It took a couple of days, but we got there in the end. The Labour Party’ proposals on the state of football may have been largely welcomed by supporters, but they were not going to pass uncommented upon by those that still, in spite of everything, claim that the “free market” can save the world in some way. The responses didn’t give us a great deal to feel encouraged about. The Conservative Shadow Sports & Olympics Minister Hugh Robertson seemed caught on the hop by the leak and his response was at best garbled and at worst disingenuous.
After 13 years of inactivity by the Government on this issue, this has all the hallmarks of a pre-election gimmick. There are massive, massive implications for company law and insolvency law.
We all know that the Conservatives are instinctively going to be light on legislative measures protect football from itself but, even accounting for this (and considering that the principle of increased supporter involvement in football clubs has all-party support), his response was weak. He didn’t go into any details about what these “massive, massive implications” might be (it is already established that the finer details on these proposals are still very much at the consultation stage – how he can make such a sweeping comment on the basis of limited information about the proposals that we have at this point in time is moot) and managed a little bluster about there being easier ways to increase supporter representation at club level, such as insisting on all clubs having one supporters’ representative on their board of directors.
On the surface, this might feel like a policy that would make a significant difference, but the truth of the matter is that it would, in practice, prove to be little more than a sop to supporter empowerment. Without shares in the club, such a representative would have no influence within the boardroom and quite likely no voting rights. He or she may well find themselves being allowed to speak when he or she is spoken to, and occasionally patted on the head and being told that their suggestions are very good suggestions. We already know the extent to which clubs will be hostile to being opened up to increased regulation, and Robertson’s comments give off the distinct whiff of someone that wishes to preserve the status quo exactly as it is, but knows that he has to appease those poor silly, deluded football supporters if he wants their vote at the upcoming general election. The Conservatives have a few weeks to come up with something more solid of their own, but Robertson had a golden opportunity to make a decisive statement on the subject and failed to take it. Some might say that he missed an open goal.
Still, at least he did better than the Liberal Democrat sport spokesman Don Foster, who gave the distinct impression that he isn’t even aware of the issue of football clubs that are already owned by their supporters when he commented that, “Supporter ownership is a nice idea but will be nothing more than a pipe dream for most fans” and added that:
We urgently need a radical overhaul of the FA to better represent supporters and act in the interests of the game. Ministers need to promise to look at other issues of desperate importance to fans, like ticket prices, safe standing and facilities for disabled supporters.
This is all very well, with ticket prices, safe standing and facilities for disabled supporters all being worthy of our support, but they don’t in any way address the issue of the institutionally-led financial crisis that has engulfed English football or giving supporters a greater say in the running of their clubs and of the game – although, to be frank, Mr Robertson’s comments didn’t do this either. It is hoped that Mr Foster was completely caught out by the proposals and that, given a little time, his party will be able to come up with something a little more concrete on the subject of reform of the way that football is run in this country.
In the right wing press, the reaction has been a confused one. Broadly speaking, the tabloids are populist by instinct but these are populist proposals that are being introduced by a government that they are already openly hostile to. Initially, many of the tabloids were hesitant in reporting the story at all, but they eventually came out as uniformly hostile to the plans. Some did in more subtle ways than others. The Daily Telegraph noted that “Labour’s plans for football supporters to own share of clubs could be scuppered by Fifa”, which notably didn’t include any comment from any representatives from FIFA, but did refer to the approving comments made by UEFA’s Michel Platini (a man that is widely recognised as Sepp Blatter’s protégé).
The Times don’t appear to have found any of their of writers that are willing to openly be hostile towards the proposals, and instead rely on the thoughts of Professor J. R. Shackleton, the Dean of the Business School for the University of East London, no less. Professor Shackleton isn’t afraid to espouse his love of the free market, but he isn’t noted as an expert on the peculiar economics of football, and why this should be is demonstrated in his article, in which he claims that, “supporters are no more forward looking than today’s pantomime villain owners” (there isn’t a generalisation too sweeping for Professor Shackleton), that “Chester’s collapse provoked expensive legal squabbles” (it didn’t), that “its [the government's] ideal is the Spanish giant Barcelona”, (not something that they have said publically – indeed, the proposals put forward look more like a watered-down version of the German football club ownership model, which, curiously, Professor Shackleton doesn’t mention at all) and that “football is not vital to the economy”.
The Daily Mail sums up the attitude which most of the Conservative press have taken, in reporting the story neutrally but giving it a Labour-bashing headline (readers of a nervous disposition may wish to steer clear of the moronic comments beneath it), a trick repeated by the Daily Telegraph in a remarkably similar piece from their website. The Daily Star are more concerned with Robertson’s dismissal of the proposals (although they do at least include quotes from Malcolm Clarke of the FSF and Supporters Direct’s Dave Boyle). Finally, The Independent (a newspaper recently purchased by the Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev, a story that may ring a few bells amongst football supporters) seemed to be more broadly sympathetic towards the proposals.
In other words, football supporters can’t expect much support from the national newspapers when it comes to a proposal that would give them a real say in the way that football is run in Britain. The newspapers seem clearly party politically motivated in their responses to the proposals put forward (somewhat ironically, considering the accusations of electioneering that so many critics of the proposals have been making), and the responses from the two opposition parties at present don’t offer much of a way forward for a game that is an indispensible part of the social and cultural fabric of this country and which desperately needs regulation if it is not to financially implode. Thy have the absolute right to engage in this debate and make proposals of their own if they feel that those leaked to the press are inadequate, but until these critics come up with alternative solutions rather than merely sneering from the sidelines, it is difficult to take anything that they say on the subject very seriously.