If you’re a Birmingham City fan, chances are you’re not happy about the club right now. It might be that the performances on the pitch has pissed you off; it might be that Blues CEO Ren Xuandong hasn’t tweeted a funny enough GIF recently, or it might be you’re miffed at the Byzantine ownership structure.
Most people won’t do anything about it bar maybe read a few posts on a messageboard, like a status or two on Facebook or bitch about it on Twitter.
There is no shame in that; in honesty the amount of care people put into twenty two people kicking a ball around a field is preposterous considering the state of the world we live in.
However, I’m writing this article for the people who care enough to maybe want to do something.
I’ve written about BCFC for more than ten years now. I started out with a vague New Year’s resolution to write something every day, and it snowballed into a website called Often Partisan. That wasn’t really doing much until the day former BCFC owner Carson Yeung got arrested and then shit got real.
Despite having been writing for more than ten years, and having developed a bit of a career from it, I’m still learning stuff every day.
I don’t consider myself that great a writer; I’ve got better than average research skills and that coupled with the personal style of writing I’ve developed over the years seems to be enough.
I’m writing this because I get asked all the time by people who want to do something, how to do it. It’s a difficult question for me to answer because a lot of what I do is fired by the way my brain works; but I’m going to do my best to answer it.
You are not powerless
One of the chief things I hear is “I can’t do anything, I’m just a fan”.
I get why people think this. We’re conditioned to think that as fans our job is to turn up at the ground and support the players. In the main, that’s all we need to do — and in honesty, I’d rather be in a situation where that’s all I felt I need to do.
When people talk about ownership, they talk about millionaires and billionaires.
The amounts of money in football are staggering, and I think it is perfectly reasonable to think that without some sort of seismic change, fan ownership isn’t going to happen.
I’d even concede that fan ownership isn’t a panacea; as much as I love the utopian ideal of all football clubs being owned by their local communities the economics of football mean it’s not going to happen any time soon.
However, while ownership of a club is for all intents and purposes out of the question, holding people to account is not.
When writing for Often Partisan and almajir.net, I’ve always seen my loyalty as being to the badge — to the idea of the football club.
I think it’s reasonable to talk about people’s actions, and to judge them for it. I don’t believe anyone is intrinsically bad or good — and that we should give people brickbats and bouquets respectively when they are deserved.
My work for OP and almajir.net has brought down one CEO and helped to effect ownership change once. I’m not anyone special — I was just tenacious and relentless in my pursuit of truth and I pushed someone who wasn’t doing a good job into making a big mistake online. I held them to account, and it won out at the end of the day.
This can be repeated. It’s not easy; it’s not something that can be done using a hashtag campaign on twitter, or with a petition — and for this reason alone I get why most people back off.
However, it can be done — and by an ordinary fan.
I get asked a lot: “What can I do?”
It’s a really hard question for me to answer, because often I don’t know what we can do as fans. I don’t have a tactical masterplan in my head; often I’m reacting to events that have happened or stuff that I have just found.
I don’t even have a set way of finding things out. Most of the time, I find stuff when I’ve got some spare time and I’m bored. I’ll start with a basic search query, a result will pique my interest, and I’ll disappear down a rabbit hole.
This isn’t always helpful. Sometimes I find stuff that is interesting to me, but is so tangential to the club that it’s meaningless. Sometimes I find stuff that looks like it could be useful, but has so little context I can’t verify the veracity of what I have found.
When an event happens, it’s easier to have an idea of what to do.
A good recent example of this was the news that two stands at St Andrew’s had been shut down.
For someone just hunting clicks, the response would be to write some hot take about the story, put some suitably click-baity title and watch the page views roll in.
However, that does nothing to examine what has happened and why. It’s not just a case of who to point the finger at, but to understand what has happened and how we as fans can help prevent it happening again.
Before publishing my first article, I emailed the Blues Trust (who have ensured the stadium is listed as an Asset of Community Value, or ACV) about the issue. They replied to tell me that they didn’t know what was happening to take things any further.
I understand that it’s hard to do something without knowing what is wrong. I was in the same situation when the news came out.
However, I reacted differently. I tried to think of ways I could find out what is happening, so I could report on the problem accurately.
