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.

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.