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5 March 2014

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.

By Martin Cloake

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.

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“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?