RIP Brian Lomax, the founder of supporter activism and the reason there is a Canaries Trust

David Conn writes

Brian Lomax, who has died aged 67, was the visionary pioneer for the idea that football clubs rightfully belong to their supporters and he became the founding father of the modern movement to form supporters’ trusts at almost every club in Britain. Lomax inspired a generation of activism with his remarkably open and generous manner, and with practical expertise, having himself formed an original supporters’ trust at then troubled Northampton Town in 1992.

Cambridge-educated and a lifelong political activist – for the Liberal Democrats – Lomax stretched a standard post-match grumble in the pub about Northampton’s much resented then owner into action: forming a mutual, democratic trust to seek a stake and involvement in the club’s running.

He drew on charitable structures he had worked with in his career, first as a probation and prison welfare officer, then as chief executive of the Mayday Trust, a social enterprise in Rugby which helped former prisoners and other disadvantaged people lead independent lives. Based on one member one vote, the Northampton Town trust collectively bought 8% of the shares and secured an agreement with the new board to elect democratically a director – Lomax was duly voted in himself, serving for seven years.

When I first talked to Lomax, and interviewed him for my 1997 book, The Football Business, he spoke in religious terms about football’s place in the modern world and about seeing his daughter, Emily, “enraptured” when he first took her to watch the Cobblers, at the age of nine. “I believe there are certain very important values in life and that football support embodies them,” he said then. “There is a sense of pilgrimage, of going to a sacred place; there is loyalty, sticking with something through good and bad times.”

He scoffed at the idea that football is merely an entertainment business, in which shareholders should be entitled to make money however they can.
“It’s about emotion, about sharing and comradeship, about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. These are very deeply rooted human needs and I believe that that is at the root of people’s love for football and loyalty for their clubs.”

In 1997, when the newly elected Labour government formed the Football Task Force to address critical concerns about the game’s new hyper-commercialised direction, Lomax presented the work he had done at Northampton as an alternative. His ideal of mutual ownership struck an immediate, heartfelt chord with thousands of football supporters and with Andy Burnham, the task force’s administrator.

Burnham worked with Philip French, then at the Football Trust, and others, to agree a deal from the Premier League to encourage supporters’ trusts, partly in return for the government backing clubs’ collective selling of TV rights, then under attack from competition authorities.

That led in 2000 to the formation of Supporters Direct, to promote and help fans form trusts, and Lomax left the Mayday Trust to become the organisation’s first managing director. The timing was again auspicious: very soon ITV Digital pulled its Football League TV deal and dozens of lower division clubs tumbled into financial crisis.

Lomax and his skeleton staff, including his deputy, Dave Boyle, found themselves speaking at packed public meetings across the country, of supporters worried their clubs were going bust and forming trusts to save them. Not all lasted as fan-owned, due to the continuing financial pressures they faced, but the survival of York City, Chesterfield, Bury, Brentford and many other historic clubs owes a great deal to their supporters’ efforts in newly formed trusts.

AFC Wimbledon, FC United of Manchester and others have formed from scratch as mutual, supporter-owned clubs. The original deal at Swansea City in 2001, where the trust bought 20% of shares and elected a director to the board, working alongside other shareholders, has endured into the club’s membership of the Premier League. Trust ownership of Exeter City has now lasted more than a decade, while Portsmouth fans helped save their club from years of wreckage and now own a majority mutual stake. Supporters Direct has been involved in the formation of trusts at 203 clubs in Britain; 107 trusts own shares, 75 have a director on the board.

Burnham, now the shadow home secretary, paid tribute to Lomax on Monday, describing him as a “great friend” who created a huge legacy. It was a sorrow to Lomax as he suffered with lung cancer that Northampton Town are once again in trouble, subject to a winding-up petition. He was too unwell to take up an invitation to speak to the crowd at Sixfields, so last week, on the pitch before the Cobblers’ 2-1 home victory against Stevenage, his daughter Emily read a stirring speech on his behalf.