Supporters Direct plea to reform football

We reproduce below an adapted version of an article by Kevin Rye of Supporters Direct from the FCbusiness magazine, the business magazine for the football industry.

‘The art of the possible’. That, as they say, is politics, but when it comes to football it’s all too often been the case that most things seem impossible. Ever since Supporters Direct was created as part of the very limited outcomes of the Football Taskforce (the third such report of its kind at that time, but now one of six formal one’s taking in football reform since 1967), football has almost looked unreformable.

Somehow this important sphere of public life has ducked the findings of report after report, and ensured that it remained largely unaffected by the calls for its reform. That was until recent weeks, where we’ve had what seems to be a succession ofactivity amongst political parties, all vying to gain the attention of football supporters as voters, as we head inexorably towards the 2015 election.

That the election outcome is on a knife-edge has made it all the more important for those parties to work hard to secure the backing of what could be swing voters in swing seats that could be the difference between coalition, minority and majority government – or apart in it. (It’s important to note that we can only talk here about Westminster elections, as all three national assemblies have responsibility for sport in their own countries).

The current state of play is that we have some action from the Government – in the form of the establishment of the much anticipated Expert Working Group on Supporter Ownership and Engagement (so far the one recommendation that has been taken forward in full from the proposals from the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee), and some very extensive proposals put forward in a motion to the Liberal Democrat Party conference in October (how that translates into manifestocommitments remains to be seen, but the fact that they’re in government does mean that they can claim some of the credit for the Government’s move on the Expert Group).

The cat-amongst-the-pigeons moment came with the announcement from Labour’s Shadow Sports Minister, Clive Efford, that they would be pushing a policy of fans on the board for English football clubs, following what was an extensive period ofdiscussion with supporters’ trusts and other groups. Whilst some of the technicalities of the policy need further fleshing out, what this policy did has definitely served as a challenge to all the major parties in the arena of sports – and more specifically football – policy.

Beyond the actual headline, what is most important to recognise in this plan is the very nature of the policy: the creation of a specific type of elected position for the boards of football clubs. This is not the amendment of Company Law – often cited asa reason why changes can’t be brought about, for example with the Owners and Directors Test – rather the expansion of the law governing football (which hashistorically only concerned itself with matters to do with things like crowd behaviour –the Football Offences Act for example).

This is as important in some ways as the measure itself, as it demonstrates with great clarity that any argument against political intervention in football is now rather redundant; it makes the point with equal clarity that football ownership can beregulated by law if government and Parliament believe there to be a good reason, and in this case, arguably evidence of ‘market failure’.

The actual measure itself, of opening football clubs up to their fans, has to be a good thing; we’ve campaigned for this since we were established in 2000, and Brian Lomax set his stall out at Northampton Town in 1992 at the very beginning of thisjourney. Our role has always been to bring meaningful transparency to how football clubs operate and how they are owned, and as Clive Efford and his team work through Labour’s policy, we fully expect to play a role.

We do also expect our organisations to step up to the plate; we’ve always acknowledged, through our work to create a system of Fit and Proper Supporters’ Trusts as part of just such as policy as Labour’s, that we will need to make sure that supporters’ trusts can meet the demands placed on them by this sort of role, and that they open up to play as representative a role as possible at their club. Watch this space.