Government rattles football’s cage

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At the time of the last general election the parlous state of many football clubs was front page news. In October 2010 Liverpool Football Club was days away from bankruptcy as its directors and American owners fought a High Court battle to allow the Club to be sold to enable its debts to be repaid. Across the nation from Glasgow to Portsmouth, MPs’ post bags were apparently bulging with letters from constituents expressing outrage at the way their local clubs were being (mis)managed. And so the Coalition initiated parliamentary hearings by the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee (“CMSC”) to investigate the governance of football. The great and good of the game were dragged before MPs and asked to explain themselves. In July 2011 the CMSC duly issued its report calling for big changes to improve financial stability, debt levels, supporter involvement and governance. This week, eighteen months on, John Whittingdale MP, Chair of the committee, impatient with a perceived lack of progress by the football authorities in enacting their recommendations issued what is effectively a twelve month ultimatum with words to the effect of “get your house in order or we will legislate!”.

So is it right and necessary that Government should regulate football?

Consumer surveys regularly find that football ranks just behind family for many millions of citizens when asked what is the most important thing in their lives. Football clubs in Britain are deeply rooted in their local communities where in many cases they were formed with an overt and important social function to provide a distraction for youth and a cheap form of accessible entertainment for the working masses. While football’s supporter base has gentrified somewhat in the post-war, and particularly the Premier League era, it is still true that a collapse of a football club causes serious damage to the local community in which it sits and can hit the most needy hardest. Clubs tend to have many local tradesmen and small businesses as suppliers and many low paid employees all of whom are very vulnerable. The liquidations of Portsmouth FC and Glasgow Rangers FC are the highest profile examples of this in recent times. Both these financial collapses followed debt funded takeovers by acquirers with murky backgrounds.

Government has been scathing about the so called “fit and proper persons test” which is supposed to enable the leagues to vet the backgrounds of would be acquirers before they complete their takeovers. When controversial Thai politician Thaksin Shinawatra was freely allowed to acquire Manchester City despite there being extremely serious allegations about him in the public domain one could understand government and media skepticism of football’s ability and willingness to police who owns our Club.

On the governance side, notwithstanding the generally critical and impatient tone of the politicians, the committee Chair Mr Whittingdale has rightly made approving comments about the recent progress made under the new Football Association Chairman David Bernstein.  Bernstein has taken strong stands on racism, the relationship with UEFA and FIFA and most critically, in terms of influencing the way football in England is managed, seems to have engendered a good working relationship with the Premier League. All of which makes it supremely ironic that he is being removed by his employers, the FA, this summer for the simple crime of turning seventy years old. Imagine if Tesco started firing seventy year old check-out operators. Surely there would an outcry for the government to take action. This FA “own-goal” must have been one of the reasons for the Government turning up the heat this week. 

That said it is important to acknowledge that the general direction of travel in football is towards more sensible financial management. All fans will have noticed the marked lack of activity in the January transfer window which closed this week.  Phrases like “financial fair play” and “wage caps” are entering the lexicon of mainstream football lingo.  The Premier League point to recently beefed up vetting procedures for directors and owners which include a requirement to provide full disclosure of a club’s accounts and business plan in advance of every season which should prevent a repetition of the debt-fuelled catastrophic takeovers. Moreover UEFA’s much trumpeted financial rules which force all clubs to break even are already seemingly having an effect on irresponsible transfer spending and leading to some wage restraint. In general the football authorities think they are addressing the concerns of the CMSC with self-regulation and are therefore asking government to stay out of the game’s inbox.

I am personally skeptical when I see politicians anywhere near a sporting photo op and any attempt to police football is surely no more than a cynical attempt to capitalize on public antipathy to football’s wealth and occasional mismanagement. The idea that somebody in Westminster should spend time drafting laws to govern football is as crazy as UEFA’s refusal to bring goal line technology into the sport. Despite genuine concerns on both sides on the way football clubs have recently been behaving, meddling MPs are at risk of scoring a costly own goal.

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