On Saturday 20th September, Newcastle United Supporters’ Trust held a public meeting to investigate and debate how supporter discontent with the running of football can be taken forward and turned into something constructive and meaningful for supporters, not only at NewcastleUnited, but at clubs up and down the country.
The meeting was chaired and opened by Michael Martin. Michael noted that Hugh Roberston the Tory Secretary of State for Sport in 2011, had stated that football was the worst governed sport in the country. Michael went on to describe how, on meeting with with Richard Scudamore, Chief Executive of the Premier League, Scudamore had described himself as the “secretary of a trades body for independent businesses”.
There was no sign of any strategy for developing the Premier League in ways that can make the experience better for the supporters, those hundreds of thousands of people, who are the real lifeblood of the game. Indeed when asked about ticketing policy, Scudamore replied, “don’t ask me about ticket prices, what could I do?” In other words, the Premier League, by their own admission, has no interest in the community value of football. It is merely a business, like any other. So we see a club like Newcastle United, being run as a branch of Sports Direct…
So there is a problem. But why, you might be asking, should football supporters turn to politicians? Well, I hope your eyes aren’t glazing over here…please bear with me here.
The argument was well made that the F.A. do nothing to run the game in the interests of fans and clearly the Premier League are just a body to represent the business interests of the millionaires and billionaires who own the top 20 clubs in the country,. Who else can we turn to, other than “them politicians”? It was noted that politicians are the only hope we have to reform the game, to take it back to being the ‘People’s Game’. This is, of course, not something which will fill many people with much hope, given the cynicsm towards politics in general. However, is it really fair to asume that all politicians are ‘only in it for themselves’? Even in the wake of the expenses’ scandal…
It was also, rightly in my opinion, made clear that the issue is more important than just the state of Newcastle United and that Ashley is in reality a symptom of the wider problem, because of the way the game is governed. Newcastle United Supporters’ Trust wrote to Newcastle City Councillors about their concerns about the sale of land around the site of St James’ Metro Station, so ending hopes of an extension to the Gallowgare End and keeping up with the Jones’ – or to be more exact the Manchester Uniteds, the Aresenals, the Livrerpools of this world. It was reported that the councillors understood the place the football club in the local community. There have also been meetings with four local M.P.s, Ian Lavery from Wansbeck, Chi Onwurah from Newcastle Central, Mary Glindon from North Tynreside and Ian Mearns from Gateshead, whose backing and support was described as excellent.
Indeed Ian Lavery had gone so far as to phone the Shadow Minister for Sport during the meeting, a man who is attempting to do a consultation exercise before the development of the election manifesto, in the run-up to next May’s General Election. It was pointed out that there is a need to build-up a momentum as there is a window of opportunity between now and next May to get some kind of commitment to regulation of the game, that supporters concerned about the direction the game is taking, should write to M.P.s to ask them what they are doing to help football fans get a better deal and be treated with more respect by football club owners.
So what have politicians been up to in the interests of football supporters?
Back in 2010 the government reported that football governance was essentially dysfunctional. Three years later a Select Committee report into the issue, made it clear that while some progress had been made, in reality things had only been taken slightly forward. It was also, I think crucially, stated that, if no progress had been made in the following 12 months, legislation for some regulation of football governance would be put in place. Yet here we are in 2014, in the dog days of the parliament, with a huge constitutional row about the governance of the whole of the UK set to take up vast amounts of parliamentary time and no sign of any legislation, not even on some far and distant horizon….
Kevin Rye, from the fans’ organisation, Supporters Dirct, was next to speak. Kevin began by saying that the organisation was 14 years’ old and there had been limited success since 2002. The difficulties of effecting change through the political process was thoughtfully highlighted by reminding the audience of the highly effective job the F.A. and the Premier League do in terms of political lobbying to ensure that they neuter anything against their interest, against the interestsof the elite who hold so much power over the game we love.
There have been 6 major reports since 1967/8, expressing the need for change, which have gone by the wayside, as those parties who arein a position to effect change are the very same bodies who don’t want change. As the old saying goes, ‘turkeys don’t vote for Christmas….’
So is the situation hopeless? The simple answer from Kevin was NO. It is possible to fightback…
In response to the intransgisence of the football authorities a number of things have been done and achieved. Firstly, a programe of political lobying has been developed. Indeed it was reported that many Conservative M.P.s were expressing their own concerns about the ownership of their local football clubs.
There have also been very positive attempts to shape the debate from the outside. Supporters Direct commissioned a poll from ICM, in which 50% of people questioned said that the game was broken and wanted the F.A. to fix it. In terms of the issue of identity and football club owners doing whatever they like, against the wishes of supporters, such as the attempt by the Hull City owner to rename the club as Hull Tigers, the Cardiff City owner changing the shirts’ colour to red and of course our very own Mike Ashley’s dalliance with renamimng St James’ Park as the Sports Direct Arena, these core issues of how fans identify with the club, which represents their community, 75% of those polled said that there should be legislation passed, compelling owners to consult with fans.
Supporters’ Direct have also, wisely in my view, tried to work with those allies who can be found within the establishment of football. There was optimism expressed about the part F.A. Chairman Greg Dyke might play, as it was noted that he doesn’t like walking away from any organisation, without doing something about them.
Finally, it was noted that Supporters Direct do case work. They monitor what is happening, what situations arise and do this on a national basis.
