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Can Tracey Crouch save football from the wrong’uns?

The long awaited Fan – Led Review of football governance is expected to be published any day now. Here we explain what may be expected from it, and why we need to be ready to campaign to ensure that good ideas from it are actually implemented by the Government.

When things go wrong in Britain, and citizens look for help, the  suggestion soon comes up: “Write to your MP”. It’s a strength of the UK Parliamentary system that you have somebody local who can speak up for you in the House of Commons, and it works, more often than is commonly appreciated.

But when it came to football, it seemed like MPs felt powerless. They would  tend to wring their hands and blame the football authorities, and when it came to reforming those authorities, it seemed that sorting out football wasn’t sufficiently a vote winner. As Shadow Sport Minister, Eltham MP, (and Millwall supporter) Clive Efford in 2015 worked up and presented a Football Governance (Supporters’ Participation) Bill. You didn’t know that? Exactly, that was the problem. It didn’t get a second reading in Parliament. And no matter how dire a club’s situation was said to be, politicians tended to note that in the end they all bounced back. 

And then, Bury happened. Despite anguished and furious interventions from Bury MPs, and political allies such as Andy Burnham and Lisa Nandy, Bury closed down; and this in the middle of a period when English football was visibly more awash with money than ever. Several other clubs in lower divisions appeared to be teetering on the brink, mostly in the North West, but one, of course in South East London. And despite support from MPs such as Matt Pennycock, who is now a Charlton Supporters Trust (CAST) member, there seemed little of substance MPs could do.

But cometh the hour, cometh the man. Or, as it happened, the woman. An MP whose Twitter profile includes the intriguing self-description, “Studs up”. 

Tracey Crouch, the Tory MP for Chatham and Aylsford had actually resigned from her role as Sports Minister in 2018 in protest at the delay in cracking down on fixed odds betting machines, a rare example of demoting oneself in government on a point of principal. Nevertheless, and perhaps because reforming football was seen as a political dead end by other MPs, it was she who stepped forward to seize the moment, as disquiet about the European Super League piled on top of the Bury failure to create a political consensus that Something Must Be Done. 

She started her work late in April, and very quickly fan groups, including CAST, started to post positive feedback about their engagement with her. The common thread was that they were being listened to and taken seriously. Similar comments came from Kieran Maguire, the brains behind the Price of Football podcast. He is one of the experts who have been co-opted to guide and develop Ms Crouch’s response. She was a guest on his podcast recently, and the interview is well worth a listen, although we would recommend to first review her interim report, which is available on the government website. It is the clearest, most plain speaking, practical and decisive political response to the problems of English football that we have read in the last 30 years.

This is how she sets out her stall:

“Although I have been involved with football all my life, as have many members of the Panel, it was truly eye opening and educational to hear the experience of fans first-hand. I have huge respect for their passion, talent and commitment to their clubs. It is often said that football without fans is nothing. It is no exaggeration to say that a number of clubs would not exist today had it not been for the activism of their fans in driving positive change. Its fans are a strength of our national game that should be both cherished and nurtured…. If it was not already sufficiently clear before the start of the Review the evidence has been clear that football clubs are not ordinary businesses. They play a critical social, civic and cultural role in their local communities. They need to be protected – sometimes from their owners who are, after all, simply the current custodians of a community asset”

After a studs-up assault on the football authorities for repeatedly failing to safeguard the clubs, she outlines her likely key proposals, starting with an Independent Regulator (something Clive Efford had swerved), moving on to protecting „Heritage Assets“ principally the stadia, by establishing  a fans‘ “golden share” in clubs, with veto powers (which Efford had also proposed). She covers reform of the football authorities, deepening fan engagement and transparency, and “Navigating Financial Gaps”, plus several other important topics. On every topic she is straight-talking and practical in proposing solutions. In short, it could easily have been written by fan groups such as CAST, or nationally the FSF, and that’s why it’s exciting.

There is one big elephant in the room though, which she does not tackle, either in the letter or the podcast: Control of the TV money. In the section on finances she tackles parachute payments, but takes a neutral view of them; and refers to further work to be done on revenue flows through the leagues. Kieran Maguire argues that it’s necessary to smooth the drop -off in revenue through the leagues, to change the contour of it to a slope, rather than the cliff-face precipice it is now, principally from the EPL to the Championship. That requires the EPL to concede that it should retain a significantly lower share of the TV money than it does now. The EPL is basically the trade association of the 20 owners. You could imagine Abu Dhabi shrugging its shoulders at a loss of maybe £50m p.a. Perhaps Abramovic too, as he seems to be quietly limiting his personal further investment in Chelsea. But the Glaziers? Levy? Gullivan? Can you see them quietly saying  “OK, if that’s what it takes to avoid another Bury..”?. But unless they find a way to smooth out the revenue flow, so that an owner like Thomas Sandgaard can make Charlton sustainable on and off the pitch in the Championship (as well as lower down), we will continue to see distressed clubs, and vultures feeding off their carcasses. So look out for that one.

More importantly though, we need to be aware that this is not a Parliamentary Bill. When the full Review is published it should quickly become so. In the podcast, Crouch is optimistic that such a Bill would receive cross-party support; sport is not a tribal political issue, she says, and MPs of all colours come from constituencies with distressed clubs (and pressure to “Do Something”). However in order to have the best chance of quickly being enacted, it needs to first be adopted by the Dept.for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, (DCMS) headed up by Nadine Dorries. It is she who can make or break the passing of Tracey Crouch’s recommendations into law. Ms Dorries, it is fair to say, is a controversial politician. Nevertheless, a member of the CAST board was recently in a conference call with her and reported that she appeared to have readily grasped all the key issues and was apparently committed to resolving them. Of course we at Charlton know from bitter experience that politicians are skilled at saying what the audience wants to hear; nevertheless we would much rather start from the position Ms Dorries appears to be adopting; and given Tracey Crouch’s record, the mere fact that she was allowed to take the Review forward does suggest the government understood it will get a set of proposals that mean business.

So we await publication of the Review any day now; and when that happens we all need to quickly get on top of the following questions:

  1. Are there any significant variations from what the Interim report has led us to expect (for better or for worse)? 
  2. Which of these proposals would, if they had been in place at the time, have helped prevent the worst of what has happened (to Charlton; and to Bury, Macclesfield, Wigan, Rochdale, Bolton, Coventry, Salisbury, etc) .
  3. Has the Review been readily endorsed in full by Nadine Dorries and DCMS, and will she now ensure that it is taken forward as a Bill to Parliament, quickly? If not, why not? Are any other politicians showing resistance to any aspects of it? If so why? 

For many football fans the idea that we can influence the government and politicians may seem daunting. But at Charlton we’ve learnt the hard way that it’s easier if your adversaries are politicians rather than owners with bad intentions. Unlike owners, politicians are answerable to us, not just at the ballot box, but every day of the week; and as a result, the media are more ready to write about “fans vs politicians”. Maybe that is why, after so many years, politicians have finally figured out that football fans also vote. For, or against them.

This may, at last, be our moment. Let’s seize it!