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FM20 Challenges: (5) Supporter Ownership, Phoenix Clubs and Academies

If the global covid-19 pandemic has shown anything about the sport we love, it is how important the role of clubs are in the lives of fans, and vice versa. Empty stands are just not the same; clubs that rely on matchday income are gasping for breath; even the extraordinary sub-culture of esoteric random that has sprung up in the least likely corners of the world has taken most of us by surprise. 

Supporters owning either part or all of their club, phoenix clubs rising after the tragic demise of the original and investment in youth paying off when academy graduates become first team players are three types of story we love at Heart of Football. Here are 10 challenges on FM20 that encompass these stories.

Exeter City FC (England, League Two) 

In English football one of the most successful examples of supporter ownership has been Exeter City. The Devon outfit struggled financially in League Two throughout the 1990s and early 2000s until in 2002/03 the club were relegated out of the Football League having been members since 1920/21.

In September 2003 the Exeter City Supporters Trust took majority control of the club from its former owners, who were later permanently disqualified from football by the English FA as a result of criminal offences committed at the club. With 53.6% ownership claimed by supporters, Exeter cleared their debts in 2005 after their FA Cup third-round replay against Manchester United. Three years later they earned promotion back to the Football League.

Sixteen seasons on, The Grecians are still majority owned by the Supporters Trust. How far can you take them? Exeter have never been higher than the third tier and since the inception of the Premier League, south-west England has never had a club in England’s top flight. £54,070 transfer budget is available, however there is little spare wage room and you have to pay £90k per year stadium rent.

Grazer AK (Austria, Second League) 

The next challenge is Austrian outfit Grazer AK. The Austrian Bundesliga’s most historically successful clubs have been Viennese pair Rapid and Austria Vienna, with 32 and 24 titles respectively. However, in 2003/04, Grazer AK won their first and so far only Austrian Bundesliga. Rotjacken (The Red Jackets) followed that up with a cup win to complete a domestic double.

However financial problems began to plague the club. The 2006/07 season saw Grazer AK docked 28 points as they eventually finished bottom of the table and were relegated to the second tier. To top it off, they were relegated another division to the regionalised third tier as a result of them having entered administration. Further financial problems saw the club wound up after the 2012/2013 season.

For 2013/14 though, a phoenix club was formed which after six straight promotions is now in the Austrian second tier. How far can you take Grazer AK? You are just one promotion away from a return to the top flight. £107,663 is available for transfers, but you are almost at the limit of the wage budget and have to pay £51.67k plus 20% of all home gate receipts in stadium rent.

Motherwell FC (Scotland, Premier League) 

Next we head to Scotland and Motherwell FC. Based in the eponymous town a short distance south east of Glasgow, The Steelmen have struggled to attract the success of nearby Celtic and Rangers. Their honours board only shows one Scottish league championship in 1931/32, two Scottish Cups in 1951/52 and 1990/91 and one Scottish League Cup in 1950/51.

Despite a lack of success, Motherwell have been ever-presents in the Scottish top flight since 1985, only Celtic and Aberdeen having had longer unbroken spells. In October 2016, then majority owner Les Hutchison transferred his 76% shareholding in the club to supporter group The Well Society. This made Motherwell the first top flight club in the UK to be majority-owned by supporters.

Can you now give the fans some success to go alongside the pride of owning their own club? Toppling the Old Firm is quite a challenge for other Scottish sides. Celtic are currently on their longest ever title streak and Rangers under Steven Gerrard look a force once more. Just £5k is available for transfers and only £1.1k is free on the wage budget

Bohemians 1905 Prague (Czech Republic, First League) 

The next challenge comes from the Czech Republic and Bohemians 1905 Prague. Bohemians have a unique history, adopting their current name in 1927 after accepting an invitation to tour Australia. Then named AFK Vrsovice, the club felt Australians would be unable to pronounce their name or know where it was located, thus the name change to Bohemians.

In March 2005, just after Bohemians had experienced financial difficulties and expulsion from the Czech second tier, supporters embarked on fundraising that saw them take a 10.24% shareholding and eventually save the club. It was not the only difficulty. At one stage, three different clubs were all using the Bohemians name and claiming its intellectual property.

So how far can you take Klokani (Kangaroos), who are still 10.24% supporter owned? The club has only one Czechoslovak title to its name in 1982/83 and has no title in the Czech Republic era. Over £500,000 is available for transfers and nearly £2k per week is free on the wage budget. Stadium rent is £67.35k per year.

Hereford FC (England, National League North) 

Next up is Hereford FC. The city’s original club was Hereford United, founded in 1924. After many years in non-league, they were elected to the Football League for the 1972/73 campaign, just months after famously stunning Newcastle United in the FA Cup. From their election until 2014, the club played 31 seasons as a Football League club.

However, financial troubles led to Hereford United’s demise in December 2014. Immediately afterwards, supporters founded Hereford FC as a phoenix club and they registered to begin 2015/16 in tier nine of the English football system. Three consecutive promotions saw the club reach the sixth-tier National League North for 2018/19 where they remain for 2019/20. 

How far can you take the new Hereford FC? The county of Herefordshire is one of the least populated and most rural counties in the UK; can you create a countryside champion? You are nearly maxed out on your wage budget but a generous £82,849 is available for transfers.