The next speaker was Kevin Miles from the Football Supporters’ Federation. Kevin started by stating that he thought it was a pity that politicians have to be involved in the debate about football governance, but conceded that it was necessary to involve them, due to the failure of the governance itself. Kevin declared that football had sold its soul with the creation of the Premier League and that the F.A. had abdicated its responsibilty – not that it was great beforehand. Consequently it was argued that the Premier League now run football, not the F.A. , meaning that effectively the national sport is in the hands of 20 millionaires or billionaires.
This has resulted in an unfortunate cult of celebrity owners, as it was maintained that for most Premier League clubs, you are as likely to see the owner as the manager. Kevin argued forcefully that, “we can’t allow something so important to be run in the interest of these 20 individuals”.
Also, it was argued that we have good reason to be sceptical of the political process. The last Labour government had rejected the 1999/2000 report into football , which had recommended change, in favour of a minority report, from the powerful, who wanted to keep the status quo.
The only constant in football was the fans and the communities they come from. Fans have to get organised and overcome the cynicism. That things can be done was exemplified by the campaign over the issue of ticket prices. In one of the few recent worthwhile initiatives by Newcastle United, they have introduced a reciprocal away fans ticket pricing policy, which it was estimated had saved the loyalest of fans some £342 262. It was also noted that working with Sunderland fans had improved the policing of derby matches.
So, supporters can make a difference when they work together. But what of the politicians?
First politician to speak was North Tyneside M.P. Mary Glindon. As a board member, Mary noted that the Newcastle United Suppoprters’ Trust had caught the media’s attention and that the time was now right to get the politicians on board. Mary also stated that she thought fans’ loyalty was almost complicit in what owners are doing. The 2011 Select Committee had made fundamental recommendations. It talked about having fans more informed, whilst the then Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport, Hugh Robertson, had made it clear that there would be legislation if nothing happened. Yet nothing has happened and there is no legislation to regulate football ownership. In the most recent debate, led by Coventry M.P.s , Mary described how the last Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Maria Miller, had stated that she was in consultation with the football authorities on issues around football club owners having greater accountability to fans and that she would…..”urge them on”. Mary claimed, understandably, that this was, “not moving us forward at all”.
Perhaps most crucially, Mary said that there was a different tone from M.P.s, but rightly asked the where the timetable is, to actually make recommendations, giving fans a greater say in the running of their clubs, a reality? In the last few months, Damian Collins put forward a Private Members’ Bill on 7th July, which will be a football governance bill, but “we don’t know how far forward it will go”. If successful, it would require professional and semi-professional clubs to disclose who the owners are and powers to allow football club boards to stop inappropriate ownership.
The final speaker was Ian Mearns M.P. for Gateshead. Ian began by describing his deep-seated interested in the issues as both a football supporter and politician. Ian made one particularly important point that the television money coming into the game is so great that fans’ money on the gate no longer really matters. This is clearly a fundamental problem, as it gives owners far more licence to do as they wish and ignore what fans want. Ian went on to implore football fans, who can be seen as being at a number of different levels of commitment, to work together and for fans to speak to their M.P.s, regardless of what club they support.
All in all it was a very positive meeting, with the scale of the problem set out, but also testimony given as to how campaigning can make a difference. As to the way forward, two things come to my mind.
Firstly, whilst there was much talk of the need for greater regulation of football club ownership, there clearly needs to be more flesh put on the bones, as to exactly what change and what regulation should be legislated for. Perhaps the Private Members’ Bill, being put forward by Damian Collins could be a starting point.
Secondly and perhaps more problematic is the issue of actually finding sufficient parliamentary time for such legislation to be passed. Commitments were made in 2010 by the three main political parties, yet four long years later we see the issue kicked indefinitely into the long grass. At the end of the day, not everyone in this country is a football fan. To put it another way, I’m not a big fan of modern jazz. I have tried; I have listened carefully to Charlie Mingus, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, but I just don’t get it. Perhaps it’s just me. Niow if I found out that for some reason a lot of parliamentary time was being taken up by discussions about regulation of modern jazz clubs, I might just question why that was the case, given so many other pressing issues, such as austerity, public sector pay, the constitutional issues raised by the Scottish Referendum e.t.c. – not to mention whatever latest foreign (mis)adventure we have got embroiled in. Whatever we might think, I can imagine millions of people in Britain wondering why so much time is being taken up legislating on the regulation of a sport they hate….
The way out of this has to involve a serious amount of lobbying by supporters – and on this point the Newcastle United Supporters Trust have said that model letters will be available on their website for supporters tocopy and paste and email to their M.P.s.
Another solution might be to link football governanve and club ownership regulation to other issues. Two come to mind straight away. Firstly, there is a wider economic question about power and wealth being cioncentrated in ever fewer hands generally, to the extent that recently released figures suggest that the five richest families in the country have the same amount of wealth as the poorest 12 million people. Secondly, football clubs can play a major part in community cohesion and development – if communities are allowed to play a major role in the running of them. It is surely no coincidence that professional football first took off in the Midlands and the North, where the industrial revolution had witnessed mass migrations into towns and cities from disparate places, people who could come together with a common identity, as they supported their local football team. Surely, well-run football clubs, responsive to the communities they serve, could play a similarly positive role today and in the future.
So, there we go. There is much to be done if real progress is to be made ensuring that owners such as Mike Ashley can never wield the power they have today. But what do YOU think should be done?
© Peter Sagar September 2014
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