to sell the club. Only a transformation of our footballing culture, and a move to see clubs as community assets instead of cash cows, will see real power flow from the boardroom to the terraces at Hillsborough.

It’s a glib truism that a football club is nothing without its fans. But are any of our political parties prepared to give supporters real agency over the clubs that so many dedicate their lives to?

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