Long-awaited football governance is needed to protect the future of northern clubs
Few places illustrate the importance of professional football clubs to local communities than my constituency of Hyndburn.
Home to the original Accrington Stanley FC, the club was one of the founding members of the football league, and the rich footballing heritage in the area dates back to their formation in 1891.
Football clubs, like Stanley, are an enormous source of community pride and are a key part of local economies. At the recent FA Cup tie between Stanley and Leeds United the entire town came together, packing out the Wham Stadium and local pubs to cheer on the team. The club also invests in pitches and facilities through the Accrington Stanley Community Trust and provides thousands of free football shirts to school children every year, protecting grassroots football for the next generation.
Dangerous levels of overspending, cavalier attitudes to financial risk, and poor governance cannot continue
The club is a massive asset to the local area and helps put the small town of Accrington on the map. As one fan said on the BBC recently: “You go anywhere in the world and mention Accrington, and the universal response is ‘Stanley’!”
But in recent years there have been too many stories of clubs whose very existence has hung in the balance until the eleventh hour. And these stories follow an all too familiar plot; a combination of dangerous levels of overspending, cavalier attitudes to financial risk, and poor governance cannot continue.
The vast revenue tiers which exist between different divisions of the football pyramid in the United Kingdom have created huge incentives for clubs to overspend in pushing for success. Premier League clubs and the five championship sides in receipt of parachute payments take home a 92 per cent share of English football’s revenue between them. The other 67 professional clubs make do with splitting the remaining 8 per cent. The financial rewards of promotion, particularly to the Premier League, have led many clubs to gamble for success. But when these gambles lose, as they often do, the fans and local community lose too.
And while this problem has been endemic across the entire country, it is clubs in the North which have been particularly likely to be affected. The Northern Research Group (NRG) and Onward report, Open Goal, finds that northern clubs have accounted for two-fifths of all administrations since 1990.
Northern clubs will remain at risk for as long as football operates in this way. Nearly three-quarters (72 per cent) of northern clubs are loss-making, relying on their owners to reach into their pockets to fund the difference each season. If and when owners pull the plug, the entire existence of these vital community assets is put at risk.
Football governance needs to be better, and reforms are needed. The beautiful game cannot continue like this and the government’s steadfast commitment to the Fan Led Review has been welcome. Clubs should not need to put their entire existence at risk just to compete, risking hundreds of years of history in the process.
There are clear answers to many of the game’s problems. We need a new regulator to help ensure clubs’ financial sustainability, new owners and directors tests to ensure owners are fit to steward these vital community assets, and redistributive payments to protect lower-league clubs and grassroots football.
We must protect clubs like Accrington and learn from stories like Bury. It is vital we recognise the importance of these teams to local communities and the investment they bring to their local areas. The Football White Paper will do just this, and I am delighted to see it will be published this week. Reform has been talked about for decades and it is this Conservative government that will finally deliver change for football and communities like mine.
Sara Britcliffe, Conservative MP for Hyndburn.
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