openDemocracyUK: Opinion

English football fans point the way to change

The proposed reform of club ownership is an opportunity for a wider debate about society, so let’s make the most of it

David Goldblatt
14 May 2021, 9.09am
Arsenal fans protest against club owner Stan Kroenke outside the Emirates Stadium, north London
Matt Crossick/Empics/Alamy Live News

It is a measure of English football’s cultural weight that during the brief life of the European Super League, even BBC Radio 4’s Today programme became host to a rare critical discussion on the power of the global super rich. It was striking to hear Justin Webb, the sometimes insufferably complacent presenter, challenge the culture secretary Oliver Dowden not just on billionaire owners, but on what could be done to give fans more of a stake in their clubs.

The uniqueness of this situation, and the possibility it opens up for a wider debate about social forms of ownership, should not be missed. To see how unusual this is, look at Spain, where the response of both press and public to the planned ESL was at best indifferent and at worst collusive – like the obsequious coverage accorded Real Madrid’s president, the conservative construction magnate Florentino Perez, who offered a defence of the ESL (“It will save football”) that was intellectually threadbare and transparently self-serving. Fans of Barcelona and Real Madrid seemed either enthusiastic or resigned to the enterprise. There was certainly no organised protest among fans of the clubs planning to breakaway, nor a social media storm from the wider football and political world. In England there was both.

Large-scale protests were held at Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United – where, notably, fans stormed the pitch before a game with Liverpool – demanding not only the end of the ESL but the departure of their clubs’ proprietors. Gary Neville’s sustained, impassioned anger on Sky Sports was emblematic of a wider dismay and fury among mainstream football media, players at leading clubs, and fans of all kinds, joined by city mayors, local councillors and MPs.

As for Boris Johnson, in the past the prime minister’s populist instincts have failed on football, as anyone familiar with his comments on the Hillsborough disaster will know. In this case, however, he has proved more adept. The government’s response is to commission a “fan-led” review of governance and ownership in English football. Chaired by the former sports minister Tracey Crouch, the government’s terms of reference are clearly set by England’s increasingly vocal supporters’ groups, such as the Football Supporters Association (FSA) and the fan-ownership trust, Supporters Direct.

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The options to be considered by the review include changing the rules on who can own clubs, what they can do with them, and how the clubs spend and audit their money. Ways for increasing fan representation on boards, and giving fans a stake in their own clubs are being looked at. Foreign models, such as Germany’s “50 plus one” structures that ensure supporters retain a majority stake, are being looked at.

The current debate in football suggests that not all institutions should be profit-driven, commercialised or organised on market principles

We have been here before, however – and the record of government reports on English football is dismal. Neither the report into the 1946 Burnden Park disaster, which saw 33 people killed in Bolton, nor the 1968 Chester Committee report, which pleaded for more investment in notoriously ramshackle stadiums, were heeded. It took Hillsborough, in 1989, and the subsequent Taylor report for new design and safety protocols to be enforced.

The other recommendations of the Chester report, a plan to modernise the creaking governance and economics of the game, went the way of the Wilsonian social democracy that commissioned it. New Labour’s Football Task Force, launched in 1997, was a bold initiative that consulted widely, brought a range of important new issues into the debate, and made powerful recommendations for reform. They were almost entirely ignored by the football authorities.

The Burns report of 2005, a terse and devastatingly critical paper by a former Treasury permanent secretary, called for major governance reforms at the Football Association (FA). The process even got as far as the appointment of the first independent chair, before disappearing into the organisation’s luxuriant long grass. Since then, the culture, media and sport select committee’s football governance report of 2011 and its many follow-ups have all been ignored. Others have fared no better: David Bernstein, previously chair of the FA, has spent years coordinating calls for reform to no avail.

What can be learnt from this miserable record? First, that unless the government is prepared to legislate, the football authorities – the FA, the leagues and club owners – will not accept even the most meagre changes if their power and short-term interests are threatened. That’s precisely what’s required, however, so the current government had better get ready to spend some real political capital on this. If we are serious about German-style ownership, for example, then we will have to insist on current owners selling up, and decide how they will be compensated. None of this is likely to be achieved without new laws and the kind of legal battles that only governments can afford to fight.

How to make a difference

As the past few months have shown, if fans want their interests to be heard, they have to organise. This has long been clear at club level, where fan-led campaigns have forced chairmen to backtrack on such things as name and kit changes (Hull City and Cardiff City), or even ousted much-loathed owners (Liverpool and Blackpool). Recent years have seen some of this local energy mobilised for national campaigns, such as Twenty’s Plenty, a protest against exorbitant away ticket prices. The challenge is to press for change in the more abstract but essential field of governance.

It matters how the debate is framed. The Taylor report reframed the conversation about football crowds – at the time the targets of media scorn over hooliganism – as one about the safety and comfort of citizens. A similar opportunity now presents itself, because the parallels with our wider economic and social lives are palpable. The current debate in football makes a series of propositions: that not all institutions should be profit-driven, commercialised or organised on market principles; that some forms of social ownership are morally preferable and administratively superior; and that the power of sovereign wealth funds and the global super-rich needs to be curtailed.

What’s interesting is that such radicalism sits alongside a deep conservatism in popular football culture. The closed nature of the new league and the absence of promotion or relegation attracted the greatest ire from fans: football, like elsewhere in mainstream culture, likes to maintain a belief – however much of a myth it might be – in social mobility. That certainly aligns with the Johnson government’s brand of implausible optimism. Whether the rest of the package is quite so easy to accommodate remains to be seen.

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