The tone of it all is everything. You don’t have to read particularly closely between the lines of the independent committee for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s follow up report into football governance to be able to hear the clear exasperation with governing bodies that have chosen to do nothing about the recommendations of their findings from last year. Tucked within the 143 pages of the report is a very clear warning for the Football Association, the Premier League and the Football League: the decision not to act upon their findings might have been taken, but this apparent ignoring of it all doesn’t mean that the matter has merely gone away. All concerned now have twelve months to get their houses in order or face the possibility of legislation which will force them to do so.
What has, perhaps, been more instructive than anything else in terms of framing the findings of the committee has been that their viewpoint is a truly independent one, unhindered by vested interest through seeking governance that would benefit one over another. If nothing else was to come from this entire process, then we could at least console ourselves with the knowledge that we now have something approaching a definitive guide to what we should feel entitled to expect in terms of governance. No, the report makes clear, football clubs are not just like any other business (and regulation should reflect this), and yes, we are entitled to expect transparency in terms of understanding who owns them. Such detail might be useful, should the authorities not continue to not act upon the findings of the report only to see the government fail to act upon the committee’s recommendations of changes to legislation to force them to do so.
The biggest savaging in the report, however, is reserved for the Football Association itself. There is acknowledgement that an effective coup d’etat has taken place at the FA over the last two decades, and that the well-being of the game in a general sense is being sacrificed at the altar of the top end of the professional game. The report notes glumly that promises made with regard to a reduction of numbers in the Premier League and the well-being of the national team have been clearly and shamelessly broken, and that the neutering of the Football Association as an effective regulatory body has been carried by the strategic appointing of individual with clear vested interests into key positions on its myriad of committees. “As the governing body of football in England the Football Association should take the lead in decision-making for the game,” noted the report glumly, with a hint of resignation at the fact that such a statement should even need to be made, although when you have Richard Scudamore, the Premier League chief executive, arguing that the FA is “an association of interests” rather than a governing body in his submission to the committee , then perhaps there is no comment that wasn’t too obvious for it to be needed to be spelled out in black and white.
We’ll return to further specific points made in this latest report later in the week, once we have managed to dissect in full. What has been apparent over the last couple of days is that there is a possibility of an ideological schism now developing between those amongst us that see the need for greater regulation and those that don’t. What is surprising about this is that it is a schism that has not really existed before. Notions of supporter involvement in football have existed in a concrete form since the Football Task Force published its results in the 1990s, and those of us that have seen football clubs acting with impunity with regard to their financial arrangements have known for some considerable time have known that there would likely be a reflex reaction against any sort of regulation from the Premier League itself and those speaking on its behalf.
One such individual to wade into the argument today was professional self-publicist Toby Young of the Daily Telegraph, who might just have seen off some very stiff competition – over the last few weeks alone – to have written the single stupidest article ever constructed on the subject of football. Young mocks the committee’s use of words such as “diverse”, “inclusive” and “sustainable”, asking the apparently critical question of, “Why not insist that the FA employ an Equalities Officer who can make sure members of the FA Council regularly attend LGBT awareness workshops?”, because apparently diversity, inclusiveness and sustainability are apparent somehow a bad thing. He implies, fallaciously, that this report may touch on the subject of “a government bail-out” for clubs – it doesn’t, of course – before adding that “The Premier League has just signed a new broadcasting deal worth £5.5bn” without even bothering to why clubs have got themselves into so much debt when so much money is sluicing through the game. He even throws in a reference to the “sort of idiotic political meddling that has made the EU so unpopular” for no reason whatsoever – apart, presumably as a dog-whistle for stereotypical Daily Telegraph readers.
With friends such as this, who don’t seem to have read the very report that they are criticising and seem more interested in merely because it contains the word “regulation”, the Premier League doesn’t need enemies. But here’s the thing that doesn’t seem to register with the likes of Young. The debate over the need to regulate football isn’t a party political debate. The debate over the desirability of football supporters taking a more active role isn’t a party political debate, either. Both have all-party support, and have done since the very nascent days of Supporters Direct after the final report of the Football Taskforce in 1999. The committee that prepared today’s report was an all-party committee, the current membership of which is made up of five Conservative MPs, five Labour MPs and one Liberal Democrat MPs. To seek to turn this into some sort of ideological debate is to absolutely and hopelessly miss the point of the very debate that is being held within football. The facile world of “REGULATION = SOCIALISM = BAD” doesn’t apply here.
Our inner cynic might be minded to think that none of this legislation will ever happen, that today’s words on the subject will be ignored or eventually whitewashed into something that leaves the concentration of power within English football exactly where it is today. Ultimately, that decision will be up to the sports minister Hugh Robertson and he may yet choose to ignore the recommendations of the committee charged with investigating how football runs itself. It is, perhaps, at this point that ordinary supporters should be getting involved. We need to ensure that this stays at the top of his agenda, to make it impossible for him to merely overlook. Twelve months from now, we will be a little over a year from a general election which may be as tight as the last one was. For all the pessimism that abounds in modern football, this investigation and report remains a golden opportunity for professional football to actually reclaim a little of its soul. The worst that can happen is nothing. We should at least try to ensure that nothing doesn’t happen.
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