On December 2, 2010, Russia were awarded the hosting rights for the 2018 World Cup. A story which received little national airtime then or since was the disastrous link between that decision and my own football club, Plymouth Argyle.
England was one of Russia’s leading competitors for the tournament and Argyle was earmarked as a host venue should the FA win the bid. But, of course, they didn’t – and the club was thrust into millions of pounds of debt after the owners gambled its future on something which was never likely to happen.
After suffering a double relegation and administration, the club was literally minutes from going under. Plymouth Argyle was saved because of the loyalty of the staff and players, but also because the supporters refused to let it die.
Through the creation of a Fans’ Trust, an innovative online campaign and series of direct actions we were able to pull Argyle back from the brink. But we were the lucky ones. Since then, Bury have gone bust – depriving a community of a focal point, a sign of hope and solidarity.
The same supporter-led direct action is now needed across all football clubs. Let’s be clear: football’s super-rich owners are pushing to create a European Super League because they think they will get away with it – and the truth is, they have been doing so for years.
The creation of the Premier League in 1992 (fuelled by television revenue), parachute payments making promotion from the Championship more difficult each year and the influx of sheikhs, tycoons and oligarchs were all signals that the traditions of our game and the rights of supporters came after making money.
And let’s not pretend that this is the first time elite clubs have been allowed to opt in and out of competitions. The decision in 2000 to allow Manchester United to skip the FA Cup in order to participate in an international branding exercise was a signpost on this road – and the FA Cup, part of the fabric of our game throughout the leagues, has never been the same since.
What we cannot fall into now is a choice between a set of organisations whose regard for the average football supporter varies from poor to shameful. The Premier League, UEFA or FA cannot be the benchmarks for working people and our game. Our job is not to defend the status quo, but to fight for something better.
The existing elite organisations of English, European and world football have failed our game. They have allowed this situation to emerge – and the proof is there in the new proposal for the Champions League, where UEFA wants to allow super clubs who don’t qualify to participate through a ‘historic coefficient.’ That is just the Super League Light.
Football fans must now do what these organisations least expect. We must make this a line in the sand and deliver a mass, coordinated campaign to change the game. There are some brilliant supporters organisations and Fans’ Trusts out there. They can be joined by trade unions and the labour movement. It’s time to remind ourselves that football is a game played on grass, not TV sets.
This is the moment to tackle all the ills of our game: parents paying £100 for a constantly changing replica kit that costs pence to make, Premier League clubs admitting that ticket revenue is peanuts when compared to their TV payments yet still brazenly ripping off season ticket holders and fans. Kick off times leaving supporters travelling hundreds of miles on a Friday night or Sunday afternoon.
All of these things have been forced on us without any true response. And the same can be said of ownership – why should we accept that our clubs, with all their history, with all the work that went into building them up over decades, should be owned by millionaires and billionaires with no connections to our communities?
Big business sees this moment as an opportunity to strengthen its grip on the beautiful game. We must see it as a one-off chance to reclaim what is ours. Let’s organise, let’s campaign and let’s return football to the people.
A few years after Plymouth Argyle were saved from extinction, we were drawn at Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool in the FA Cup. We returned home with a 0-0 draw and a replay. It was a moment that me, my son and the 9,000 travelling Pilgrims will remember for the rest of our lives. That’s the magic of football and that’s what we are fighting for.
We can win this. The owners have forgotten the old saying: football without fans is nothing. But if all else fails, I am claiming Argyle’s fourth division title in 2002 and third division championship in 2004 as reason enough for us to gain entry to the Super League. We have as much right as Spurs! Which is no right at all.