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The future of football depends on the fans

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

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.

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.