Saving The Beautiful Game: Hitting The Right Notes

by | Oct 17, 2020

The failure of Project Big Picture has led to the appearance of a strange vacuum at the heart of English football. The FA are the ultimate arbiters, but the power associated with money rests with the Premier League, while the EFL acts as a feeder and its own eco-system. It’s a complicated spider’s web, completely broken down in places, and its structural fragility is currently failing many of the tests presented by these most testing of times.

Money, we are repeatedly told (usually by people with a lot of money), will ultimately speak the loudest of all, and many us – albeit with varying degrees of resignation – agree. After all, this has broadly been the path that the game has taken for the last century and a half, despite increasingly futile looking attempts to retain some form of “sport” about it. It’s business, now, and the unpredictability of sport is not a comfortable bedfellow for this.

To suggest the inevitability of money winning over all other considerations in the shape of professional football may be realistic, but it also overlooks the fact that these are, ultimately, decisions that people make. Almost everyone agrees that domestic football in England needs to be reformed, so doing nothing and hoping that the world will just spring back to “normal” is in a few months is not really an option. So the questions currently being asked about the reform of the game are pivotal. The decisions reached shape the future of the game in this country for at least a generation.

As such, the idea of shunting through a proposal because it looked like it had a large amount of money attached to it was never likely to work. Project Big Picture was so badly marketed and so unpalatable that it barely lasted 72 hours in the court of public opinion before being sent to the gallows. And the haste was a clue in itself. There is absolutely no need whatsoever for matters of reform of the game to be completely tied to the financial needs of EFL clubs right now. If we know that the money is there to address this now, before it does considerable – and possibly irrevocable – damage, then should just be done. We can sort out the fine print later. A clear and unequivocal statement needs to be sent that no club will be allowed to die as a result of this pandemic alone.

But what should the future of football in England look like? There are, of course, as many answers to this question as there are people you can ask. But some voices speak louder than others, and there is currently one set of proposals on the table has the weight behind it to get heard, and which wants to move the game towards a future that finally recognises that clubs are simply not capable of  regulating themselves. Our Beautiful Game is a proposal for reform of the game which acknowledges that the game in this country needs an independent regulator, backed by statutory powers.

Ultimately, a league is no more than the combined voice of all of its clubs. If leagues are the regulators, as has become the case increasingly, over the last three decades, the clubs are effectively regulating themselves. If we take them as a whole, they have been enormously successful in some areas. English football flows with an amount of money that would stagger the likes of Louis Edwards or Bob Lord, whilst crowds have increased. In other, equally fundamental ways, though, they are deemed to either be failing or to have failed. And the truth of the matter is that the latter can be fixed by the former, should all concerned choose to.

Their paper (PDF) comes from a group of eight which is diverse in its range of experience. At its head is David Bernstein, former chairman of the FA, Manchester City and Wembley Stadium. He was behind much of the transformation of Manchester City into the club that the Mansours bought, moving the club into the City of Manchester Stadium on extremely favourable terms and expanding the club’s academy. Also present and correct are Andy Burnham, who was the culture secretary for eighteen months and was widely praised for his handling of the Hillsborough enquiry, David Davies, who held several senior positions for the FA over twelve years from 1994 to 2006, former Sports Minister Helen Grant, former Governor of the Bank of England Mervyn King, former Olympic athlete Denise Lewis, Gary Neville, and lawyer Greg Scott.

Itarts with a skewering, stating that, “The game’s total failure in recent months to speak with a unified voice, and thus provide any real leadership, has provided ample truth of such a painful reality” and that “clubs take
excessive financial risks to achieve promotion particularly incurring huge salary commitments.” It name-checks Bury and Wigan Athletic as signals of the precarious state of many lower division clubs, and outlines “core issues” that need to be dealt with, including:

  • Financial disparity and unsustainability
  • A power structure that is fundamentally out of balance
  • The shortage of BAME coaches and managers at the top level, a general lack of diversity and the “exploitation” of clubs and fans

It speaks volumes about the direction that the game has taken over the last quarter of a century that it feels almost startling to hear anybody in a position of any influence whatsoever say that these things really matter. Football’s most pernicious form of Stockholm Syndrome is the long-standing assumption that growing inequality between clubs is inevitable, and to see that feedback loop broken. It mentions that “in 2013, Sir Hugh Robertson, then Minister of Sport wrote to the then Chairman of the FA to say he was “pleased that a new FA regulatory authority will be established and this body will have a key role in overseeing the new licencing regime.” But it never happened. The power brokers in English football have long been adept at resisting change.”

It then goes on to offer a brief history of the resistance to attempts to reform the game. Over the last decade, the government’s attempts to regulate the game with the lightest possible touch have been easy to brush aside. despite what it describes as “a (largely symbolic) House of Commons’ motion of no confidence in the FA’s governance” and goes through what we in this country can learn from abroad, before moving to address the vast financial inequality within the game in this country. It details what we can learn from other countries, and in conclusion proposes legislation in Parliament that sets up a new regulatory body for football under the following criteria. It should:

  1. Be independent of the current structure of the game.
  2. Decide on new ways of distributing funds to the wider game based on a funding formula and a fair levy payable by the EPL.
  3. Set up a new and comprehensive licencing system for the professional game.
  4. Review causes of financial stress in the EFL including parachute payments, solidarity payments, salary caps and mandatory relegation clauses in players’ contracts.
  5. Implement governance reforms at the FA which are essential to ensure it is truly independent, diverse and representative of English football today. A fundamental reform of The FA Council would be an impressive start of this process.
  6. Liaise with supporters’ organisations to progress issues that are of concern to fans and provide a greater voice for supporters.
  7. Study lessons from abroad and seek to champion supporter involvement in the
    running of clubs.

The paper’s greatest strength is its greatest weakness. It draws a strong line between the need for clubs to be bailed out and the need for reform. It’s highly encouraging that they’ve drawn this line, but it goes very much against the flow of how these conversations have already been going. Whether this paper can shift the conversation towards reform as being something largely separate from immediate financial stresses remains to be seen. Critics will argue that it is a little woolly in some of its language – it may not pull its punches in criticism, but it does in terms of the specifics of such matters as financial redistribution – but this may at least encourage a shift in the conversation away from the best interests of the wealthiest clubs.

This report is an outstanding way to provoke a debate that goes beyond ‘money in exchange for control’, but whether the game is ready to move towards the vision outlined in Saving The Beautiful Game. But the point here is really that the clubs wouldn’t be given any choice whatsoever about it. This paper completely bypasses the matter of how they might feel about it. The whole point is that this paper succinctly demonstrates why the policy of allowing The Game to regulate itself has failed in many respects, and that it is time to put the power of regulation into independent hands. Everybody has been talking about reforming football in this country years and years. Well, here’s a proposal. So…. now what? And if the professional game has a counter-offer to make, what does that look like?