Cast a cursory eye over the landscape of modern football, and it's clear that many clubs are less than transparent. Decision making is generally handled by owners, board members and management, before resolutions are handed down from on high to fans. While a football club's hierarchy has a crucial role to play in forming strategy, providing expertise and ensuring that everyday operations run smoothly, football in general could be improved by handing more power to supporters. Transparency and accountability are indicators of a well-run club, while good governance requires considerable co-operation with those in the stands.
Still, there are few football clubs who would consider implementing fan power in quite such a radical fashion as United London FC. The brainchild of chairman Mark North, United London bills itself as "the world's first manager-less football club", though it's perhaps more accurate to say that it's the only club to make managers of its fans. The basic premise is that supporters worldwide are allowed to vote on the starting line up each week, thus handing an unprecedented level of control to the fanbase. There is no individual manager, and decisions are made on a collective basis. The club is about to embark on its first ever season, putting its unique model to the test in the rough and ready confines of the Essex Alliance Premier League.
When it comes to finding a matchday squad, United London have hardly struggled to attract interest. The team is largely made up of lads who have recently been released from Football League academies, and players who have been let go by non-league sides. The club has a stated aim to help those who have fallen through the net at academy level, giving them another chance to impress scouts and show off their talent. While the players commit to the club on a volunteer basis, United London could be the springboard from which youngsters relaunch professional or semi-professional careers.
The voting system itself is straightforward. Fans will be asked to participate in an online poll ahead of each fixture, and the result will be used to determine the starting XI. United London will compile a statistical profile of each player, which will provide supporters with the requisite background information. This will be complemented by training footage, heatmaps and detailed match reports. When voting closes, the team will be selected by popular demand.
Not only is the club radically democratic in its approach, it could also end up providing fresh career opportunities to players who have – for whatever reason – failed to live up to their potential. Many former youth footballers struggle to adjust to a life outside the game, and that can sometimes have disastrous personal consequences. With over 700 youngsters being released from academies every year, the pool of forgotten talent is remarkable. In trying to reduce that pool, there's an aspect of social responsibility to United London which is, again, fairly unique.
To get an inside perspective on United London, I spoke to Mark North about the inspiration behind the club and its mission statement going forward. He told me that the concept of the club's voting system came to him partly because he liked the idea of proactive engagement for football fans, and partly when he was watching X-Factor and decided that football could do with its own version (sans Simon Cowell). A big fan of Football Manager himself, he decided to blend everyone's favourite football simulator with the talent show format, and create a real-life football team which could be selected by public vote. With United London playing their first pre-season friendlies in the Hackney Cup last weekend (30/31 July), that ambition is about to be realised.
United London has taken on a life of its own since its initial conception, and the club now have almost 1,000 fan-managers signed up and ready to take part. Mark tells me that they have supporters from as far afield as Europe, Australia, Russia and the USA, as well as plenty from London and the rest of the UK. There is an international element to the club, which compliments its distinctive personality. "We really wanted to let fans, anywhere, get involved and bring the club to life," he says.
The club has received plenty of support from local sides according to Mark, something he puts down to the sense of camaraderie in grassroots football, as well as a general resurgence in the popularity of non-league. "Other grassroots clubs, the likes of Clapton FC, Romford and so on, have chipped in to help us. We want to have all eyes back on grassroots. With teams like Dulwich Hamlet and Salford doing so well, there's romance in non-league football again." United London want to be a part of that romantic movement, even if they have a long way to go before they can think about climbing the leagues.
When I suggest that the idea of direct democracy for supporters seems like a reaction to the opaque dealings of the Premier League, Mark agrees. "The higher you go up in the league system, the less supporters tend to be engaged. We want to completely reverse that. I don't even get a say, and I'm the chairman!" More than anything, however, he seems heartfelt in his desire to give rejected academy players a second chance in football. "We've got players who've come through academies at QPR, Stoke, Leyton Orient and loads of other professional clubs. Over two trials, we had just over 200 players try out for the team."
That shows just how many young prospects are out there, and just how many footballers have found themselves on the outside of the professional game, looking in. Mark tells me that United London's statistical profiles will be available to football scouts both at home and abroad, which should encourage clubs across the globe to pick up their players. "If kids haven't made it by the age of 18 in certain academies, there's nothing for them. Many of these guys are good enough to go on and play, and we want to make that happen."
Whether or not their democratic approach is directly conducive to success on the pitch, United London's first full season could be the start of something special. Not only will the club see unprecedented participation from its fans, it could also provide players with a fresh start in the game. In the increasingly disengaged world of modern football, that can only be a good thing.