Become a member, pick the team: Remembering Ebbsfleet United’s fan-owned experiment

Liam Daish was standing on the precipice of something special. As the Ebbsfleet boss surveyed the Wembley pitch filled with his jubilant players, he could be forgiven for thinking he’d hit the jackpot.

Just months earlier, the former Republic of Ireland international had survived one of the most unusual takeovers in British football history, before watching on from the dugout as the club’s fan base grew beyond recognition. Now, in front of thousands of red-shirted supporters, he’d helped the club win its first ever FA Trophy.

If all that could be achieved in just half a season, the potential for even greater success was huge. Perhaps the trailblazing Fleet were merely at the beginning of a journey that would propel them towards untold glory.

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Back in 2008, nobody had heard of football hipsters. Yet Ebbsfleet were the hot topic among fans who enjoyed the more offbeat aspects of the game. Taken over by MyFootballClub, an innovative online community giving ordinary supporters the chance to run a real-life football club, the Kent outfit promised to be a living, breathing example of how the internet could turn fantasy into reality.

With 32,000 paid members making every major decision at the club – from managerial appointments to player transfers – it was easy to see why MyFootballClub captured so many imaginations.

After taking over Ebbsfleet in January 2008, the membership’s first big vote had been to retain manager Daish, who was happy to be involved despite an initial plan for team selection to be decided by vote (a proposal that never came to fruition).

“Ebbsfleet was a club that lived month to month and it was getting tough for the directors,” explains Daish, who turned out for Birmingham City and Coventry City during his playing days.

“The MyFootballClub proposal was put to me in a boardroom in front of directors who had done what they could financially. They tried to sell the idea to me.

“It seemed to be something that was going to happen anyway if MyFootballClub was interested, because the directors had put in what they could and were coming up against a brick wall, so I met with the guys running it. I got on well with the [people] who started it initially, so that was that.”

The FA Trophy triumph initially appeared to herald good times for the ownership-by-committee model, but hindsight tells a different story. Looking back a decade on from that day of unbridled hope under Wembley’s arch, the memorable victory over Torquay proved the premature peak of MyFootballClub’s reign as owners of Ebbsfleet.

While the revenue brought in by MyFootballClub, the Trophy win and the sale of star players appeared to make Ebbsfleet cash-rich, the reality was different. Creditors from the previous regime had to be paid off and the task of replacing the on-field departures with recruits of similar quality proved difficult.

By the end of the 2008/09 season – only one year after their Wembley success – Ebbsfleet were relegated from the Conference. And while an immediate return to the fifth tier was secured through the play-offs the following season, the writing was already on the wall for MyFootballClub, with thousands of members failing to renew their memberships and founder Will Brookes stepping back from the venture.

“I think everyone who was truly involved in the website was aware of the fact that those sucked in by the ‘own the club, pick the team’ slogan were going to fall away pretty quickly,” says Luton Town fan Steve Moore, who relinquished his membership in 2009 when his vote became compromised by the Hatters’ descent into non-league.

“It was almost certainly a ploy to get up that initial member base to have the funds to buy the club. Not that it was false advertising – the option was always there and maybe we were just lucky the vast majority of the active members were sensible and didn’t believe in treading on Daish’s shoes.

“However, I think what was vastly underestimated was the drop-off that came after the novelty wore off. That may well have been the thing that wasn’t factored in.”

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The decline in interest didn’t just hit the club in financial terms. Daish suddenty found himself working with a revolving door of board members, and while the member votes on major decisions didn’t have a detrimental effect on his running of the team, the club itself was fraying at the edges.

“A lot of people stepped in and out and were voted on the board by MyFootballClub, who without being disrespectful were football fans that came into a football environment and didn’t really quite know about the running of a non-league club,” Daish recalls.

“So they stepped away a bit and there were new people on the board, who had to go through the educating process and had to find out about what the club was all about, so it was testing times. There were probably more people being voted on and off board level than we had turnover of players.

“It was quite frustrating. There were some real radical ideas and proposals that had to be explained, and it could become a little bit tense at times.”

By the beginning of the 2012/13 season, there were only 1,300 members left. And while Daish persisted in the hot seat, he was resigned to his and Ebbsflett’s fate.

With a budget of only £4,500 a week in a division made up of mostly professional teams, Ebbsflett’s team was made up of ambitious youngsters and non-league journeymen. Relegation back to the regional divisions was inevitable.

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The priority for the last men standing at MyFootballClub was to stop the club going to the wall, with several drastic measures taken to ensure the team survived until the end of the campaign. Once the season was over, the remaining members voted to sell their shares.

“The whole thing was badly managed in my eyes,” Daish says. “It was something we could really have built on after the 2008 Trophy final, but it wasn’t really capitalised on.

“After 2008, it was important that the next season we got real people who knew how to run a football club, but we didn’t. People talk about how important recruitment is on and off the pitch, but we got that wrong. The membership itself wasn’t handled well either, because it was the lifeblood of the club.”

It’s an assessment Moore agrees with. Although he was back on the terraces at Kenilworth Road by the time MyFootballClub’s house came tumbling down, he still appreciated the significance of the project ending.

“I’m not sure that it’s certainly unsustainable as an idea,” Moore says. “Maybe it could have been advertised and streamlined better at source, but there are principles there that are still about today.

“Not that I’m saying that we invented internet crowdfunding or are the natural predecessor to Hashtag United, but there are parts of both that are similar. In some ways it was before its time. There was no WhatsApp, Twitter wasn’t really a thing and Facebook was a university-only enterprise, so internet interaction was a lot more primitive which made it harder.”

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A decade on and MyFootballClub is an increasingly distant memory. The members are back to being ordinary fans and Daish has taken a step back from management after a turbulent spell at Nuneaton Town to become a PDP coach at Portsmouth. He hasn’t ruled out a return to the dugout, but would he would ever get involved with another experiment like Ebbsfleet’s?

“No,” Daish says without hesitation. “No, I wouldn’t do it in that model again.”

Become a member, pick the team: Remembering Ebbsfleet United’s fan-owned experiment
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