In the luxury resort of Vilamoura on Portugal’s Algarve, important discussions about the future of English football are taking place. It’s the Football League Owners and Executives Conference, the objective of which, according to a letter from Football League chief executive Shaun Harvey, is to “increase engagement with clubs”.
Harvey also includes in his letter the caveat that: “The emphasis will be on the future, not the past.” The observation that those who do not learn from their history are doomed to repeat it is brought immediately to mind.
One way in which Harvey no doubt helps the future can be focused on is by discussion of the proposal to allow B teams from the elite clubs of the Premier League to enter the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, the cup competition for lower league clubs. This proposal dangles unspecified “financial benefits” in front of lower league clubs to encourage then to accept something that has already been widely rejected in a different form – the parachuting of top club B teams into competition with traditional clubs.
The suggestion represents something of a rearguard action after the furore sparked by the FA Commission’s report on the future of the England team, which suggested that B teams from the top sides should be allowed to compete in the Football League. As the many thousands of fans who have opposed that plan pointed out, the idea undermines one of the basic principles of the English game: that a club’s position is based on merit. The fans, of course, were not asked for their views – we’re just expected to pay to watch the games we don’t want to be staged. But it’s not just fans who are opposed to the plans.
The Football League clubs themselves are also in open rebellion, with Peterborough United’s Darren Macanthony, Portsmouth CEO Mark Caitlin and Bradford City’s Mark Lawn particularly vociferous in their opposition. All of which presents a problem for Football League chairman Greg Clarke, because while almost all the clubs he is supposed to represent oppose the B team plans, and while the Football League itself has said the original FA Commission proposals “may not contain a solution that is acceptable at the current time”, the embarrassing detail that remains is that Greg Clarke was one of the members of the Commission who signed off the proposal.
It’s not the first time Clarke has incurred the ire of the clubs he is supposed to represent. At last year’s meeting, he had to face down the prospect of a no-confidence vote from clubs angry at the way he had negotiated a solidarity payments package with the Premier League, about his failure to secure sponsorship for the League, and for putting himself in the frame for the job of FA Chairman – eventually given to Greg Dyke – without informing the League.
On that occasion, Ken Bates, then the chairman of Leeds United, moved a motion to dismiss any concerns and move on – with only a handful of clubs opposing. This year, it seems, former Leeds United executive Shaun Harvey will try to get Clarke out of trouble, repackaging the B team league proposal as a B team cup proposal. And showing, in the process, that despite the protestations of the football authorities that they are listening to the furious fan criticisms of the whole B team principle, they are in fact not listening at all.
The fact that they are not listening is no surprise. Harvey once set out his philosophy as ‘players play, managers manage, and supporters support”. With the conference in Vilamoura also due to discuss ownership structures, it’s also interesting to remember that Harvey has presided over three administrations, two at Bradford City and one at Leeds. He was at Leeds for years when the ultimate owners of the club were not publically known – which equips him well to be the chief executive of the organisation responsible for the Owners and Directors Test. Leeds fan Amitai Winehouse has written an interesting portrait of Harvey for the fanzine STAND, while Harvey’s approach to supporter criticism was examined in some depth by David Conn in the Guardian.
One of the major problems with the way English football is run is that those who take the key decisions are in those positions for a variety of reasons – none of which include being accountable to any constituency other than people like them. So they often define the interests of ‘their’ clubs as their own personal interests, and those interests often include seeing how far they can rise within the governance structure of a sport that likes to project a professional image, but which too often conducts itself in an amateur fashion, with a nod here, a wink there and a favour thrown in when it can make a difference.
That is not to say that there are no good people involved at this level, or that every idea those who run the game come up with is bad – although you do have to look a bit harder for the good ones. It’s the system itself that’s the problem, a system that promotes patronage and discourages the more open and collegiate processes that are increasingly expected.
If English football was serious about looking to the future, it would address this.