Football Can’t Go Back To ‘Normal’

After the European Super League debacle, football's authorities are planning a return to normal – but the game was broken long before this week, and can only be fixed by real democratic reforms.

On Tuesday 21 April, the terse statements of retreat rolled in one by one from the so-called ‘Big Six’ of English football clubs withdrawing from the European Super League (ESL).

It was not a unique scene for the modern world. The mess caused by powerful vested interests (the Big Six) had been fought against and overturned by the supporters whose interests they had deliberately overlooked – the ‘legacy fans’ with connections to teams.

Football itself is in deep need of a spring clean, but supporters will need the stiffest of brooms to do the job properly. If any illusions remained that the Big Six have any regard for the real emotions and aspirations of their supporters, the chicanery of the past week has surely dissolved them.

Working by night, behind the backs of even their own employees, the owners of some of England’s biggest clubs hid from the public every step of the way. ‘Revenue’ and ‘economic growth’ were the excuses given by companies that, in obedience to linguistic tradition only, call themselves ‘clubs’.

As a minister, Tony Benn once said of businesses that ‘you can’t just leave them to run the world’. Supporters must now learn the value of organising to meet the same challenges – democratising and winning a fair bargain with the institutions that run the sport.

The Big Six are driven as much as their Premier League counterparts by the desire for revenue, and the relevance of supporters only became apparent when fan uproar led to continental government condemnation of their actions. Leverage is the only thing football’s elite will understand, so it’s time for fans to consider what they can to do reshape their relationship with clubs.

No Return to ‘Normal’

Supporters must remember their prior mistreatments by clubs that now feign concern for them: at this moment, while supporters’ interests briefly coincide with Premier League clubs outside of the Big Six, alongside FIFA, UEFA, national football associations and the government, such an alignment will not always be the case.

A clamour for a return to pre-ESL ‘normality’ will soon put an end to UEFA’s talk of a ‘spit in the face of football lovers’. In fact, we’re already seeing it with their ‘Super League Light’ proposals for the Champions League. But supporters are familiar with the old normal already: decades-long ticket price hikes, nonsensical kick off times, stadiums which are hostile to fan culture, merchandising cartels, proposals for additional pay-per-view during Covid-19 – and the grifting of every last penny from fans, regardless of the economic climate.

Supporters must refuse a return to a state of affairs that constantly ignores their interests. If fans are under any illusion of the threat, they need only to look at the contempt shown by Florentino Pérez towards their protests – just today he said, once again, that the ESL will return in one form or another. Now is the moment for supporters to commit themselves to determined action to ensure Pérez is wrong, and nothing like this can ever happen again.

There must also be a new paradigm for English football. A return to a pre-ESL world shouldn’t be a cost-free exercise for the Big Six and the footballing elite. If they can get away with this, what’s to stop clubs taking similar action again? If the cost is simply a few days of bad press and an apology the size of an iPhone note, what will they try next?

From TV contracts to sporting regulation, every sphere of football operations must be contemplated by supporters’ organisations and fans’ trusts. In corporate speak, supporters are the chief stakeholders in the game, side-by-side with players. They can’t allow themselves to become a secondary concern.

That mistake was made with the formation of the Champions League, the Premier League, the development of the World Cup, and on and on until the ESL. It isn’t just the elite clubs, football’s authorities as a whole are culpable – and the only way to force them to change is with organised, collective fan-led movements.

Leverage, Not Charity

It’s time for supporters to make their demands. That’s why it’s great to see that the so-called ‘50+1’ model and other supporter representation regulation—previously the territory of the Corbyn and Miliband eras of Labour—is now resonating at the highest levels of government.

However, unless supporters play the key role in shaping these reforms, they may well find themselves short-changed. Fan dialogue with Big Six directors and flimsy mechanisms of accountability existed before this fracas, but they did nothing to stop the clubs pursuing a project that could have killed the game.

The problem of companies with no democratic structures or members’ representation masquerading as ‘clubs’ is clear. Supporters must learn the basic lessons of bargaining: a slice of the pie must come from leverage, not charity.

If a football club trades on its supporters, it must strike a better bargain with them. Loyalty must be compensated with representation. And throughout all of the leagues, fans are an essential part of the ‘product’ that is football. Where would Liverpool be without the Kop, or Manchester United without the Stretford End? In fact, where is football as a whole – how much less appealing is it – with empty stadiums?

Big institutions apologising for behaviour with insufficient accountability is a process we’re all familiar with. A far greater outcome would be for clubs to formalise their methods of accountability at every level. It was at board level where the decisions to join the ESL were moved, and supporters have to be in there, advancing their own interests.

If supporters want to hold clubs to account, they’ll have to do so with a measure of comparable seriousness in their mechanisms. Supporters aren’t just supporters – they’re people with knowledge and expertise. In fact, they are often responsible for creating the atmosphere in the stadium and connection with community which makes football a saleable product in the first place. Clubs must see them as an asset rather than a hindrance.

This all means one thing: at a minimum, supporters must have both shareholding and mandatory representation on boards to reflect their essential place in clubs.

Collective Strength

Supporters should look to formalising their rights, and ensuring they become ‘constitutional’ items at their clubs. They must look to set down the rights of supporters in black and white in club corporate documentation, in articles of association documents, or by having them incorporated in the competition regulations of footballing authorities.

And there must be a material sanction if these conditions are breached – no more fan ‘consultation’ structures which are given minimal engagement and then circumvented entirely for initiatives such as the European Super League. If the government is serious about football reform, it will provide the legislative weight to give teeth to these rights, and supporters must lobby hard for this.

Fans must be vigilant, and they can’t let protests ebb away. When Manchester United were purchased by Malcolm Glazer, supporters of the club protested vigorously, but they were on their own. The defeat of those protests, and the lack of answers to the concerns United supporters raised, is part of the road to the ESL. Football tribalism aside, supporters should never again write off the fights of other supporters as irrelevant to theirs – what goes on with your rivals today could be you tomorrow.

German supporters have long understood the value of solidarity in relation to their treatment, and results have been good when English supporters have followed suit. Nevertheless, the recent demises of Bury, Chester City, and Macclesfield Town, the chaos in the dissolution of Wimbledon, and dozens of near misses – including at clubs as large as Leeds and Portsmouth – were a warning sign. This could lie down the road for your club if safeguards aren’t put in place.

Supporters must help themselves, and the game as a whole, by being more proactive in their solidarity when seeing the mistreatment of other supporters at clubs. Supporter associations like the FSF, the FSA and the network of Supporters Trusts should continue to work together and coordinate joint agendas over critical issues such as supporter ownership and representation, and supporters must encourage even their rivals to set up and strengthen trusts so that they can advance their demands.

These must be minimum demands for the future of the game, and they will require a basic level of solidarity to win. The shameful and rapid demise of the ESL has created an opportunity for reform that can’t be missed. The Big Six were chosen for the ESL because they were among the most economically powerful clubs in Europe. Supporters will have to reckon with that power if they envisage a better future for the game than the one the past few days have threatened.

But that doesn’t mean that something better is impossible; as Frederick Douglass said, ‘power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.’ The footballing elites of England would be foolish to underestimate the collective strength of the fans.