Bernstein Backdown Evokes a Sea Breeze of Change
It didn’t start too well.
The Supporters Summit 2013 held at St George’s Park 22 June. Over 300 delegates from clubs ranging from Chelsea to Widnes Town FC and all shades in-between attended the joint Football Supporters Federation(FSF)/Supporters Direct (SD) Annual Conference.
Opening remarks by Malcolm Clark of the FSF set the tone by contrasting the English game with that of Germany, highlighting the irony of the all-fan-owned Champions League final being played at the Football Association’s flagship, New Wembley. In the FAs centre of excellence, Clark described the English game as arrogant and laid the blame for this at the feet of the Premier League.
Not an easy speech for outgoing FA chair David Bernstein to follow. He described St Georges’ Park as, ‘a place where football comes together. From every part of the game – coach, club, league, player, regulator, official, and of course fan – mingling, meeting, sharing a collective, and we hope, inspirational experience.’ Bernstein then launched into an attempt to draw the disparate parts of the game into unity. He said:
I think it is unfortunate that a perceived culture of ‘them’ and ‘us’ has developed in the game. As I mentioned I have been both an ‘us’ and a ‘them’. This idea that those who run clubs are not supporters, or do not have a care for the interests of supporters, is I believe a false one. The vast majority of Club owners are supporters and care as passionately about results as their fans.
Even if they are not originally fans of that club they do understand that there is no club without its supporters and that its inextricable link to its community is what makes every football club special and unique. For all the commercialism and global campaigning of leading Premier League Clubs, those efforts are dwarfed by their work in their very own communities.
Delegates from Portsmouth, AFC Wimbledon, Cardiff, Birmingham, Leeds, York, Brighton, Blackburn, Exeter and many others blighted by owners who have patently demonstrated that they didn’t give tuppence for the place of a club in its community politely sat on their hands. All in all it was what we have come to expect from the Football Association. Excuses and denial.
Playing the ‘pragmatism card’ in opposition to the, ‘ the philosophical arguments of greater supporter representation and ownership,’ Bernstein argued for a focus on questions such as ‘How can we make the fan experience better? Where can supporters work with their clubs for mutual benefit in their local communities?’ and ‘How can clubs better benefit from a stronger community supporter base?’ Ignoring the need for reform of ownership and governance. Indeed his questions are important; ones that supporter owned clubs must take seriously or fail. However, it was difficult to avoid the feeling that we were being asked to be focus groups for our clubs’ marketing departments than fully involved in the running of our clubs.
Bernstein touched on governance issues at the end of his speech.
Finally I would like to refer briefly to the matter of governance. As many of you know the issue of supporter representation and advancing the cause of supporter ownership was a key element to the Government’s football governance recommendations. In our initial response we outlined a number of initiatives and commitments in this area, many of which I am pleased to say have progressed despite the slower pace taken across the wider reform agenda. We were very clear in our response that all of the football authorities would welcome the establishment of a Government Expert Working Group on the issue of Supporter representation and ownership, and I reiterate this commitment again to you today.
Andy Burnham MP took up the theme of the problems caused by the Premier League in a speech that laid bare the paucity of Bernstein’s argument and the weakness of the position he took. He said that when the Premier League was created power was given away and the health of the game put in their hands. ‘The FA needs to assert its authority over the game … I don’t want a government regulator, it’s not the right answer, I want the FA to be the body that runs the game. If we carry on as we are, the FA will drift into irrelevance.’
In an analysis of the effect of the Premier League’s pursuit of being the best League in the World rather than England being the best National Team Burnham pointed out the effect of the greed of Premier League owners – the power brokers of the game in their ‘club of clubs’ – who vote to retain the game’s income to themselves. Pricing fans out of the game, ‘No Premier League football is worth £60, its not that good,’ and increasing the gap between the Premier League and the rest thereby, has destroyed all competitive balance and removed excitement. Considering the experience of young people at football he suggested the game had lost its magic. The days when winning the league was something all clubs could aspire to have long gone and this is now an unrealistic hope for most fans. It kills the the game for fans when a club sees retaining Premier League status as its only achievement season after season. Burnham called for players and clubs to think more about their fans.
