Cardiff City's owner, Malaysian businessman Vincent Tan. Photo: Getty
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Are football’s authorities finally going to have to concede on supporter-owned clubs?

A report from a cross-party group of MPs could provide the much-needed impetus to clear away the mess around club ownership structures.

Complacent. Mistaken. Damaging. Inherent weaknesses. A dysfunctional system. Capricious behaviour. An absence of understanding. Woefully inadequate. Lackadaisical attitude. The language is not normally associated with the careful formulations of the British establishment, but these terms are liberally sprinkled through a report issued by the All Party Parliamentary Group for Mutuals entitled “What is the vision for the future of supporter-owned football clubs?”

In short, MPs are sick and tired of the flim-flam from the football authorities, and so they are going to do something about it. Football has had ample opportunity to reform itself, and failed. So now it is going to get reformed. The all-party group of MPs has called for “urgent action to improve the way that football club owners behave towards supporter groups”. And it urges the Government to “direct” the Football Association, Premier League and Football League to protect the interests of supporters.

The report detonates the framework of obfuscation the game’s authorities have spent much effort constructing. Perhaps most important is the report’s focus on ownership structures. The MPs say that “the football authorities should immediately drop their mistaken neutrality to club ownership and actively encourage supporter ownership”. Late last year I explained about the phoney “neutrality” of the football authorities in an article that put forward the view that a significant turning point had been reached in discussions over the way the game is run in Britain. The APPG’s recommendations reinforce that view.

The report concludes – and these are its words, not mine – that

  • Contrary to the view of the football authorities, the type of ownership of football clubs makes a difference to how they behave and mutual ownership stakes by football supporters are a positive feature.
  • Supporters Direct should receive stable and predictable funding from the proceeds of football instead of suffering damaging delays.
  • Certain football assets with a value to the community should be protected by law, including club colours, club name and home ground ownership.
  • As a result of the lack of action from the football authorities, Government should now legislate for the changes it wishes to see in the ownership and Governance of the Football industry. A draft Bill should be prepared urgently.

The group’s chairman, the Conservative MP Jonathan Evans, said: “We are all aware that following the Select Committee report the Government was looking to the football authorities for some action within a period of about 12 months.

“Yet we encountered a complacent attitude to supporter ownership from the Football Association, Premier League and Football League, which each insist on maintaining their ‘neutrality’ on issues of ownership, regardless of the evidence.

“This cannot be allowed to continue. Supporters are the life-blood of the game and yet we see their interests second place to even the most transient of club owners.

“Action must now be taken and a draft Bill should be prepared urgently to take forward the measures promised by DCMS in 2013.  Each of the political parties should also prepare detailed plans for their election manifestos, aimed at addressing the inherent weaknesses in this dysfunctional system once and for all.”

Reading the report in full is instructive, including as it does a rather telling rap across the knuckles from Evans on Bill Bush, the Premier League’s Director of Policy. Bush is a seasoned operator, having served as one of Ken Livingstone’s closest aides between 1975 and 1986, as a polling analyst to Tony Blair and then as a special advisor to Tessa Jowell at the DCMS before being poached by the Premier League in 2005. Bush is supposed to keep the politicians away by spinning honeyed words about football’s deep, deep commitment to its fans, communities and cuddly animals everywhere – but it seems even his redoubtable abilities are not enough to stop MPs from smelling the coffee. The game may not quite be up for football’s authorities, but it’s certainly last orders at the bar.

There will, of course, be many twists and turns along the path as the game tries to minimise the damage to the model in which powerful people are left to do pretty much as they like while maxing out the abuse of the deep-seated commitment fans have to their clubs. And that’s why the recommendation to make supporter groups such as Supporters Direct and the Football Supporters Federation more financially and intellectually independent of the game’s authorities is so important. These organisations should not have to depend upon the favour of the bodies they seek to reform for their very existence.

As Supporters Direct’s Kevin Rye told the BBC: “The case for reform is made by just what’s happened in the last year at Cardiff City, Hull City, Coventry City, Leeds United, Hereford United. It’s now about what it looks like and when it happens.”

And there’s a wider picture too. What football, with its deep roots in ideas of community, place and identity, has done is to put criticisms of “financial dependency on rentier owners” and “a system of ownership based on what people can put back… rather than on what a wealthy elite can take out” at the centre of a set of recommendations agreed by MPs from all three major parties. Which makes you think, doesn’t it?

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

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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