MPs have called on the government to reform football’s governance, making good on a pre-election pledge. In a lively debate held this week, members called on the government to follow through on a promise to press the football authorities into reforming rules on football finance and ownership, including supporter involvement.
The debate, held in Westminster Hall, was led by Labour MP Steve Rotheram in whose Liverpool Walton constituency both Anfield and Goodison Park are located.
It proved one of the best attended Westminster Hall debates in recent memory, according to reports, in no small part to a successful campaign ran by the Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST), which sent letters penned by members to more than 600 MPs in the past fortnight.
Westminster Hall sits alongside the main Chamber, and is aimed at fostering a new style of debate. Sessions are open to all MPs, who sit in a horseshoe arrangement which is meant to encourage constructive rather than confrontational debate. Although this week’s debate is not necessarily a precursor to legislation, it is a clear signal that MPs are taking the football supporter community seriously.
Among those in attendance were Sports Minister Hugh Robertson, former Sports Ministers Gerry Sutcliffe and Kate Hoey, and former Culture Secretary Andy Burnham, who though an Everton fan has been known to don a Green & Gold scarf.
The debate was part of an ongoing movement to place pressure on both the Football Association and Premier League over the growing spiral of debt in English football, which has so angered supporters at Manchester United, Liverpool and Portsmouth, among others.
It was also an opportunity to press Robertson, whose government has promised to “encourage the reform of football governance rules to support the cooperative ownership of football clubs by supporters” during the five-year Coalition Agreement.
“There is a crisis of governance at the top end of the football industry,” said Rotheram, former Lord Mayor of Liverpool and lifelong Dipper.
“The government has no excuse to procrastinate on this. It made an explicit commitment in its coalition agreement.
“It will not be enough merely to “encourage” reform. Ministers must create the incentives and conditions for reform and proactively coax, cajole and – if necessary – compel football’s governing authorities to initiate change.”
It might be required. The Premier League has taken a laissez-faire approach to governance and only recently introduced rules on football finance, which few in the industry expect to make any difference to the nation’s leading clubs. Meanwhile, the FA has become so impotent during the 18 years since the Premier League’s foundation that it is no longer fit for purpose under almost any definition.
The result is an environment where the debt-fuelled takeovers at Liverpool and Manchester United have been accepted without question by the authorities. Meanwhile, Portsmouth dropped into administration and out of the Premier League after successive owners played fast and loose with the club’s finances.
Elsewhere, financial problems at Notts County, Cardiff, Crystal Palace, Sheffield Wednesday and Cardiff have dominated negative headlines about the state of the football industry in the past year.
No wonder, with the only conditions applied to the much derrided “fit and proper person” test being that owners are neither criminals, nor disbarred from being directors. With neither the FA, Football League or Premier League seemingly ready to take meaningful action, supporters have become increasingly militant, and not just at Old Trafford.
While the Labour Party made a pre-election manifesto commitment to legislate supporter ownership into a reluctant football industry, the Coalition Government’s promise has been more lukewarm to date.
But while traditionally loathe to intervene in failing markets, even Conservative Party members whose communities do not include a football club have pressed the Minister towards legislation unless the FA takes heed. It seems unlikely, with successive Chief Executives of the governing body failing to institute reform within the walls of its Soho Square headquarters, let alone the wider industry.
“The strength of this morning’s debate lies in its representing the feeling throughout the House that something needs to be done,” said Robertson.
“This debate is a pretty good weather vane, showing the strength of feeling on this issue. I am determined to make progress and to push ahead with both the wider reform agenda and football supporters’ involvement.”
It’s good news for organisations such as MUST and its counterparts across the country that have lobbied for action on debt and supporters’ interests.
Elsewhere in Europe legislation that places supporters at the heart of clubs and financial prudence as the bedrock of good governance is commonplace. In Spain the four leading clubs are supporter-owned, while legislation ensures 51 per cent all each German club is controlled by the fans.
While that goal is not likely achievable in the short-term in England, there is now wide recognition of governance problems in the corridors of power because of work undertaken by MUST and other groups.
“In 2005 the Glazers took over Manchester United. The club is now £700 million in debt, with £69 million a year being paid in interest—and that money comes from the fans through tickets and merchandise. It is an appalling situation,” said Labour MP Hazel Blears, who called for a fit and proper person test in respect of takeovers.
“In Germany, every club has to be 51 per cent owned by the supporters. Such a scheme would make a real difference.”
It’s a long-term goal that United fans must surely aim towards. After all, if the Glazer family is focussed on paying down debt, the PLC before them on generating profits and the Edwards family on lining its own pockets, then the only true guardians of the club are – and will always be – the supporters.