The solution Burnham suggested was twofold. Firstly the game needed more supporter owned clubs and secondly an independent regulator backed by a Royal Commission such as that suggested by the Leveson Enquiry for the press. ‘Football needs its Leveson moment … If you let the big and powerful run the sport, it will benefit the big and powerful.’ The vested interests, he said, need separating from the bigger picture. ‘We need a vibrant and strong FA,’ he concluded, ‘Football needs to rediscover its soul.’
Bernstein was motivated to respond to this. He was not moved to defend the FA, but to admit failure. He said that the Government report on the enquiry into Football Governance contained potential for change. Progress is too slow and what is on the table at the moment from the football authorities is a watered down version. ‘The big issue is the strength of the Premier League. It’s a great product but its success has got out of balance. We need a strong independent FA to balance that. I hope Greg Dyke and others take that and move the issue on. Whether we can get that voluntarily or not is an open issue.’ He concluded, ‘We have had minimal success in the area of governance of the national game.’
It was an admission that seemed to reset the tone for the conference. For Bernstein to indicate the FAs failings in a public forum with both Sky and the national press present was seminal.
The nationals picked up the greed theme on the back of the ticket price demostration earlier in the week. The Mirror, the Mail and the Independent all reported the ‘attack’ on the Premier League and Bernstein’s warning to Dyke. The concern for the national game and the success of German teams, both League and Country are begin to impinge on the wider consciousness. How the game is governed is becoming an issue of significance.
Evidence from conference workshops further indicated the mood for change. The pragmatics of moving from the private ownership model to one with more supporter involvement may be problematic, but with more and more clubs falling into insolvency, the argument that the sport needs to be sustainable is becoming key. That sustainability requires greater competitive balance in the game as the current model, even in the German game, sees the financially big teams retaining a stranglehold over success, sending lesser clubs into decline as they try to compete or decide not to, as their owners dictate. The role of money in the game needs revising and in workshops at conference there was talk not only of financial regulation but also of the need for sociological reform. The video address of Huw Jenkins which spoke of the successful philosophy of the Swansea model underlined this point. It is the ethics of a club that underpin financial security.
And so it continued as we heard of the success in Europe of the Swedish Fans organisation in retaining the 50+1 rule against big opposition with a carefully crafted campaign to swing the vote on it. Micah Hall’s Pompey bloggers’ story provided a template for how fans could investigate and expose owners whose intentions are less than transparent by careful research and analysis of their business practice and connections. Without the power of such investigation it is unlikely that Pompey would now be a community owned club. The use of current legislation to protect clubs grounds as assets of community value is having success and the drive for safe-standing grows apace.
This lead to an upbeat plenary session, chaired by journalist Matt Scott. The panel here were quick to link the issue of competitive balance in the game with governance. Taking up the issue of re-distribution of income to enhance the whole game the conference came back to the need for a powerful regulatory body. Alongside this was considered the frequently iterated assertion that fans can’t run football clubs. For although we may replace private businesses with community ownership this will not mitigate the tendancy for clubs to pursue their own interests, as Barca and Real do with their independently negotiated TV deals. (This is currently under threat of change by government legislation in Spain.) The point was made that it is not just who runs the clubs that is important but the governance structure that supports both the individual clubs and the game as a whole. Because if that structure does not support ethical governance at all levels than the ‘creeping disaster’ inherent in the rule of the powerful elite will descend on the national game. So the argument is for as much a sociological – or maybe even political – change in governance as for fair financial regulation.
The will for such change seemed to be in the air at this conference. Fans can, and evidentially do, cause change in the way the sport is run. What we need to be sure of is that when they do there is a strong and ethically, maybe even philosophically, focused governing body ready to ensure that change takes the game in a direction which does enable it to ‘rediscover its soul.’
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