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.

Photo: Getty
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How the row over Jackie Walker triggered a full-blown war in Momentum

Jon Lansman, the organisation's founder, is coming under attack. 

The battle for control within Momentum, which has been brewing for some time, has begun in earnest.

In a sign of the growing unrest within the organisation – established as the continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership bid, and instrumental in delivering in his re-election -  a critical pamphlet by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyite grouping, has made its way into the pages of the Times, with the “unelected” chiefs of Momentum slated for turning the organisation into a “bland blur”.

The issue of contention: between those who see Momentum as an organisation to engage new members of the Labour party, who have been motivated by Jeremy Corbyn but are not yet Corbynites.

One trade unionist from that tendency described what they see the problem as like this: “you have people who have joined to vote for Jeremy, they’re going to meetings, but they’re voting for the Progress candidates in selections, they’re voting for Eddie Izzard [who stood as an independent but Corbynsceptic candidate] in the NEC”.  

On the other are those who see a fightback by Labour’s right and centre as inevitable, and who are trying to actively create a party within a party for what they see as an inevitable purge. One activist of that opinion wryly described Momentum as “Noah’s Ark”.

For both sides, Momentum, now financially stable thanks to its membership, which now stands at over 20,000, is a great prize. And in the firing line for those who want to turn Momentum into a parallel line is Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder.

Lansman, who came into politics as an aide to Tony Benn, is a figure of suspicion on parts of the broad left due to his decades-long commitment to the Labour party. His major opposition within Momentum and on its ruling executive comes from the AWL.

The removal of Jackie Walker as a vice-chair of Momentum after she said that Holocaust Memorial Day belittled victims of other genocides has boosted the AWL, although the AWL's Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum's ruling executive, voted to remove Walker as vice-chair. (Walker remains on the NEC, as she has been elected by members). But despite that, the AWL, who have been critical of the process whereby Walker lost her post, have felt the benefit across the country.

Why? Because that battle has triggered a series of serious splits, not only in Momentum’s executive but its grassroots. A raft of local groups have thrown out the local leadership, mostly veterans of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership, for what the friend of one defeated representative described as “people who believe the Canary [a pro-Corbyn politics website that is regularly accused of indulging and promoting conspiracy theories]”.

In a further series of reverses for the Lansmanite caucus, the North West, a Momentum stronghold since the organisation was founded just under a year ago, is slipping away from old allies of Lansman and towards the “new” left. As one insider put it, the transition is from longstanding members towards people who had been kicked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Neil Kinnock. The constituency party of Wallasey in particular is giving senior figures in Momentum headaches just as it is their opponents on the right of the party, with one lamenting that they have “lost control” of the group.

It now means that planned changes to Momentum’s structure, which the leadership had hoped to be rubberstamped by members, now face a fraught path to passage.

Adding to the organisation’s difficulties is the expected capture of James Schneider by the leader’s office. Schneider, who appears widely on television and radio as the public face of Momentum and is well-liked by journalists, has an offer on the table to join Jeremy Corbyn’s team at Westminster as a junior to Seumas Milne.

The move, while a coup for Corbyn, is one that Momentum – and some of Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement – are keen to resist. Taking a job in the leader’s office would reduce still further the numbers of TV-friendly loyalists who can go on the airwaves and defend the leadership. There is frustration among the leader’s office that as well as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who are both considered to be both polished media performers and loyalists, TV bookers turn to Ken Livingstone, who is retired and unreliable, and Paul Mason, about whom opinions are divided within Momentum. Some regard Mason as a box office performer who needs a bigger role, others as a liability.

But all are agreed that Schneider’s expected departure will weaken the media presence of Corbyn loyalists and also damage Momentum. Schneider has spent much of his time not wrangling journalists but mediating in local branches and is regarded as instrumental in the places “where Momentum is working well” in the words of one trade unionist. (Cornwall is regarded as a particular example of what the organisation should be aiming towards)

It comes at a time when Momentum’s leadership is keen to focus both on its external campaigns but the struggle for control in the Labour party. Although Corbyn has never been stronger within the party, no Corbynite candidate has yet prevailed in a by-election, with the lack of available candidates at a council level regarded as part of the problem. Councilors face mandatory reselection as a matter of course, and the hope is that a bumper crop of pro-Corbyn local politicians will go on to form the bulk of the talent pool for vacant seats in future by-elections and in marginal seats at the general election.

But at present, a draining internal battle is sapping Momentum of much of its vitality. But Lansman retains two trump cards. The first is that as well as being the founder of the organisation, he is its de facto owner: the data from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, without which much of the organisation could not properly run, is owned by a limited company of which he is sole director. But “rolling it up and starting again” is very much the nuclear option, that would further delay the left’s hopes of consolidating its power base in the party.

The second trump card, however, is the tribalism of many of the key players at a local level, who will resist infiltration by groups to Labour’s left just as fiercely as many on the right. As one veteran of both Corbyn’s campaigns reflected: “If those who have spent 20 years attacking our party think they have waiting allies in the left of Labour, they are woefully mistaken”. 

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