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17 October 2014

Supporters Direct welcomes Labour’s plans to put fans on football club boards

Football supporters will be given the right to appoint and remove up to a quarter of a football club’s board of directors under new proposals from the Labour Party. Fans will also be given the right to buy up to 10 per cent of a club’s shares on offer during a change of ownership. We assess the proposals and get the views of Supporters Direct chief executive Robin Osterley.

By Martin Cloake

If put into practice, Labour’s football proposals will be the most radical shake-up of the sport for years. The news was welcomed by Supporters Direct, the body set up in 2000 to help fans of sports clubs have greater influence in the way those clubs are run. “This signals the establishment of the formal relationship between supporters’ trusts and their clubs, which we have sought for many years,” the organisation said in a statement.

“No one in football denies the special social and community nature of football clubs, yet there has always been a resistance to measures across the board that would actually guarantee the role of those fans in their clubs.

“The most important element of this proposal is the right for Fit and Proper supporters’ trusts to appoint and remove up to a quarter of a football club’s board of directors.”

The announcement is a clear signal that patience has run out with those who run English football, which has consistently argued it should be left to reform itself, but failed to do so. But we’ve heard brave words from politicians before, and Osterley says: “We also hope that this serves as message to football itself that the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee’s findings that demanded a greater role for supporters, real and tangible transparency and more openness in the way our national game is run, are not destined to gather dust on a shelf, like the previous five reports since 1967 on football governance.”

It has to be remembered that these are only proposals, and from a party that is by no means guaranteed to win a majority at the next election. But they set the tone for the debate that will inevitably follow. And that debate is no longer about whether the game should be reformed, but how.

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For Robin Osterley, only five months into his role as SD chief executive, the significance of the move is clear. “This is an absolutely key statement from the Labour party, and one which we welcome wholeheartedly. For the first time we have heard a major political party come out in public and state what legislation it will undertake to guarantee that the voice of the supporter is heard; we hope and trust it will be the first of many such statements we will hear in the months running up to the election.”

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But many people remember how the 1997 Labour government’s much trumpeted Taskforce for Football ended up achieving very little as the game ran rings around the legislators. How confident is Osterley that the latest proposals won’t end up diluted or simply ignored?

“Obviously time will tell. But this statement is the result of an extensive process of consultation with supporters and supporters’ organisations, and we are confident that Labour will, if elected, step up to the plate. And a major difference with 1997 is that Supporters Direct now exists to hold them to account on their promises, which you may rest assured we most certainly will.”

With so much at stake, does he think the game will mount a legal challenge? “Some people will try to suggest that this undermines the law of the land,” he says. “That’s a bit of a red herring. Leagues have in the most part chosen to exist as private clubs run by private businesses, run themselves using company law, and there is no reason for that other than an accident of history. What Labour’s move would do is to create rules tailored to the specifics of football and its special problems, and I’m sure we can all agree that those very special problems need specific solutions. .”

That’s what makes these latest proposals so interesting. The argument that “football is now a business” has been used for years to resist any meaningful involvement of fans in the running of their clubs. These reforms accept that the game is a business, but also recognise the special nature of the business – something that the football authorities have been happy to use when it suits them.

Take the infamous Football Creditors Rule, which says that when a football club falls insolvent, debts to “football creditors” – other clubs owed transfer fees or players owed wages – must be paid first and in full. That led to the grotesque spectacle of multi-million pound businesses receiving what they were owed in full while creditors such as the St John’s Ambulance or local businesses got little or nothing.

If that rule can operate with little or no legal justification, why not fans on the board with legal backing? And to those who would still cling on to the religion of “let the market decide”, more than 100 insolvencies in 22 years in the top five divisions of football is pretty clear evidence of market failure. With clubs operating monopolies and leagues operating as cartels, government intervention is entirely justified. What will be interesting to see now is whether other parties follow suit, something Osterley is clearly looking for.