The FA and The EFL’s Day Out at Parliament

by | Oct 22, 2019

Nobody from the Football Association or the EFL should have really have been surprised by the fact that they were given a hard time in parliament yesterday afternoon. The DCMS has met before to discuss the shortcomings of football governance in this country before, and some of the faces on yesterday’s committee were present and correct a couple of years ago. These MPs have seen this all before. One member of the committee, Ian Lucas, has been the MP for Wrexham since 2001 and was therefore charged with raising questions about potential malfeasance in the various attempts to sell that town’s football club throughout the 2010/11 season. Damian Collins, who is leading this committee, has taken an active interest in the governance of football governance for many years.

Social media was buzzing yesterday afternoon at the sight of MPs looking perplexed at various explanations from both bodies about how they regulate (or, in the case of the FA, no longer bother to regulate) the financial side of the game. And there have been fundamental changes to the ways in which these matters have been treated within the game in recent years. Lucas said that he was “stunned” to find that the FA took no active interest whatsoever in what had been going on at Bury. The FA stepped back from enforcing regulation of the Premier League and the EFL some time ago. It was a fairly fundamental abdication of responsibility from the body that remains – in theory, at least – the umbrella body that manages and regulates the professional game in this country, but it was treated with a shrug within the game by onlookers who were already aware of the apparent fact that the FA had ceded its controlling stake in the well-being of English football to the league years ago.

Debbie Jevans, who couldn’t have been less inspiring as the acting chair of the EFL had she been an actual chair, gave a performance that lived fully down to expectations. Asked by Lucas, “Do you agree with me that that’s a deficiency in the rules?”, her response of, “What I do agree is we must learn lessons from this” seemed almost wilfully obtuse. After all of this, after the first complete collapse of a League club in almost three decades and the damn near expiry of one of its twelve founding members at the exact same time, the chair of the EFL is still refusing to admit that there are substantial deficiencies in their regulations. The whole point is precisely that neither the FA nor the EFL has learnt any lessons from the past. Ian Lucas might well have been forgiven for thinking, “Well, you don’t seem to have learned anything from what happened to Wrexham.”

But this in itself feels like a huge part of the problem. Why would the EFL have learned anything from what happened at Wrexham almost a decade ago? They were a National League club by the time that they found themselves close to death, so they weren’t under the jurisdiction of the EFL. And it has sometimes felt as though the few regulations that do exist when clubs get into financial trouble are more about passing bucks than anything else. Big points deductions were ostensibly brought in to try and dissuade clubs from overspending and then collapsing into administration, but one side-effect of this has been to nudge most clubs who find themselves in such a position down a level in football’s food chain.

Only one – Portsmouth – has ever gone into administration while a member, but plenty of former Premier League clubs have done so. Similarly, non-league football is scattered with the ashes of clubs that either went bust or came close to going bust after they were members of the EFL. You don’t have to be that much of a conspiracy theorist to wonder whether shuffling these clubs down and making them somebody else’s responsibility could be at least a part of the plan. But even if we are as generous as we can be and rule out the possibility that this, whether consciously or sub-consciously, may be the case, the absolute inertia as Bury unravelled over the course of the first eight months of this year was astonishing, considering everything.

Malcolm Clarke, the chair of the Football Supporters Association, demonstrated that, as soon often seems to be the case when looking at this sort of culture clash, the supporters themselves seem to have given more thought to a framework that might actually keep clubs safe from incompetent or unscrupulous owners. Consider his words to the inquiry, and marvel at how revolutionary they would sound if one of the people whose job it actually should be to regulating the industry came out and said them:

We’d like to see a strengthening of the owners and directors test in the way that we’ve proposed.

Proper business plans that include financial sustainability and also what the club owner intends to do about preserving what is essentially a cultural asset, so that the ownership of the ground doesn’t come under threat.

Because Football clubs are a part of the cultural identity of their local area, a bit like a listed building or a national park or a conservation area, whichever analogy you want to use.

We believe that in the football industry there should be much more rigorous regulation in all those areas so we can stop these problems arising in the first place.

Of course there is an element of heartstring-tugging going on in Clarke’s comments, but this feels entirely appropriate because football is an emotional business. Football clubs are not shops, factories or offices. Their place in society is quite different to any of these, so they should be treated differently. Indeed, football clubs themselves need that emotional pull in order to continue as businesses. If supporters acted like any other form of consumers and walked away when they got bad service, we’d probably be able to count the number that survived on the fingers of one hand.

The clubs know this, to the extent that the emotional pull is something that they now very openly use in marketing, and the fact that they have almost uniquely captive audiences allows them to get away with business practices (ticket prices and scheduling kick-off times for the benefit of TV companies and to the detriment of fans spring immediately to mind) that would simply not work in any other field. They act as a cartel when it suits them, and claim either the power of “the free market” or “the special place of football clubs at the heart of their communities” when it doesn’t. Ever was it thus.

It has felt abundantly clear over the years that football clubs want all the benefits of the culture in which they find themselves whilst never wanting to take any of the responsibilities for the same. The FA abdicating its overarching responsibility for the governance of clubs didn’t so much result in allowing foxes into the henhouse as hand them the keys and tell them that they could run the place from now on. When we consider the cavalcade of frauds, charlatans and fantasists that have passed through the boardrooms of EFL clubs over the years without any sanction whatsoever, the desire for ongoing self-regulation on the part of the EFL becomes considerably clearer. FSA vice-chair Tom Greatrex nailed the issue in telling the committee that, “Fundamentally having the people run the competition deciding the rules for every other club isn’t tenable.”

The FSA argues that the FA should take a central role in club governance, operating a unit independent of club owners. They’ll get little support from Greg Clarke, the chairman of the FA, in pursuing this. Clarke wants maintain a hands-off approach. He told the committee that, “The people running the competitions are the closest to how they are evolving”, and that, “It’s difficult for the FA to be close enough to any competition to spot the latest tricks being used by unscrupulous owners,” none of which says a great deal for his view of the FA’s likely competence, should such a situation ever come to pass.

As such, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to argue that the need is for a completely independent regulator, sitting a level above the FA, with quasi-legal powers to force the FA, the Premier League, the EFL and others to abide by rules that have been independently drafted and establish (with, preferably, the full involvement of groups like the FSA) to protect clubs from mistreatment. They’ll complain, of course, because they’ve had a pretty sweet deal for the last few years. But we are now at a point at which it feels as though the wheels of change could move in this direction whether the clubs – which is what the leagues basically are, no matter how much they’d like to spin it otherwise – like it or not. Whether the DCMS committee has the stomach to actually bring about transformative change, however, is a different matter altogether.