Fantasy Meets Football in England

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Lewis Whyld / AP

A view from the stands of the pitch at Ebbsfleet United Football Club, Kent, UK

Stuck for the perfect gift for a sports-mad loved one this Christmas? How about buying them an English soccer club? That's what the 20,000 plus members of online venture (MyFC) will get this year when they take possession of their very own team, Ebbsfleet United, following the completion of due diligence on the purchase of the non-league side. For around $70, "owners" will take control of all aspects of running the club — both on and off the field — by voting in online polls for player transfers, team selection and tactics. Starting line-ups are decided and passed to the coach in good time for match day but not revealed on the website till an hour before kick-off.

Despite skepticism over the practicality of having 20,000 owner/managers arguing over team formations, the project is groundbreaking for sports fan-club collaboration, and pioneering as an experiment in democracy. "It's a completely unique opportunity to get as close as you can to the game without actually being a player or being a manager," says Will Brooks, the 36-year-old former football journalist behind the project who puts his faith firmly in the wisdom of crowds. "Newspapers, radio phone-in shows and pundits spend hours after games talking about what team they would have picked and discussing tactics, but to what end? At least with this people get to put their money where their mouth is."

The current board will remain in non-executive roles after the takeover and be joined by MyFC representatives to implement the decisions from the voting members. Manager, former Republic of Ireland international Liam Daish, will be retitled head coach and be required to feed back information on training and tactical suggestions to members via a blog. Daish backs the plan, and as Brooks points out, "Liam has never paid any money for a player before, now he might be able to buy one." Former player now BBC pundit Garth Crooks applauds the concept of fan-ownership but is wary of supporters' involvement in team selection, "It seems like great fun but impractical: more fitting for Fantasy Football than the real game."

But the Ebbsfleet board is happy to be the guinea pig, and approached MyFC when they heard they were searching for the perfect club to buy. MyFC has raised a takeover kitty of around $1.5 million so far and the Kent club on the southeastern outskirts of London was in need of investment, running a debt with home game crowds at around the 1,000 mark.

For a first communal call it seems a wise one. Ebbsfleet sit ninth in the Blue Square Premier league and remain in the hunt for a play-off berth for promotion to the professional English Football League. And for a place that never really existed on the map, Ebbsfleet has arrived. The club was known as Gravesend and Northfleet until May when it was renamed to match the new Eurostar station nearby which opens next week. This is handier than you might think: with MyFC members based in over 75 different countries, Eurostar is also the club sponsor. Air links are pretty good too for the 1,400 new owners based in the U.S., 475 in Australia and 400 in Norway, if they want to check out their charges in real life.

But not all the 1,000 or so regulars at the rickety Stonebridge Road stadium welcome their numerous new owners, any more than if a Russian or American billionaire had swooped in as at some Premier League clubs — after all, they didn't vote for democracy. One posting on BBC Radio 5 Live's 606 online forum, opines that non-league fans, "don't care about the Premier League or winning the FA Cup. It's about being involved in the community. MyFC doesn't seem to understand that. We are just a small club in Kent, and that is OK with us." At worst that's the way it will stay. MyFC members are all donors, not investors expecting a dividend. Says Brooks, "I think that shows that they have the best interest of the club at heart." No need to put that one to a vote at least.