FA chairman Greg Dyke launches the latest report on grassroots football on 8 May at Wembley. Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

“It feels like a betrayal”: EU citizens react to Jeremy Corbyn’s migration stance

How do Labour-supporting European migrants in the UK feel about their leader wanting to control EU migration?

“This feels a bit different from the man I had campaigned for,” says Eva Blum-Dumontet. “It felt like he was on the side of the group that matters, regardless of whether they were actually going to make him gain voters or not. He was on the side of what seemed right.”

Blum-Dumontet is a 26-year-old EU citizen who has been in the UK for five years. She works as a researcher for a charity and lives in north-east London’s Walthamstow, where she is the local Labour party’s women’s officer.

She joined Labour just before the 2015 general election, and campaigned for Jeremy Corbyn during his leadership bid that year. She spent one and a half months that summer involved in his campaign, either phone banking at its headquarters at the Unite union building, or at campaign events, every other evening.

“When he suddenly rose out of nowhere, that was a really inspiring moment,” she recalls. “They were really keen on involving people who had recently arrived, which was good.”

“Aside from the EU, I share all of his views”

Blum-Dumontet voted for Corbyn in both of Labour’s leadership elections, and she joined Momentum as soon as it was set up following Corbyn winning the first one in 2015. But she left the group two months ago.

She is one of the roughly three million EU citizens living in the UK today whose fate is precarious following the EU referendum result. And she doesn’t feel Corbyn is sticking up for her interests.

Over the weekend, the Labour leader gave an interview that has upset some Labour-supporting EU migrants like her.

Corbyn reiterated his opposition to staying in the single market – a longstanding left-wing stance against free market dominance. He added that his immigration policy “would be a managed thing on the basis of the work required” rather than free movement, and, in condemning agencies exploiting migrant workers, he said:

“What there wouldn’t be is wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions, particularly in the construction industry. You prevent agencies recruiting wholescale workforces like that; you advertise for jobs in the locality first.”

Corbyn also emphasised that Labour would guarantee the rights of EU nationals to stay in Britain – including the right of family reunion – and that there would still be Europeans working here and vice versa. But, for some in his party who hail from Europe, the damage was done.

“I feel like he’s now trying to signal more and more that he’s not on all sides, he’s on the side of people who are just scared of migrants,” says Blum-Dumantet, who will nevertheless stay in the party to try and change the policy. “The idea that he is willing to engage in this whole dog-whistling immigration fear feeling is a bit disturbing.”

She stresses that, “aside from the EU, I share all of his views”, but adds:

“I feel like he’s chosen his socialist utopia – and I don’t mean that as a bad thing; I’m a socialist as well – over the reality of the concrete lives of three million people. For us, this is not about some abstract ideal, it’s about our lives, whether we can get jobs here, whether we can stay here. And for the sake of his ideal, he’s sacrificing that. That does feel like a betrayal.”

***

Other EU migrants who initially supported Corbyn also feel let down. Sabrina Huck, the London representative of Labour’s youth wing Young Labour, moved here from Germany in February 2014.

Having joined the party that year, she voted for Corbyn in the first leadership election, “particularly because of things like being an internationalist, talking about migrant solidarity”.

Huck, 26, who lives in south London and works in public affairs, began to change her mind about him she discovered his Eurosceptic views. “It’s kind of my fault because I didn’t really do the research properly on him, I guess!” she laughs.

“I understand the argument that we have put downward wage pressure on some jobs”

Now, she feels “disappointed” in Corbyn’s comments about “wholesale importation” of workers. “The way he articulates himself – it doesn’t sound like what I wanted to hear from a Labour leader, particularly somebody who’s been a proud internationalist, proud migrant rights campaigner,” she tells me.

“I think the way he was making his point about wages was laying the blame way too much with workers and not with the bosses, basically.”

Huck notes that Corbyn is against the single market because of his socialist view of the EU as a “capitalist club”, rather than concern about borders. But she feels he’s using “the immigration argument” to sound mainstream:

“I feel like he’s using it as an opportunity to further his own ideological goal of leaving the single market by tying that to an argument that goes down well with the Leave-voting public.”

***

However, other Labour-leaning EU migrants I speak to do not feel Corbyn’s genuine motive is to bring immigration down – and are more understanding of his comments.

“I appreciate and understand the argument that we have put downward wage pressure on some – particularly blue collar or poorer paid – jobs, that is the nature of mass migration,” says a 29-year-old Czech who works for the government (so wishes not to be named), and has lived here since 2014. She believes his comments were made to “appeal to the hard left and Ukip types”, and has left the Labour party. But she adds:

“I can understand how communities suffering through a decade of stagnant wage growth and austerity are looking for a scapegoat, easily found in the form of migrants – particularly in a country where minimum wage and labour protections are so weak legislatively, and so poorly enforced.”

She also is sceptical that a “mass deportation” of EU migrants from Britain is likely to happen. “The optics are too bad, at a minimum,” she says. “It would look too much like the 1930s. What would the government do? Put us all on boats back to Europe?”

“I kind of shrugged off those comments and they didn’t bother me massively”

“I think they [Labour] are feeling their way around the issue [of Brexit] and are listening for public sentiment,” says Agnes Pinteaux, a Hungarian-born 48-year-old who moved to Britain in 1998. “But reconciling their hardcore Brexit support, those who just hate immigrants, those who want ‘sovereignty’, and those who want Brexit ditched altogether is going to be impossible.”

“I think the debate about the ethics of free movement of labour is a legitimate one, but it has to be rooted in human rights and dignity,” says Anna Chowrow, a 29-year-old third sector financial manager who moved from Poland to Scotland in 2007, adding:

“I was thrilled when Jeremy Corbyn was first elected Labour leader, and I have admiration for his principled approach. [But] I am in disbelief that these comments – akin to ‘British jobs for British workers’ – were made by him. The dehumanising language of ‘importation’ and ‘destruction’ is beyond disappointing.”

***

Finding EU citizens in Britain who are entirely sympathetic to Corbyn’s comments is difficult. Forthcoming defenders of his stance are hard to come by, suggesting that it’s a minority view among Europeans living in Britain. But there are some who continue to back him.

“I like Jeremy Corbyn’s authenticity. He comes across as genuine and honest, and I agree with most of his ideas. Contrary to the majority of politicians, he’s actually not afraid of coming across as a human being,” says Teresa Ellhotka, 24, who moved to the UK from Austria in 2016 and works in PR.

“His ideas and visions are, in my opinion, still very progressive”

“I kind of shrugged off those comments and they didn’t bother me massively,” she says of Corbyn’s stance on EU migrants. “My mind about Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t changed drastically as his ideas and visions are, in my opinion, still very progressive and I admire that he is dedicated to change but in a human way, and doesn’t suggest fighting fire with fire – as many other politicians, and people, seem to do.”

Ellhotka admits to being “a little surprised, as I did not expect this stance from him at all”, but feels there has been “so much back-and-forth” on the issue that she’s stopped worrying about what politicians say.

“Nobody seems to know what exactly is going to happen anyway.” The only thing, perhaps, that all politicians – and their voters – can agree on.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.