Along with many others, Liverpool supporters’ group Spirit of Shankly welcomed the government’s decision to back proposals for an independent regulator in English football.
Following the publication of the Crouch Report—the fan-led review (FLR) into the state of football nationally authored by Conservative MP Tracey Crouch—the Government has committed to legal changes regarding how the game is governed.
The new regulator will have the power to impose sanctions on those who break financial and other rules, while a new owners’ test will be introduced and fans given more of a say in how the game is governed.
The Crouch Report made ten recommendations when it was published late last year, including the introduction of an independent regulator to stop the game from ‘lurching from crisis to crisis’.
The report arrived against the backdrop of the failed European Super League plot last April, something which Liverpool were heavily involved in before renouncing their intentions along with eight other teams.
The headline grab is the independent regulator, but we need to ask if this is enough to protect fans of the working class game? The simple answer is no.
Picture the scene: football fans travelling by coach to an away match, a few beers on board to enjoy en route. No trouble at all but police stop them—nothing to see here? You might think so. But the reality would be an instant fine of £2,000 for the organiser and £2,000 fine for the coach driver.
Simply because it’s football fans, it’s illegal. Or the football fan who buys an expensive pint in the ground and takes it ‘in sight of the pitch’— nothing to see here? It’s illegal in football grounds and results in ejection from the ground. And if there’s a struggle, you can add a three-year banning order to that as well.
But travel to Ascot, Cheltenham, Lords or Twickenham and those rules don’t apply. So football fans —traditionally working class, loving a working class game, are treated as second-class citizens by an elite who allow their own to do largely as they please without restriction or punishment.
Of course, there has to be challenge to the corporate greed in football which has taken clubs like Blackpool and Bolton to the very brink of existence and sadly seen the end of Bury Football Club.
The focus cannot solely be on the loss of the football club alone; a club going out of business has dire consequences for the local economy, employment and community. But the owners don’t care—they’ve already passed a fit and proper persons test and wear their bankruptcies as a badge of honour.
Sadly, the days of the local philanthropist funding their local team has gone. Oligarchs, state-run entities and venture capitalists have all seized the opportunity to invest their wealth in a system that increases that wealth.
And what do money-grabbing owners do? They milk the fans until they are dry—then move on to other capitalist ideas.
They seize opportunities like trademarking, stadium naming rights of community assets, nefarious sponsors with checkered human rights records and little or no ethically or socially responsible attitudes. They increase their ticket prices despite the economic crises fans face at home. And increases in the cost of energy and more are not soaked up, they are passed straight on to the fans.
This is why we need a system which recognises fans as part of the solution and not the problem.
One which puts fans at the heart of their clubs—by legislating for accredited supporters trusts to have the power to appoint and remove at least two club directors and to purchase shares when clubs change hands.
One which fixes the broken ticketing market by enforcing anti-bot legislation and implementing the recommendations of the Waterson review to ensure fair opportunities for fans to buy tickets.
One which improves access provision for disabled sports fans by ensuring rapid improvements are made, and prioritising action to make clubs comply with obligations under the 2010 Equality Act.
One which commits to working with train operating companies, broadcasters and clubs to develop a new ‘Flexible Football Ticket’ so that fans experience minimal disruption when games are switched.
And one which ensures the lifeblood of our game—grassroots football—is given the monies and facilities to thrive and provide access to all, regardless of income.
In this current dire economic position for many we must ensure the benefits of football are available to all. An independent regulator is a move forward but we must have supporters at the heart of all decision-making to ensure the game retains what is left of its working class roots and for the good of the entire football pyramid.
The fan-led review provides a platform to build from, but the focus cannot simply be on a regulator. The emphasis of this review must remain the fan. This now needs to be fast-tracked through white paper legislation to ensure the working class game is not lost forever to working class fans.