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Catch a falling STAR

URZZ1871 makes a plea to STAR to take a risk and to show some leadership by getting publicly involved in the conversation about the mess that is the current Reading FC ownership situation.

In all the speculation and discussion over Reading’s financial situation, ownership problems and potential next buyer, there have been a multitude of voices joining the conversations.  These range from journalists and broadcasters (some of whom are more reliable than others) right down to Twitter know-nothings at the other end of the spectrum.   Nearly everyone has had their say, even though they may not contribute much to the debate.

But one important voice has been conspicuous by its absence.  Here I’m talking about STAR – Supporters’ Trust At Reading. If ever you’d think that an organisation would be making public comment about the club’s finances and ownership – and potentially the club’s very future – it’d be now, but unfortunately I’ve not heard a peep out of them so far.

I find this silence extremely disheartening, because now surely is a time when the organisation that represents Reading supporters should be contributing something to the debate.  Loyal Royals desperately need someone to be speaking up for them, to be making a case for the supporters and for what they believe should happen for the good of the clubs and its future – some kind of moral leadership. I know the organisation has views and policies on football finance and good governance – for instance they contributed evidence to the DCMS enquiry into football governance – so this silence when it matters most is almost inexplicable.

And as well as sticking their head above the parapet and actually stating an opinion, surely there are things that STAR might be trying to do to influence events?  The sort of things I’m thinking about here are the sorts of things that many other Supporters’ Trusts have done – or tried to do - in similar situations. Things like making contact with potential buyers and speaking to them on behalf of supporters about their intentions, investigating the bona fides of potential buyers or looking at options like making an application under the Localism Act to have the MadStad and/or the training ground designated as "assets of community value."

Whilst this might not stop the current situation where the future of Reading Football Club looks like being decided in small cabals laden-down with greed and vested interests, it might at least be the catalyst for some supporter input - or at least highlight to potential buyers and to the media that what is being discussed here is not just a set of numbers on a balance sheet or a shareholding accompanied by a barrelful of debt. What is at stake here is a football club, a vital part of the community that has supported it since 1871, and one which thousands of people care passionately about but feel powerless to help.  It might even remind Sir John Madejski of what he said to STAR at one of their first Fans’ Forums – that he was merely looking after the football club on behalf of its supporters.

STAR should be the focus for supporters at this time of crisis, it should be the voice of Reading supporters everywhere and an audible reminder to everyone involved that we are part of the club and not just customers, but instead … nothing!

If I were to speculate on why STAR are so quiet, I’d say that they are, as an organisation, terrified of upsetting anyone or ruffling any feathers.  Over the years I’ve seen them become more and more cautious, and this risk-aversion was one of the reasons I resigned as a board member in 2010 – one of the things was the decision by the STAR Board to actively not provide volunteers to sell programmes for charity because of the risk of liability to STAR should one of them be mugged! I hated that attitude then and I hate is just as much four years later – and I fear in this time this aversion to risk has just got worse. I just wish STAR would take a risk, make a stand, say something – and I’m sure the vast majority of Reading supporters would applaud them for this and be more likely to re-join.

I find this lack of dynamism, decision making or proactivity doubly frustrating and especially ironic considering the history of STAR, and their decision to convert from Reading Football Supporters’ Club to become a Supporters’ Trust in 2002. For the uninitiated, this may just seem like a change of title, but in reality there’s are a number of crucial differences between a supporters’ club and a supporters’ trust – both legally and in terms of aims and attitude.

Supporters’ clubs have been around for many years – in fact, RFSC was formed in 1930 – and the constitutions of many show their age. As "unincorporated corporations" their constitutions are frequently open to some interpretation and are less than ideal, and election processes are often ill-defined. Crucially, supporters’ clubs legally can’t easily hold shares – for instance in their football club – on behalf of their members. This isn’t to say that many supporters clubs aren’t well-run, well-managed and democratic organisations – just that the legal structure they operate under frequently lack a lot of the safeguards that many think essential in today’s world.

A Supporters’ Trust, however, is a quite different body.  Legally, it’s an Industrial & Provident Society, a mutual organisation with strict rules about the election of board members, about share ownership and the roles of board members as well as many other facets of operation - and all subject to oversight from the Financial Conduct Authority.   As an IPS, a Trust is a much more "serious" and modern organisation, with a much higher level of governance and a constitution designed to allow shareholdings to be held – the vast majority of clubs owned by their supporter do this through the legal framework provided by their supporters’ trust.

