FA chairman Greg Dyke launches the latest report on grassroots football on 8 May at Wembley. Photo: Getty Images
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The FA’s report proves that money and power are the fundamental problem with English football

The FA has ignored the concerns of fans and lower league clubs in favour of the interests of the wealthiest soccer interest – once again showing it’s mostly concerned about serving the already-powerful. 

The Football Association's report, issued on Thursday, claims to want to fix the problem of a lack of English players in the Premier League, and thus also give the national team a better chance at future World Cups. However, as per usual, the FA's proposals, analysis and reasoning provide a pretty comprehensive illustration of everything that is wrong with modern soccer.

It was set up, FA Chairman Greg Dyke says in the foreword, to reverse a trend which has seen the number of English players playing at the top level of the game fall by more than half over the last 20 years. It says this matters because this has a negative impact on the English national side, and that matters because the success of the English national side is in the interests of the whole game.

The solutions it proposes are to undermine the basic principle of the English national game and to make more clubs subservient to the interests of an elite group at the top. And it directly refuses to recognise the impact of the formation of the Premier League in creating the situation it now claims to want to solve.

In doing all this it has managed to create unprecedented anger among fans and alienate important sections of the game.

The proposal that has drawn most ire is the one to insert a league made up of B teams from elite clubs at level five of the current league pyramid system. These B teams, it is argued, would enable elite clubs to test their young players out in a properly competitive environment. But they would not be allowed to rise above League One, the current level three of the system.

The problem with this is that it destroys at a stroke the basic principle that has shaped the English game. And that is that any team can begin at the bottom and progress on playing merit up through the system. Much has happened to stretch that principle but it still holds true. The B league would put an end to all that.

It would cast the non-league game further adrift, which is why Alan Algar, sponsorship manager for the non-league Conference sponsors Skrill, called the plan “disgraceful”. The Conference itself was not, it points out, consulted – even though the proposals will have a huge effect on its members. In the Football League, the chairman of Peterborough United and the chief executive of Portsmouth were among the first to condemn the proposal, while the Football League itself issued a statement saying that the report “may not contain a solution that is acceptable at the current time”.

Strange, then, that Football League chairman Greg Clarke was on the Commission and is a signatory of the report. That’s football governance for you.

For the elite clubs to suggest creating a competitive division within the league system in which other clubs would be reduced to the role of practice fodder for their own youth teams is a perfect illustration of their arrogance. It is probably no surprise to hear that fans are passionately opposed to the idea. Fans support ‘their’ clubs, independent entities that compete as fairly as possible in the money-distorted modern game. That they identify firmly with those clubs is evidenced by the high numbers that flock to lower league games in England.

But one of the many problems with the FA Commission is that it didn’t ask the fans what they thought. It conducted over 650 interviews. But not one with a fan. Supporters Direct, the government-funded supporter governance body, issued a statement saying it twice submitted evidence to the Commission, but received no acknowledgement. It said: “We have never been asked to speak with the Commission about the content of our submission, yet some 300 ‘stakeholders’ of English football were ‘consulted’".

When the Commission was set up, there was a huge row because there were no current players and no black people on it. So the FA rushed out and got Danny Mills and Rio Ferdinand on board. But no fans. They don’t matter. So much for the customer culture.

Dyke typically brushed aside the objections of the fans who had not been consulted with the aggression some of us foolishly hoped he might use against the game’s vested interests. Asked about fans who objected, he responded: “I say to them, read the report, read the analysis. What are you going to do?” So after we’re ignored, we’re asked to keep an open mind and make some suggestions that will be ignored like they always have been.

The report acknowledges there might be opposition. In section 4.1.2 of the 84 page report it says: “Some people believe that English football should be preserved exactly as it has always been” and that – you might want to sit down for this bit – “there are even still those who believe the creation of the Premier League was damaging to English football”. Imagine!

Lest you be in any doubt about how backward opposing this latest set of proposals is, this section goes on to point out that: “The FA was slow to adopt and embrace international competition… and, of course, it refused to accept women’s football for 50 years!” So there you have it. Opposing these plans is a little bit like oppressing women (say the people who brought you the scandalous treatment of the Doncaster Belles).

There is more to the report than Plan B, although the furore over this threatens to overshadow everything. There’s also a plan to change the player loan system to make the smaller clubs do more of what the bigger clubs want them to do. And proposals to change limits on the numbers of foreign and home grown players allowed at each club.

When Greg Dyke introduced the report at FA headquarters on Thursday, he said: “Some would argue if your top league is largely foreign owned… why should they care about the England team.” As respected investigative football writer David Conn observed, “the Commission seems to have swerved Dyke’s question”. And he’s right.