Viitorul Constanta (Romania, Liga 1) 

The next challenge involves Romania’s most upcoming club, Viitorul Constanta. Founded in 2009, the club is owned by arguably Romania’s greatest ever player, Gheorghe Hagi. A native of Constanta, Hagi was part of Romania’s Golden Generation of players throughout the 1990s who helped the country be a force internationally.

After a lull for the Romanian national team throughout the 2000s, Viitorul, the senior team of the Gheorghe Hagi Football Academy, is designed to create a new Golden Generation. After only 11 seasons, Viitorul have come up through the leagues and spectacularly won a Romanian title in 2016/17 with a squad largely full of academy graduates. 

Now Viitorul are established as a force in Romania, can you lead them to dominance usurping both Steaua and CFR Cluj? You have a transfer budget of £43,065 and over £7,000 per week spare on the wage bill. Your academy, arguably the strongest in Romania, will be key. Selling players for big money and replenishing through your youth ranks could be a frequent occurrence.

FC Chertanovo Moscow (Russia, Football National League) 

If Viitorul are an upcoming club in Romania, the same can be applied to Chertanovo Moscow in Russia. Cherti (The Devils) were founded in 1994 and are the senior team of the Chertanovo youth academy, whose finest hour came when it provided six out of the 19 players in Russia’s victorious team at the UEFA 2013 European Under-17 Championship.

The club’s senior team is currently at its highest level in its history. After winning promotion to the Russian second tier for the first time ever in 2018/19, the club stunned everyone with a fifth-placed finish, only narrowly missing the promotion play-offs.

So can you take Chertanovo to the top flight? There is zero transfer budget, although the club’s culture is not signing players but utilising the club’s youth academy to replace players you sell. Fifteen-year-old academy star Sergey Pinyaev’s recent trials at Manchester United highlight the strength of this club’s academy. 

AFC Wimbledon (England, League One) 

Our next challenge is English football’s most famous phoenix club, AFC Wimbledon. The club was founded in 2002 by supporters of the old Wimbledon FC which was controversially moved to Milton Keynes from South London and eventually became MK Dons. AFC Wimbledon have undergone a meteoric rise and reached the Football League in 2011/12.

After promotion to League One for 2016/17, AFC Wimbledon reached the same league as MK Dons. The Milton Keynes outfit’s relegation to League Two for 2018/19 represented the first time AFC Wimbledon had been in a higher league than them. Nearly 18 years after their foundation, AFC Wimbledon remain 75% owned by their supporters.

The old Wimbledon FC’s march through the leagues and ‘Crazy Gang’ era became legendary. So can you follow in their footsteps with AFC Wimbledon? A transfer budget of £50,000 is available and around £2.5k per week is free on the wage budget. The club currently play at Kingstonian FC’s stadium, but they own the stadium and therefore pay no rent.

Athletic Club (Spain, La Liga) 

Athletic Club are one of Spanish football’s most unique clubs. Founded in 1898, the club have won eight La Liga titles to rank fourth historically. Their 23 Copa del Rey triumphs is only surpassed by FC Barcelona. Alongside Barca and Real Madrid, they are one of only three clubs who have never been relegated from Spain’s top division.

This is an incredible achievement considering Los Leones (The Lions) still operate a Basque-only signing policy. To play for Athletic one has to be either born in the Basque Country, have a Basque parent or have grown up in and received youth football training in the Basque Country. Athletic’s motto is “Con cantera y afición, no hace falta importación” (With home-grown talent and local support, there is no need for imports).

They have not won La Liga since the 1983/84 campaign, so it is time for you to revive the glory days. You are forbidden from signing non-Basque qualified players, so your £21,532,790 transfer budget can only buy a limited pool of talent. As one would expect from a club with such a restrictive transfer policy, they do have one of Spanish football’s best youth systems. Make the most of it. 

FC Lokomotiv 1929 Sofia (Bulgaria, Second League) 

The final challenge comes from Bulgaria in the shape of FC Lokomotiv 1929 Sofia. The Railwaymen are four-time winners of the Bulgarian First League, the fifth most successful club historically behind CSKA Sofia, Levski Sofia, Ludogorets Razgrad and Slavia Sofia. However, the last of these titles came in 1977/78 and following financial problems at the conclusion of 2014/15, the club were dissolved.

Former club legends and supporters set up a phoenix club which began playing in the regionalised fourth tier in 2015/16. After climbing back up to the second tier, Lokomotiv finished second in the Bulgarian Second League in 2017/18. This gave them a promotion chance via a play-off, but defeat on penalties to Vitosha Bistritsa dashed their dreams.

Come 2019/20 and the phoenix Lokomotiv remain a second-tier club. Can you lead them back to the top of Bulgarian football once more? Expectations are a fifth-placed finish and with PFC CSKA 1948 Sofia, a recently formed fan-owned club who split from CSKA Sofía, in your league, promotion won’t be easy. There is no transfer budget and no spare wage room at the start.

30 years-old sports fanatic from near Wigan, United Kingdom. Season ticket holder at Wigan Athletic in the second tier English Championship. Alongside Heart of Football, writes for Its Round and Its White. Passionate about all football, English Premier League, English Football League, Spanish La Liga, Italian Serie A and other European and World football leagues, UEFA Champions League, UEFA Europa League and International Football. Favourite Moment: Being at Wembley Stadium in May 2013 to watch Wigan defeat Manchester City in the 2013 FA Cup Final.

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