If you are reading this article, you probably already care about football. Perhaps you protested against the European Super League or felt the pain of Bury, Bolton or Wigan fans. You have heard the football rumour mill grinding: the Crouch review is on its way and, with it, the potential for major change.
Here’s a common story. Some people inherit houses, some even still inherit titles. I inherited football. My grandad got a free ticket to Anfield in school and 55 years later he took me. My life has been counted not just in school years and, every so often, elections, but in football seasons. It is how my family functions.
However, in the first year of being the MP for my home town, I found myself in the crazy situation of having to battle to save the club I love from near collapse. A bad sale to the wrong people led to the club being brought to the brink. There then followed years of questioning how this was allowed and what could be done to stop it ever happening again. But it did happen again – to people in Bury and Wigan, while friends in Newcastle have experienced a similar kind of deep anger that the club which they feel belongs to them can be operated with little care for them.
Each powerless year has been the same during my 11-year stint in parliament. I have heard debate after debate on football governance, to no end. I have concluded that there is a fundamental flaw in the game we love. Rewards at the top are extreme, so people take crazy financial risks. And those lower down the leagues must take huge gambles if they want to compete. Even many responsible owners must make huge financial donations to keep clubs solvent. But for all the debate, all the column inches, we have failed to protect our sport from itself.
Finally, after all this time, if this week we hear from the Conservatives that they are prepared to legislate to change football, something good could happen. Boris Johnson made a promise that this time he has to keep. For many of us, this could be the first time in our lives where we have any sense of control over the future of football.
Labour supports an independent regulator. We believe that one should be created with the purpose, in legislation, of promoting sporting competition in the broad interests of the supporters of football clubs. Our vision is for a modern football, where fans enjoy the best the world of football can offer from male and female players, free from racism and inclusive of all, in which governance structures support sustainable growth of the game we love.
The current financial dangers down the pyramid are unacceptably large. We want to see better redistribution of resources, with a smoother taper down the men’s leagues and more redistribution from the men’s to the women’s game while we deal with continuing inequality. The regulator must be the backstop guarantor of this redistribution, in pursuit of sporting competition.
We also want transparency on resources allocated to the grassroots and for supporters’ voices to be heard properly, especially in relation to key decisions. We want a non-partisan process for appointing the regulator’s leadership and board and would support a protected role for supporters in the structure. What’s more, it should not be as difficult as it is to find out how the finances of football flow, not just at an individual club level, but at the structural level.
Give every team a financial fair shot. That should be the test for the Crouch reforms. Put this right and you remove the incentive for owners to risk it all in pursuit of wins. Do that and you make it less likely that clubs collapse. I, for one, never want to see any group of fans having to protest outside a shut stadium again like they did at Gigg Lane. Even better, it will underpin good competition, making the sport better to watch. Give people their football dreams: no guarantee of winning, but a chance at the journey. Parliament must get to work on that dream.
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