The Sweeper: Literally A Political Football

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When the British Government has gotten involved in football, the results have at times been dramatic; Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, calling for an identity card scheme for football fans, or in the wake of Hillsborough, legislation that led to the creation of all-seater stadia at the top levels of the game.

Now, after months of controversy about football ownership models in England and crises up and down the nation have coincided with the general election approaching, the Labour Pary’s election manifesto will — according to the Guardian — play to the feeling that change is needed:

The government is to unveil radical proposals that would give football fans first option to buy their clubs when they were put up for sale and require clubs to hand over a stake of up to 25% to supporters’ groups.

The ideas, due to be included in the Labour manifesto with a promise of action in the first year of a new government, are designed to give fans a far greater say in how their football clubs are run and overhaul the way the game is governed.

It is believed that No 10, which has been working secretly on the plans for weeks, has resolved to deliver concrete proposals to tackle growing public disquiet at the level of debt carried by some clubs, the ownership model of others and the dysfunctional structure of the Football Association.

Two Hundred Percent asks if this is “playing to the gallery or genuine change”, and concludes that:

In principle these proposals get the thumbs up but, after years of being knocked from pillar to post, football supporters are right to ask questions of anything like this rather than blindly saying, “Right, where do I sign up?”. The issue of it being vote-mongering has to be countered against the fact that there is a groundswell against the current administration of the game in this country and that the only alternative to these proposals would be for them to not be made, and for everything to carry on down the route that it has been following for the last few years. However, there are real concerns to be voiced over party politicising this issue. No-one wants to alienate people from joining or being involved with supporters trusts, and the idea of Labour & The FA lining up against the Conservatives, Sky and the Premier League is not an appealing one.

And shortly after 200%’s post, the Conservatives did indeed come out and call Labour’s proposals electioneering, with their Sports spokesman Hugh Robertson saying that “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.”

Robertson, though, did not dismiss the idea that government could play a role in increasing fan representation, or that that would be a bad idea in general, instead saying easier ways could be found to increase supporter representation at board level.

The Conservatives may have a point that Labour’s proposals have a sniff of electioneering about them and that the workability of the proposals must be questioned (FIFA and government interference, anyone?), though we should wait to see the full proposals before passing judgment.

David Conn takes a broader view, however, and suggests that these proposals do actually fit into a long-term concern of the Labour Government with the way football has been run in the past thirteen years:

The ideas that will form this policy pledge in Labour’s election manifesto are not a response just to the last three months, but to 13 years. When first elected in 1997, Labour believed that all was not well in a game generally being celebrated for its renaissance, for “coming home”.

The new government set up the Football Task Force to address issues including high ticket prices, how to encourage supporter involvement in clubs, and how the wider purpose of football clubs can be preserved when they are, in reality, companies being bought and sold or, as was the boardroom fad then, floated on the stock market.

The taskforce did produce some enlightened progress, including the formation of the Football Foundation, to channel a proportion of the new satellite TV riches into the wretchedly dilapidated grassroots, and the establishment of Supporters Direct, to encourage democratic fans’ trusts to be involved in the running of their clubs.

So the principle that clubs should be more like true clubs, there to serve their members, the supporters, not the commercial interests of whoever bought the holding company, took serious root in the government more than a decade ago. But on the grit of regulation, of whether football should be forced to reform itself, the government always drew back, arguing it could not step in.

The timing that the government will now step-in will be viewed by the cynic as so much guff. But football fans may want to pause and wait for the full proposals before dismissing an idea that does at the least give considerable further credence to the movement towards greater supporter representation in the running of football.

In that vein, Supporters Direct commented today that “The two parties – one of which will form the basis of the next government – both agree fans should have a stake in the clubs they support and are pledged to work to make it happen. That’s great news for the trust movement and long-overdue recognition that clubs aren’t businesses like any other.

“We look forward to the next government – whoever it is – putting fans at the heart of the game and we will work with them to make it happen.”

Quick Hits

  • Red Bull Arena opened to considerable fanfare on Saturday night, with the Red Bulls eking out a 1-0 win over the Fire (wish I’d been there, despite the result). Big Apple Soccer wonders, though, if the empty seats don’t suggest there remains a cause for concern about the fanbase for the Red Bulls despite the new $200m stadium.
  • A Bulgarian third division game lasted just one minute, after injury and suspension-hit Gigant Belene went down to just six players.
  • Leadership? Simon Barnes on the curious English attitude to the myth of the “leader”: “We English have a special veneration for leaders. We measure our past entirely in kings and queens (every outmoded thought is “Victorian”, every idyll “Edwardian”) and in sport we admire captains and managers above all else. We are in thrall to the mystique of leadership.”

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

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