Football’s white paper: A good start, but will it work?

THE UK government’s white paper on improving governance in football is a step in the right direction, but the roots of the problem are not necessarily being fully addressed. The rationale for the paper is to impose better financial discipline and accountability, pointing to the higher echelons as the guilty parties in the economic mayhem that has become British football. In doing so, the intention to create a better footballing democracy is at the centre of their thinking.  

This could be flawed because football is a free market and runs on the basis of winners and losers, the very essence of the sport itself. This has always been the case, going back to the 19th century when local mill owners and industrial grandees poured money into football teams as an egotistical or philanthropic exercise. The figures have just got bigger, more scary and less transparent as football has become an investor’s asset class. 

We had clubs that rose to the surface on the back of Britain’s industrial power – the Aston Villa’s and Newcastle United’s of this world, who were the first powerhouses. The most recent phase of football’s industrial revolution came with the 21st century billionaires who bought clubs and made them into super clubs. These are primarily the “big six” plus aspiring others in the Premier League, who have left the rest way behind, resulting in the wealth of the top flight, boosted by astronomical broadcasting revenues, dwarfing the rest of English football’s constituency. The next level down spends more than it can afford to try and gain access to the Premier, thus placing their future in danger, while the two lower divisions feed off of scraps. Never has “free market” in football appeared so precarious.

Anything that evens-up the playing field has to be considered, but as Britain has seen, “levelling up” is something that people merely pay lip service to and really, they don’t want it to jeapordise their own position in the food chain. You get the feeling that despite the posturing, those at the top will only go down the road of greater democracy, kicking and screaming.

Any business sector has to have independent governance that ensures malpractice doesn’t take hold of everyday business process and also that rules are being adhered to. In theory, it should have been the Football Association all along, but it has become clear in the past 30 years that the clubs – the big ones – have the power and means.

It is probable that in any other industry, the run-of-the-mill football club would not be considered a going concern. Too many survive because of hand-outs from chairmen or benefactors and there are thousands of people whose very livelihood depends on this rather fragile arrangement. Would you join a company that makes losses year-in, year-out, pays out more in wages than it earns, prevails because of the generosity or obligations of the owner and really only matters to less than 10% of the town in which you work? And why would anyone invest in a football club that offers nothing in return? If it is true that 53% of the 92 clubs are technically insolvent, is there not a possibility the old model of professional football is lurching towards its demise? As it is, more than a third of the 92 have gone into administration at some stage.

If, as fans tell us, “football belongs to us”, then the structure of the entities they feel they own need to be changed from free market businesses to something that has a preservative built into them, such as a trust or charity. They need to be made immune from the whims of owners who thrust their clubs into crisis when they decide to leave, cease funding or reduce their commitment. If they are community clubs, then make them so to ensure they survive and remain relevant. This might mean that some clubs have to consider changing their status from loss-making businesses to sensibly-run, semi-professional organisations rather than clinging to the hand-to-mouth model that is built simply around surviving as professional clubs. Make supporters owners, either as individuals or as a body – spread the accountability beyond the boardroom.

The government’s paper calls the Premier a global success, and on the face of it, there is a lot to be impressed about the way English football has transformed itself from a limping, toxic edifice in the 1980s to the slick, high-quality game we see today. But while making itself the best marketed, most hyped league in the world, the Premier has divested itself from the rest of English football. It is a super league, one that is multi-national, admired and hated but coveted by almost every other major football country. At the same time, it has destroyed the structure of 92 and created obscene imbalances. Perhaps this was inevitable, maybe “the 92” was, after all, a cumbersome body that was a millstone around the neck of English club football. Now it is 20+72.

While there are complaints aplenty about the Premier League, the beast is being fed all the time by the fans, the very people who want change. But do they? Do the fans at Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea really care about the fortunes of Rochdale, Rotherham and Reading? And do the spectators at Burnley, Norwich and West Bromwich Albion not hanker for a return to the Premier League? And what about the owners, who lurch from hero to zero and back again with the supporters, depending on the performances of their teams. Does this not tell us something, that popularity is only a solid as the next three points? The fans of clubs without an Abramovich-type benefactor hurl abuse at the clubs that do, but deep down, he was precisely the type of owner they really wanted too. We have also seen how charitable fans can be towards their owners, even if they are from a suspect regime, as long as they are elevating the status of their club.

If the Premier is despised so much, it is not by the clubs that jealously guard their membership or indeed their fans, who form season ticket queues that can last years in their fear of missing out. Basically, football has become like some form of Dickensian plot, the rich and famous sitting in their gilded stadiums, the poor, all gnarled and deformed, locked out of exclusivity and residing in crumbling grounds in front of small, weather-beaten audiences. So much of what you see in football is a reflection of society as a whole.

We need a more sustainable game, but who is going to make the first steps? In the old amateur days, clubs were not supposed to pay players, so they left money in little envelopes in their boots after a game. It eventually led to semi-pro non-league football, where wages have long defied logic. At the end of the day, even the very little guys want to be like the Premier League and even though they know it is a massively flawed economy, nobody wants to make the first move.

The White Paper is the first of many steps, and we should wish it very well. But football fans and their clubs must be under no illusions – they have a part to play in this evolution. They have it in their power and influence to force their clubs to keep on changing for a better football world.