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Extra Time: How Tracey Crouch can save football

Lord Triesman

4 min read

The tripwires for Tracey Crouch’s excellent Fan-Led Review of Football Governance were the vain-glorious announcement of the “European Super League”, the collapse of Bury FC and near-insolvency of 45 other clubs, the pandemic and, of course, a Conservative manifesto commitment likely to figure in the Queen’s Speech.

Mission critical is the call for an independent regulator, guaranteeing financial integrity and oversight of the owners’ “fit and proper persons” test – essential given frequent past failures, as detailed in ex-FA chairman, David Bernstein’s report and vigorously endorsed by two recent independent FA chairmen, Greg Dyke and me. Once you’ve observed total capitulation to the richest in the Premier League, you know why things go so badly wrong.

It didn’t take rocket science to predict the response of current supremos to Crouch’s review. The familiar suspects aim to shield the ball from other interests, and especially the fans. They habitually fight changes to the distribution of influence, notwithstanding their history of regulatory failures and instinctive entitlement. 

For the Institute of Economic Affairs, Crouch and legislation represent a state power-grab. In a report entitled Red Card published by the Institute last month, authors JR Shackleton and Victoria Hewson criticise “underlying government regulation of any economic activity in a free society” as stifling enterprise.

Tell that to stifled Bury and Derby fans. One Premier League CEO, Leeds’ Angus Kinnear, even described some aspects of the Crouch review as “Maoist”. In the words of the IEA, the fan is “a consumer”; when dissatisfied they can exercise their “option of watching other teams,” having no greater rights than when “consuming breakfast cereals, vacuum cleaners or streaming services”. It would be akin to “giving railway enthusiasts a determining influence on train services,” according to the IEA.

A wise government would put its boot through the ball, reject self-interested Luddism, and act on Crouch’s review

Nobody ever accused the IEA of knowing anything about football (or, for that matter, trains in northern England) or inherited family or geographic loyalties, or the mind-boggling unreality of swapping clubs. Clubs have a natural monopoly in relation to their fans. 

Blissful ignorance won’t save sporting competition. It’ll destroy it, and football traditions. The result would accelerate an ever-smaller, unrestrained elite climbing ever further from the near-destitute. It’s been happening for years. A bonfire of regulation would also undermine ground safety, gambling integrity and child protection – safeguards demanded around the world. 

Big football organisations immediately expressed abhorrence for the Crouch report. The Premier League, its piratical successes much admired in England but not very much elsewhere, wants to retain the regulatory monopoly that has served it well.

The FA ceded its powers to the leagues long ago, embracing toothlessness in exchange for money and a peaceful life. It has no say when oligarchs or mass-executing feudal oil states take control of clubs. Past chairs fought a losing battle with the moneymen and the gerontocratic blazer brigade which controls the FA. But the FA could craft a decent role in relation to an independent regulator, which would need immediate strong operational assistance, its strongest role in decades. 

The alternative to Crouch is many towns (many of them in the red wall) will go from proud “one club” towns to “no club” communities. A wise government would put its boot through the ball, reject self-interested Luddism, and act on Crouch’s review. The Football Supporters’ Alliance welcomed an “unprecedented opportunity to overhaul power structures giving fans a voice at the heart of football”. The usual suspects will of course time-waste; expect lots off-the-ball shenanigans to retain their advantages. The government, whistle in hand, should go for it! 

English football won’t wither away. It is much too resilient. It can re-engage its fan-base, avoid Super League hubris, feel confident fans are no more likely to wreck the finances than current boards of directors, and share the wealth right through the emaciated pyramid of invaluable local clubs.

Lord Triesman is a Labour peer and former chair of the Football Association 

With research assistance by Hal Hooberman

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