It hasn’t been the best of weeks for the Premier League. If it had thought that its jettisoning of funding for Supporters Direct would be largely uncommented upon by the press, they were perhaps under-estimating the effects of their hasty decision. The pick of the bunch came from Marina Hyde, whose systematic takedown of Richard Scudamore bordered upon the artful in cutting through the PR talk and mealy-mouthed justifications for their swingeing actions, but there were also worthy comments of note on the matter from David Conn, Martin Samuel and Dan Roan of the BBC. Questions are to be asked in parliament with an Early Day Motion having been tabled and the new acting Chief Executive of Supporters Direct, Brian Burgess having requesting with Hugh Robertson, the Minister for Sport.
What, though, is the future of the organisation? One of the questions that has been pored over more than any other this week is that of what the Premier League was aiming for with its behaviour. Precious few believe the party line that moral outrage and poor governance were the sole reasons for the decision, and the issue of whether this was something deliberately targetted solely at Dave Boyle seem to have been undermined by their slowness in reversing their decision to stop all funding to the organisation following his resignation. At this stage, perhaps the debate that we should be having is that of what Supporters Direct, with funding back in place courtesy of the Premier League again, might look like.
At this stage, of course, such a question is impossible to answer, but it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility to imagine that this exercise in whip-cracking will end with an organisation which has lost some of its bite. The supporters trust movement is, through its very existence and the way in which it has come to evolve, a reaction against the plutocratic nature of modern Premier League football. If the Premier League seeks to actively assert its dominance over the whole of English football through seeking to compromise its independence, a proportion of tha valuable work that the organisation may well end up being muted or silenced. This isn’t about rash tweets at midnight on a Saturday night. It’s about research and consultation work that doesn’t receive the sort of publicity that, say, AFC Wimbledon getting back into the Football League does. But this work is valuable, nevertheless.
The FSIF, who withdrew the funding and, as such, have come to be regarded by many of those protesting as little more than mere patsies for the Premier League, had one vague promise at the end of their statement on the matter. “The funding will still be available to the broader supporters’ trust movement”, they have said, but this is a statement that is questionable, to say the least, and it is questionable in two completely different – yet equally important respects. Firstly, there is the matter of the fact that while Supporters Direct provide funds from their budget to help new trusts set up, it is difficult to argue that their most important role in their wealth of experience and the advice that they can offer both existing trusts and those that are just setting out on what can be an exhausting and quite complicated journey. Without those ten people and their banks of knowledge, something fundamental will be lost.
Secondly, there is the matter of what funding made directly to supporters trusts might look like. The FSIF Fans Fund seems ill-equipped to deal with with requests for funding from supporters trusts. Details of what it entails are here, but we can say with certainty that supporters trusts have specific issues of governance and ownership that the Fans Fund is unlikely to get involved (or to be able to get involved) with. It is also worth pointing out that the process for applying for funds is complicated – it has two stages, the first of which is an Expression Of Interest – and that, of course, the ultimate decision on who gets funded and who doesn’t would come down to the FSIF. Even if we take the matters of funds being available to supporters trusts being of relative importance (which, in comparison with the support that Supporters Direct offers, it may not be) and the application process for said funds being a simple one (which it isn’t), the ultimate decision on who gets funds would still be having at least one hand steered by the Premier League.
The question of what the Premier League may require in order to reinstate funding is one that we may or may not get an answer to in the fullness of time, and it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that the matter of whether Supporters Direct should be looking for funding from elsewhere is a valid one. Could the Co-Operative movement be persuade to fund it? Could Supporters Direct, which has cross-party parliamentary support, actually be funded by the government itself and then left free from outside interference? Could, over the fullness of time, the 180 Supporters Trusts themselves find the revenue between them to be able to keep it running? Might a combination of the above be enough to ensure its independence? These are questions, perhaps, for another day, and for now the fight for the future of the organisation as it is remains firmly on.
The Supporters Direct Has My Support Facebook page now has over two thousand members, and if you care about this matter and haven’t already joined it, you probably should. You may wish to choose to your MP, and further information on how to do this is available here. Alternatively, you may wish to go straight to the top and, handily, the Department For Culture, Media & Sport have a Contact form on their website. Most importantly of all, the point needs to continue to be put across, politely but firmly, that this is an issue that isn’t going to merely go away if it is ignored, and that Supporters Direct’s work is too valuable to the overall wellbeing of British football to be cast aside or neutered. The stakes are high, but this remains a battle that can be won.
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