It may be heading in the direction of cliché somewhat to start any sort of public statement with a definition from a dictionary, but on some occasions it is so wholly and completely appropriate that we are left with no alternative but to do exactly that. When football competitions started to form themselves into competitions in which everybody played each other home and away (and this, it has been written elsewhere, is the English game’s most enduring and longest lasting legacy in terms of world football), they didn’t choose the phrase “round robin” or any one of a number of other phrases to distinguish itself from other types of sports competitions (the word “league” in a sporting sense, for the record, can only be traced back as far as 1879). They chose a word which had only recently (1846) started to fall into mainstream usage in English in 1846, through politics.
1. a union of persons, nations, etc formed for the benefit of the members.
2. a group of sports clubs which compete over a period for a championship.
Sometimes, then, it is rather useful to remind ourselves of the definition of the word “league”, and it is particularly useful when we are considering the actions of various football leagues in England. While the strict definition of a football league would obviously be focussed upon the latter of the above two definitions, it often feels as if a little bit too much of the former is coming into the decisions that football leagues themselves take. A little too much “benefit of the members” often seems to be going on. This may seem like a trifling insignificance, but it is an important distinction when we consider the way that the people are run our game actually operate. It is starting to feel as if much of the talk about being “fit & proper”, having rules and regulations that need to be adhered to are at best an option that can be largely ignored when it is convenient to and, at worst, a complete smoke-screen what whatever on earth may actually going on.
Consider the case of Leeds United. The club’s 2007 financial collapse and rebirth always smelt pretty bad, and it looked as if the lid might lifted on what had actually happened when the club managed to transfer its ownership from one company to another in circumstances that looked shady from the outside when Ken Bates admitted that he had made a “mistake” in stating that he was one of the co-owners of the Forward Sports Fund, the company that took control of the club during the summer of 2007. The Football League “demanded” answers in October, and they now state that they have received them from FSF, but have decided not to make them public.
Quite what the moral basis for this is can only be described as anybody’s guess. Peter Boatman, the administrator of FSF, would only say that, “”It is not necessary for you to have that information”, which demonstrates more or less exactly what one would expect on this particular subject from them. Boatman is believed to have passed the Fit & Proper Test, but his fine words about everything being “above board” at Elland Road now don’t wash with a large number of people that have simply lost faith in a system of financial management that has let them down time and time again.
While it is understandable in practical terms that FSF might not want people to know who they are (if not in moral terms), quite what the Football League’s goals are in being complicit in this veil of silence are remains a mystery. We have, of course, been here before. In October, they pushed and pushed Notts County over who the actual owners of the club were after the club had at first decided that it valued its anonymity over any degree of transparency. We all know what happened next, of course. They passed the “Fit & Proper Persons Test” and the Football League decided to back the owners’ right to anonymity. Three months later, the whole sorry saga unfolded, the club changed hands in a few weeks and had a narrow brush with administration and the High Court that may yet instil a new era of austerity at Meadow Lane.
Saying this is, obviously, not suggesting that Leeds United’s owners are in any way as dodgy as Munto Finance were at Notts County, or even that they are dodgy at all. However, considering the way that the Munto deal collapsed under the weight of the lies that were propagated in its name during the autumn of 2009, would it not be prudent for them to avoid the inevitable criticism that has followed their decision to protect the anonymity of FSF by saying, “No, on this occasion you can’t remain anonymous. The fact of the matter is that we got our fingers pretty badly burned by the Notts County affair, and we don’t feel that it is fair on anybody else connected with the game and reflects badly upon ourselves if we make the same mistake again”? Fat chance. They expect us to blithely accept that all the Is are dotted and all the Ts are crossed. But we don’t. Over the last few months, the people that run English football have done little more than earn the basis distrust of a sizeable number of football supporters.
It is coming to something when, just a handful of months before a general election, both the sports minister Gerry Sutcliffe and his shadows, Hugh Robertson of the Conservative Party and Liberal Democrat Phil Willis, criticise the decision. Either of these three statements could have come from any of the above:
As with Parliament and many other areas of public life, transparency is going to be an increasing requirement and expectation. That includes publicly identifying the owners of football clubs. Football should reform its governance, to include greater supporter representation on the board of clubs. (Hugh Robertson)
Fans of any football club have a right to know who the owners are. We want to see greater supporter representation in the running of football clubs and far greater accountability. The League should insist on clubs making public to their supporters who owns them. (Gerry Sutcliffe)
At the very least, supporters of a club have a right to know who owns it. As an act of faith and goodwill, I hope the Leeds United board now publish the documentation they have presented to the Football League so that all sense of mystery can be removed. (Nick Willis)
This, in itself, is about as damning as it gets. There can surely be no-one with so much as the most tangenital connection with the game apart from the Football League and FSF itself that believes that it is the best interests of anyone for such details to be kept secret. The Football League, though, does exactly what it says on the tin. It is a “league”. It is “a group of sports clubs which compete over a period for a championship”, but it is also “a union of persons, nations, etc formed for the benefit of the members”. It has certainly acted in the best interests of one of its members in making this decision. That member just happens to be called Forward Sports Fund.