The future of football depends on the fans

Despite football’s efforts to hamper it, the supporter governance movement is thriving.

Last Monday, a significant discussion took place in Westminster. The subject was football governance, and the occasion was a session of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Mutuals. It’s possible you may have missed it, as important discussions about what Premier League manager should lose their job because their team hadn’t won for a couple of weeks, or whether or not a player should have cut the sleeves on his club shirt obviously took precedence. But the very fact that the discussion was happening at all is evidence that a significant turning point has been reached.

Representatives from the Football Association, the Premier League, the Football League and UEFA were present, along with Supporters Direct, the organisation set up in 2000 by the Labour government “to promote sustainable spectator sports clubs based on supporters’ involvement and community ownership”. And that, in itself, is significant. Because talking about governance is not a conversation the people who run football and football clubs wanted to happen.

Once that conversation does start to happen, questions begin to be asked and assumptions begin to be challenged. The football governing bodies like us to believe they speak for the game, and for all clubs. But they don’t. They speak for a particular set of interests and they back a particular model of ownership and governance. The Premier League said in its response to the Culture Media And Sport Select Committee that was “neutral about ownership models”. But it is not. The absence of the kind of regulation there is, for example, in Germany makes English football clubs more attractive to the kind of speculatory financial interests currently in place. Lack of regulation can shape situations as much as regulation.

Once you’ve observed the workings of the Premier League, for example, it is hard to come to any other conclusion than that what is favoured is a light touch, unfettered free-market approach. Dubbed the “greed is good” league, the Premier League’s judgement and criteria for what makes an owner suitable are clearly rooted in one world view, and slanted against others. The airy dismissal of the German model in paragraph 6.1 of that CMS committee response is telling.

But that “ownership neutral” assertion is being challenged, as is the notion that the Premier League, FA or FL speak for all clubs. There is a wider variety of views at club level about ownership and governance than is commonly acknowledged, but the governing bodies consistently push one set of views to the exclusion of others. And the membership of those bodies is largely excluded from the process of decisionmaking.

Power within football has relied upon the ability to control discussion for years. But now it is finding it is no longer able to control that discussion. Being required to appear before a select committee to discuss governance is evidence of that. The more astute elements recognise that change is afoot. And so, as power always does, those elements are trying to minimise the strength of the challenge while seeking to adopt the language of reform.

So football likes to point to the fact that it funds bodies such as Supporters Direct to show that the argument I am advancing here is without foundation. What it’s not so keen for people to know is that it funds those bodies because the government said it must. Or that, having been required to provide funding, it has tended to quibble and obfuscate for as long as possible before releasing that funding – a process one observer likened to a cat toying with an injured bird.

The big buzzword now is engagement. Power in football uses it a lot, and it seems like an attractive idea. Engagement is what the fans want, right? So who could be against it? The trouble is, engagement is only part of the answer. On its own, it means little more than nice customer service – which would admittedly be an improvement in many areas. To put it simply, it’s not just a vote on the colour of the team kit we want, it’s a vote on who gets to decide the colour of the kit.

Despite football’s efforts to hamper it, the supporter governance movement is thriving. Hardened by the battles of the last 15 years, it is increasingly sophisticated. It is asking questions such as “Are hedge funds appropriate bodies to own football clubs?” which are bewildering the game’s authorities, so used to operating in a closed circle of unquestioned power. Not only do they not have answers, they don’t understand why the questions are being asked.

Change rarely happens quickly. Looking back over the last 15 years, perhaps even further to the fanzines and independent fan movements of the 1980s, it is possible to see an idea that has grown and has now come of age. Supporters have a voice, and governance is a live issue. Those facts shouldn’t be significant, but they are and that needs to be recognised if the success is to be built on.

I’m not arguing here that, to use an oft-deployed phrase, the football bubble is going to burst. It is clearly not. The game is buoyant, popular and awash with cash. But there is discontent bubbling close to the surface. While much of the game seems in a similar state of denial to the one that characterised the banking industry before the crash, more and more people are questioning the line of march. Institutions and established theories are being questioned everywhere in the wake of the global economic crisis, so what is happening in football is a reflection of what is happening in the wider world.

There are currently 180 supporters’ trusts in the UK, with over 400,000 members. Some 32 football clubs, some professional, some not, are owned by their fans. At Premier League Swansea City supporters own 20% of the club. And at Liverpool and Manchester United, two of the biggest ‘global brands’ sophisticated, effective and well-resourced fan organisations such as the Spirit of Shankly supporters’ union and the Independent Manchester United Supporters Trust are taking the discussion into new territory.

How change happens will pan out slowly. But the presence of a supporter governance movement based in a firm set of principles provides a greater chance that, in another 15 years’ time, we may have a much healthier and more genuinely loved game.

