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30 January 2023

Can the Conservatives use football reform to rebuild Red Wall trust?

A new report underlines the sport’s importance in the north of England. For Rishi Sunak, club regulation could be an open goal.

By Rachel Wearmouth

If you aren’t passionate about football, you could be forgiven for thinking that the north is enjoying a golden age of the beautiful game. In some ways, it is. Manchester City are Premier League champions and one of six great northern clubs in the top flight bankrolled by wealthy foreign owners (more about them another day!). Half of the Championship, English football’s second division, is made up of teams representing a northern city or town.

The sport brings communities together – but a local club’s stability can be more precarious than many people realise. A new report by the think tank Onward, published yesterday, has found that nearly three quarters of northern clubs are losing money each year.

Since 1990, 64 professional clubs have gone into administration. This is usually because of irresponsible governance and owners making dangerous financial gambles – activity that often leaves fans devastated and feeling alienated from clubs they devote so much of their time and money to.

Now, more than a year after the Conservative MP Tracey Crouch made ten key recommendations as part of a fan-led review of football governance, legislation has still not been tabled. The government has said it is imminent. Onward’s report argues that Rishi Sunak should adopt the review’s recommendations in full, because northern football is at risk. Reforms to the game should include, the report says, a fair system of financial redistribution from the Premier League to lower-league and grassroots football and more fan involvement.

The analysis also underlined the role grassroots football plays in keeping young people in the north healthy. A greater proportion play the sport in England’s northern regions than anywhere else in the country except London, and it is estimated to cut the number of childhood obesity cases by around 59,000.

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The collapse of Bury in 2019 and the club’s expulsion from the English Football League, as well as the financial woes faced by clubs like Oldham Athletic, showed reform was urgently-needed. The crucial test for Rishi Sunak is whether he is prepared to resist lobbying from the Football Association and the Premier League (who want to keep governance in-house) and back an independent regulator, with enforcement powers and oversight of club finances. The Labour Party has backed the plan and a recent report in the Mail suggested that the Prime Minister is also prepared to, but it remains to be seen what teeth the regulator will have.

The economic crisis and losing ministers to sleaze have left Sunak’s government in disarray, but safeguarding Britain’s national sport is important to Red Wall voters. The PM has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to offer change.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

[See also: Nadhim Zahawi’s sacking leaves Rishi Sunak with questions to answer]

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