As well as these major legal differences, there’s also typically a difference attitude between trusts and clubs.  Most supporters clubs date back to the days when the owner of the club was a trusted local businessman, part of the community, and the role of the supporters’ club was to raise money to help support the team, so monies raised were handed over with no strings attached.

Trusts, however, and the whole of the supporters trust movement, are much more concerned about fighting for supporter representation and, ideally, ownership. So Trusts work to try to build up shareholdings in their football clubs where possible, and where that’s just not possible they do everything they can to ensure supporter representation – they certainly don’t blindly hand over money to their football clubs without getting anything back for it, whether it’s shares or influence.

As such, a key interests of any trust is football finance and corporate governance, and the question of ownership succession at the end of John Madejski’s tenure was a major topic of interest when RFSC was wound up and STAR created in March 2002. So for this organisation to remain silent an organisation to remain silent at a time like this is baffling – and very disappointing.

I’m sure many people will interpret this article as me going in late, from behind and with studs up at STAR, but in reality that’s a million miles from the truth. I desperately want STAR to be successful, to be dynamic, proactive and decisive, and to create the agenda rather than follow it at a respectful distance.

Because Reading supporters need and deserve an effective supporters’ organisation, and STAR, as an IPS, definitely has the right legal structure to be that organisation. It just seems to have lost its way over recent years, especially in how it projects and communicates itself, and as a result it seems to have suffered a loss of credibility and respect amongst the supporters it should be representing.

Some of the things STAR does – such as running coaches and organising fans forums and other events – it does brilliantly. But in the minds of many supporters those activities seem to have become their main focus, with the key aim of representing Reading supporters becoming more and more marginalised.

And sadly this creates a feedback loop that’s hard to break out of - the more that people feel an organisation isn’t effective or doesn’t represent them, then the less likely they are to join or support that organisation. And at the same time, the greater the priority that activities like coach travel are perceived to have, the greater the proportion of membership will be those who are primarily joining for coach travel.

The big question which I don’t think STAR has ever been able to find an effective answer for is "So, what’s in it for me – what do I get for my tenner?" Apart from a relatively small number who saw the benefits of representation by an effective supporters’ organisation, most potential members never really saw what was in it for them.

It’s understandable that when times were good, most supporters didn’t feel they particularly needed to be represented – but the tragedy is that now that there does need to be a strong collective voice the apathy of supporters over the years means that the supporters’ organisation they need to speak for them appears reluctant or unable to do that.

So it could be argued that Reading supporters now have, in STAR, the supporters’ organisation they deserve. By not seeing the need to be represented over the year, and in not joining STAR or in seeing any value in it to them, the size of the talent pool that STAR could draw from has dwindled. What we see now is an organisation that has not had a contested election in its entire existence, where to become a board member all you need to be is to stand and to be nominated, and this is the direct result of Reading supporters not joining STAR and not putting themselves forward to act as board members. People who didn’t see the need for a strong and vibrant supporters’ organisation or who believed that other people would create one for them, now have exactly what they deserve.

Whether things are redeemable is anyone’s guess, but I do know that all talk of setting up an alternative supporters’ organisation is pointless. The right organisation and the right structure is there already – it just needs enough people to see the need for it, to come forward and join it, and to participate themselves.

In the short-term, I just hope that the current board of STAR can somehow screw up their courage, grow some cojones and see the need to participate on behalf of Loyal Royals. We need you to take a risk here, guys, and do anything you can to remind people just what are the issues here…

Because in the early days of STAR, they were seen as a "pioneer trust" and were frequently asked by Supporters Direct, the national umbrella organisation for supporters’ trusts, to send a speaker to the launch meeting of other clubs where trusts might be launched. And the metaphor that was used at these meetings to show the need for a trust at every club was that "you don’t buy an insurance policy once your house is already on fire." Reading supporters took out insurance years ago, but didn’t keep up with the premiums, so now the flames are taking hold will that policy actually be worth having?

Ed's note: We've contacted STAR to ask for their response to urzz1871's piece and we'll of course publish any response here at The Tilehurst End