Supporters Direct’s paper on supporter share ownership, launched in the wake of the All Party Mutuals Group Enquiry, is available in full on the SD website.

A Manchester City fan wears club badges on his hat during the English Premier League football match between Manchester City and Swansea City at the City of Manchester Stadium in Manchester, on 1 December 2013. Photo: Andrew Yates/AFP/Getty Images.

Martin Cloake is a writer and editor based in London. You can follow him on Twitter at @MartinCloake.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

This is no time for civility towards Republicans – even John McCain

Appeals for compassion towards the cancer-stricken senator downplay the damage he and his party are doing on healthcare.

If it passes, the Republican health care bill currently being debated in the Senate will kill people. Over the past few months, the party has made several attempts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act passed under Obama, all of which share one key feature: they leave millions more people without healthcare.

Data indicates that every year, one in every 830 Americans who lack healthcare insurance will die unnecessarily. A report by the Congressional Budget Office suggests that the newest “skinny repeal” plan will leave an extra 16 million individuals uninsured. That’s an estimated annual body count of 19,277. Many more will be forced to live with treatable painful, chronic and debilitating conditions. Some will develop preventable but permanent disabilities and disfigurements - losing their sight, hearing or use of limbs.

This is upsetting to think about as an observer - thousands of miles across the Atlantic, in a country that has had universal, free at the point of delivery healthcare for almost seven decades. It is monstrously, unfathomably traumatic if you’re one of the millions of Americans who stand to be affected. If you’ve got loved ones who stand to be affected. If you’ve got an ongoing health condition and have no idea how you’ll afford treatment if this bill passes.

I’ve got friends who’re in this situation. They’re petrified, furious and increasingly exhausted. This process has been going on for months. Repeatedly, people have been forced to phone their elected representatives and beg for their lives. There is absolutely no ambiguity about consequences of the legislation. Every senator who supports the health care bill does so in the knowledge it will cost tens of thousands of lives - and having taken calls from its terrified potential victims.

They consider this justifiable because it will enable them to cut taxes for the rich. This might sound like an over simplistic or hyperbolic assertion, but it’s factually true. Past versions of the bill have included tax cuts for healthcare corporations and for individuals with incomes over $200,000 per year, or married couples making over $250,000. The current “skinny repeal” plan has dropped some of these changes, but does remove the employer mandate - which requires medium and large businesses to provide affordable health insurance for 95 per cent full-time employees.

On Tuesday, Senator John McCain took time out from state-funded brain cancer treatment to vote to aid a bill that will deny that same medical care to millions of poorer citizens. In response, ordinary US citizens cursed and insulted him and in some cases wished him dead. This backlash provoked a backlash of its own, with commentators in both the UK and US bemoaning the lack of civility in contemporary discourse. The conflict revealed a fundamental divide in the way we understand politics, cause and effect, and moral culpability.

Over 170 years ago, Engels coined the term “social murder” to describe the process by which societies place poor people in conditions which ensure “they inevitably meet a too early… death”. Morally, it’s hard to see what distinguishes voting to pass a healthcare bill you know will kill tens of thousands from shooting someone and stealing their wallet. The only difference seems to be scale and the number of steps involved. It’s not necessary to wield the weapon yourself to have blood on your hands.

In normal murder cases, few people would even begin to argue that killers deserve to be treated with respect. Most us would avoid lecturing victims’ on politeness and calm, rational debate, and would recognise any anger and hate they feel towards the perpetrator as legitimate emotion. We’d accept the existence of moral rights and wrongs. Even if we feel that two wrongs don’t make a right, we’d understand that when one wrong is vastly more abhorrent and consequential than the other, it should be the focus of our condemnation. Certainly, we wouldn’t pompously insist that a person who willingly took another’s life is “wrong, not evil”.

Knowing the sheer, frantic terror many of my friends in the US are currently experiencing, I’ve found it sickening to watch them be scolded about politeness by individuals with no skin in the game. If it’s not you our your family at risk, it’s far easier to remain cool and detached. Approaching policy debates as an intellectual exercise isn’t evidence of moral superiority - it’s a function of privilege.

Increasingly, I’m coming round to the idea that incivility isn’t merely justifiable, but actively necessary. Senators voted 51-50 in favour of debating a bill that will strip healthcare from millions of people. It’s unpleasant to wish that John McCain was dead—but is it illegitimate to note that, had he been unable to vote, legislation that will kill tens of thousands of others might have been blocked? Crude, visceral language can be a way to force people to acknowledge that this isn’t simply an abstract debate—it’s a matter of life and death.

As Democratic congressman Keith Ellison has argued, merely resisting efforts to cut healthcare isn’t enough. Millions of Americans already lack health insurance and tens of thousands die every year as a result. The Affordable Care Act was a step in the right direction, but the coalition of resistance that has been built to defend it must also push further, for universal coverage. Righteous anger is necessary fuel for that fight.