What we have here is a frankly pathetic attempt to construct a national consensus around proposals that further entrench the interests of the few. When the Premier League was set up 22 years ago, we were told it was to help the England team. It didn’t. In 2011, the Elite Player Performance Plan was bulldozed through in order, we were told, to help the England team. It was really about allowing the top clubs to expand their scouting operations and pick off talent from lower clubs at a cheaper price.

The latest report says that, amazingly, the measures taken so far haven’t helped the England team. And so it goes on.

In section 1.5.2 the report takes some time to explain more fully why the introduction of the Premier League in no way at all whatsoever thank you very much can be held responsible for any negative effects on domestic talent. It tells us how the Premier League is merely a massive commercial success that has brought lots of money into the game thanks to “some very clever marketing” – no false modesty here, folks. And this means the PL clubs can “target the best players in the world”.

But that’s got nothing to do with the reduction in opportunity for English players. As section 1.5.3 tells us, that’s really all down to pesky workers’ rights. In this case, the Bosman Ruling by those blighters in Europe that allowed players complete freedom of contract. As it points out in section 1.6, the prediction of the Advocate General of the European Court of Justice in the Bosman case that migration of foreign players would not seriously harm the prospects of domestic players turned out to be “fundamentally wrong”.

Further evidence that, when seeking to address the criticism about lack of diversity on the Commission, the FA may have been wise to seek to recruit people that live on the same planet as the rest of us, comes when the report briefly addresses the issue of grass roots facilities. It bemoans the effect of local authority cuts on public playing fields and sporting facilities, while failing to ask whether a small proportion of the enormous income of the top clubs might be put to some use in addressing the shortfall. It does, however, suggest that new stadiums might be built to house the new B League games. Presumably with some public subsidy thrown in? It’s in the national interest, after all.

It’s hard to decide, when reading some of this stuff, whether the report’s authors are stupid, or they just think we are. It’s clear to most people that the fundamental problem with English football is the concentration of money and power in the hands of the few at the top. As Supporters Direct says: “Distribution of talent generally follows distribution of money.”

The report could have proposed reducing the gap in prize money between the divisions. That would make relegation less of a commercial blow, and reduce the incentive on clubs to gamble everything on getting to the top flight. It could have suggested reintroducing the system of sharing gate receipts between the two clubs playing a match. It could have suggested a more equitable distribution of TV money.

It does none of these things, all of which would discourage short termism, incentivise long-term, sustainable strategies, and reduce the risk of testing younger players in the heat of competition. It does none of those things because they do not suit the greedy, self-interested elite. The owners of the elite clubs are no more interested in boosting the prospects of the England national side than the fans of an increasing number of clubs are. Football is being run by the few, for the few. They are happy to use ‘the national good’ as a cover for promoting measures that serve their own good. And, in letting them do so under its umbrella, the Football Association undermines the very purpose of its existence.

• On 26 July, Supporters Direct and the Football Supporters Federation are holding a Supporters Summit at Wembley Stadium. Plans to launch an alternative Manifesto for Football are being discussed.  

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

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David Osland: “Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance”

The veteran Labour activist on the release of his new pamphlet, How to Select or Reselect Your MP, which lays out the current Labour party rules for reselecting an MP.

Veteran left-wing Labour activist David Osland, a member of the national committee of the Labour Representation Committee and a former news editor of left magazine Tribune, has written a pamphlet intended for Labour members, explaining how the process of selecting Labour MPs works.

Published by Spokesman Books next week (advance copies are available at Nottingham’s Five Leaves bookshop), the short guide, entitled “How to Select or Reselect Your MP”, is entertaining and well-written, and its introduction, which goes into reasoning for selecting a new MP and some strategy, as well as its historical appendix, make it interesting reading even for those who are not members of the Labour party. Although I am a constituency Labour party secretary (writing here in an expressly personal capacity), I am still learning the Party’s complex rulebook; I passed this new guide to a local rules-boffin member, who is an avowed Owen Smith supporter, to evaluate whether its description of procedures is accurate. “It’s actually quite a useful pamphlet,” he said, although he had a few minor quibbles.

Osland, who calls himself a “strong, but not uncritical” Corbyn supporter, carefully admonishes readers not to embark on a campaign of mass deselections, but to get involved and active in their local branches, and to think carefully about Labour’s election fortunes; safe seats might be better candidates for a reselection campaign than Labour marginals. After a weak performance by Owen Smith in last night’s Glasgow debate and a call for Jeremy Corbyn to toughen up against opponents by ex Norwich MP Ian Gibson, an old ally, this pamphlet – named after a 1981 work by ex-Tribune editor Chris Mullin, who would later go on to be a junior minister under Blai – seems incredibly timely.

I spoke to Osland on the telephone yesterday.

