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Sun, 5 April 2020

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Football fans feel powerless before the slow destruction of the game they love

Football fans feel powerless before the slow destruction of the game they love
4 min read

We need greater transparency and accountability over football governance if we’re to protect the welfare of the beautiful game, writes Chi Onwurah MP


Win or lose, walking away from St James’ Park with tens of thousands of my fellow Newcastle United supporters, the sense of solidarity is overwhelming. That is what football is about; not only the performance on the pitch but the way it brings people together with one interest and one objective.

Across our great cities, football is the cultural lifeblood; a living, breathing and hopefully scoring manifestation of the solidarity inherent in working-class culture. That is still true, despite changes that have seen money, not fans, become the driving force of football.

With the billions pouring into the football ‘business’, neither Newcastle United nor the Premier League consider themselves to be accountable to fans. As constituents make clear to me, fans feel powerless before the slow destruction of the game they love.

Newcastle United is the beating heart of our city, St James’ Park our third cathedral, yet it appears we can protect neither.

As I said in a recent debate in the Chamber, why is it not possible to change a window frame on a listed stately home without jumping through hoops, yet entirely possible to sell off chunks of a football club’s assets, use it as a glorified advertising hoarding or hand it over to payday loan sharks without any regulatory oversight?

"Money, not fans, have become the driving force of football"

In Newcastle, we have seen land around St James’ Park previously owned by the club given over to high-rise residential development that will prevent the club’s expansion as well as impeding views of the iconic stadium, without anyone being able to track the financial transactions.

Football clubs are treated as any other private business for the purposes of financial reporting. They must submit accounts to Companies House, but those accounts don’t have to be comprehensible. As someone with a master’s degree in business administration, who studied corporate finance and worked in business for 20 years, I have not been able to work out what is going on, and when I asked the House of Commons Library to take a look, they did no better.

Mr Ashley’s ownership of the club passes through four separate companies: Mash Holdings, St James Holdings, Newcastle United and Newcastle United Football Holdings. In addition, dozens of other companies are associated with the club and Mr Ashley. All that seems designed to make it harder to follow the money and see what income is being generated.

Mr Ashley did little to reassure football fans when he appeared in front of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee, stating that: “People cheat. That is what businesses do. Accountants are able – this is their job, by the way – to move the numbers about pretty much at will.”

Complex and uncertain finances are not limited to Newcastle or the Premier League, as fans of Bury and Bolton can testify. It is examples like these that led the Labour party to commit to review football governance and financial transparency to empower fans and communities; running football in the interests of those who love it.

My colleague Chris Matheson introduced a Private Member’s Bill last year in which he worked closely with the Football Supporters’ Association to bring about independent scrutiny for mismanaged clubs in a bid to wrest back control.

I have been in correspondence for years with government sports ministers and secretaries of state, all of whom have indicated a willingness to bring about change while at the same time not actually doing anything.

I do hope the current minister, Nigel Adams MP, will bring about the real change that is needed for fans, before disillusionment destroys the base of the beautiful game.

Chi Onwurah is Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central

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