I tried asking people I know who might have knowledge of the situation, and it was weeks before I got any kind of consensus on what had happened — and even that was vague.
However, one thing I’ve come to realise is that the people to push are the regulatory bodies who oversee things. It’s their job to make sure everything is right, so they should be held accountable when they’re not. Regulatory bodies are bound by rules in how they respond — often enshrined in law.
The official announcement from the club mentioned an inspection. I figure the local council have to inspect the ground on a regular basis to sign off the safety certificate — and the council are bound by the Freedom of Information act to respond to questions from the public.
It’s going to take time to get a response — but by submitting a FOI request I’ve done something that can be enforced legally.
I think it’s the same when it comes to anything else surrounding the club ownership.
One answer of what people can do is not to put pressure on the club, but on those who enforce rules about how the club is run an operated — the EFL or the Stock Exchange of Hong Kong for example.
How does one do that?
Context and Specifics
Finding contact details for people like the EFL or HKSE isn’t hard. They’re publicly listed online.
However, because they’re publicly listed, in all probability they get spammed by thousands of emails — and if your email is not to be simply deleted or receive a form response, it’s important to be very specific in the points being raised or the queries being asked.
A good example of this was the email campaign I helped to conduct through the 1875 group.
I found a specific problem which related to recent announcements made by Birmingham Sports Holdings, which I could easily show broke specific rules. When I find these, I put it into a specific format and email the HKSE. On this occasion, I templated the email and literally thousands of people emailed the Stock Exchange.
On the surface, this might not have achieved much but from looking at announcements since it seems evident that BSH are being much more careful in what they say — and a little bit more transparent. This is a victory in my eyes.
If fans want to get the regulatory bodies to take a closer look at the club and the holding company, to make sure they’re being run properly then we have to give those regulatory bodies reason to do so.
There are two paths toward doing this.
The first is to examine the rules from the regulatory body in detail, and then to think of what the club or holding company has done that might be a breach of those rules.
The second is literally the reverse; starting with a list of what the club or holding company have done, and then trying to find a rule it’s broken.
I generally go by the second path but I can understand how the first way would work.
Either way, it amounts to the same thing — rather than trying to impose our will upon the club or holding company, getting the bodies that control how they operate to enforce their rules.
This comes back to the power thing. As individuals it’s very easy for us to be ignored. However, by using the system to achieve what we want, we can level the playing field somewhat.
Finding specifics means understanding the context of things that have happened.
As an example, I’ll offer the value of BSH.
You can’t email the HKSE and complain that the stock market capitalisation for BSH is massively at odds with how valuable the company should be — because the HKSE would just shrug. While there is truth, it’s somewhat subjective.
You could however make a point if the value of shares rapidly climbs with no context — particularly if very little shares are being traded as this is based on easily identifiable facts. This kind of behaviour endangers investors, and is more likely to be investigated by the HKSE.
In short, part of holding these people to account is being vigilant — and then acting on that vigilance.
The biggest problem for me in anything I do is thinking what might happen as a result of me doing it.
I understand I have responsibilities. I have to be discreet and careful in what I say so that my sources remain protected. I have to be calm and balanced because I can get in personal trouble if people act in a law breaking manner based on what I’ve written. I have to be careful to be factual, as defamation and libel are very serious legal threats.
Not only that, but actions can have unintended consequences.
If I undertook some action that forced the club into administration, then I have to understand that I’m potentially messing with people’s livelihoods. Players have protections in their contracts but ordinary members of staff do not — and ordinary members of staff are much more vulnerable financially.
Likewise, while there are mechanisms to write off debt that can free a club of financial strife, local suppliers can end up getting hosed. Billionaire owners can afford it, local small companies cannot.
It might be “our club”, but as fans we should always be aware that our loss much more intangible than those with a financial interest. We have to judge the line of what we do very carefully.
If you’ve made it this far, then well done as this piece has ended up a lot longer than the original thought I had in the shower this morning.
The biggest thing I want people to take away is that if they want to do something they can; they don’t need to be anyone special to do it — just be prepared to think about things, watch things and act when necessary.
Most importantly, if you want to do something think through what you’re doing to make sure it’s effective, and that it’s not going to cause someone issues who does not deserve it.