Why did you decide to put this pamphlet together now?

I think it’s certainly an idea that’s circulating in the Labour left, after the experience with Corbyn as leader, and the reaction of the right. It’s a debate that people have hinted at; people like Rhea Wolfson have said that we need to be having a conversation about it, and I’d like to kickstart that conversation here.

For me personally it’s been a lifelong fascination – I was politically formed in the early Eighties, when mandatory reselection was Bennite orthodoxy and I’ve never personally altered my belief in that. I accept that the situation has changed, so what the Labour left is calling for at the moment, so I see this as a sensible contribution to the debate.

I wonder why selection and reselection are such an important focus? One could ask, isn’t it better to meet with sitting MPs and see if one can persuade them?

I’m not calling for the “deselect this person, deselect that person” rhetoric that you sometimes see on Twitter; you shouldn’t deselect an MP purely because they disagree with Corbyn, in a fair-minded way, but it’s fair to ask what are guys who are found to be be beating their wives or crossing picket lines doing sitting as our MPs? Where Labour MPs publicly have threatened to leave the party, as some have been doing, perhaps they don’t value their Labour involvement.

So to you it’s very much not a broad tool, but a tool to be used a specific way, such as when an MP has engaged in misconduct?

I think you do have to take it case by case. It would be silly to deselect the lot, as some people argue.

In terms of bringing the party to the left, or reforming party democracy, what role do you think reselection plays?

It’s a basic matter of accountability, isn’t it? People are standing as Labour candidates – they should have the confidence and backing of their constituency parties.

Do you think what it means to be a Labour member has changed since Corbyn?

Of course the Labour party has changed in the past year, as anyone who was around in the Blair, Brown, Miliband era will tell you. It’s a completely transformed party.

Will there be a strong reaction to the release of this pamphlet from Corbyn’s opponents?

Because the main aim is to set out the rules as they stand, I don’t see how there can be – if you want to use the rules, this is how to go about it. I explicitly spelled out that it’s a level playing field – if your Corbyn supporting MP doesn’t meet the expectations of the constituency party, then she or he is just as subject to a challenge.

What do you think of the new spate of suspensions and exclusions of some people who have just joined the party, and of other people, including Ronnie Draper, the General Secretary of the Bakers’ Union, who have been around for many years?

It’s clear that the Labour party machinery is playing hardball in this election, right from the start, with the freeze date and in the way they set up the registered supporters scheme, with the £25 buy in – they’re doing everything they can to influence this election unfairly. Whether they will succeed is an open question – they will if they can get away with it.

I’ve been seeing comments on social media from people who seem quite disheartened on the Corbyn side, who feel that there’s a chance that Smith might win through a war of attrition.

Looks like a Corbyn win to me, but the gerrymandering is so extensive that a Smith win isn’t ruled out.

You’ve been in the party for quite a few years, do you think there are echoes of past events, like the push for Bennite candidates and the takeover from Foot by Kinnock?

I was around last time – it was dirty and nasty at times. Despite the narrative being put out by the Labour right that it was all about Militant bully boys and intimidation by the left, my experience as a young Bennite in Tower Hamlets Labour Party, a very old traditional right wing Labour party, the intimidation was going the other way. It was an ugly time – physical threats, people shaping up to each other at meetings. It was nasty. Its nasty in a different way now, in a social media way. Can you compare the two? Some foul things happened in that time – perhaps worse in terms of physical intimidation – but you didn’t have the social media.

There are people who say the Labour Party is poised for a split – here in Plymouth (where we don’t have a Labour MP), I’m seeing comments from both sides that emphasise that after this leadership election we need to unite to fight the Tories. What do you think will happen?

I really hope a split can be avoided, but we’re a long way down the road towards a split. The sheer extent of the bad blood – the fact that the right have been openly talking about it – a number of newspaper articles about them lining up backing from wealthy donors, operating separately as a parliamentary group, then they pretend that butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, and that they’re not talking about a split. Of course they are. Can we stop the kamikazes from doing what they’re plotting to do? I don’t know, I hope so.

How would we stop them?

We can’t, can we? If they have the financial backing, if they lose this leadership contest, there’s no doubt that some will try. I’m old enough to remember the launch of the SDP, let’s not rule it out happening again.

We’ve talked mostly about the membership. But is Corbynism a strategy to win elections?

With the new electoral registration rules already introduced, the coming boundary changes, and the loss of Scotland thanks to decades of New Labour neglect, it will be uphill struggle for Labour to win in 2020 or whenever the next election is, under any leadership.

I still think Corbyn is Labour’s best chance. Any form of continuity leadership from the past would see the Midlands and north fall to Ukip in the same way Scotland fell to the SNP. Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.