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Nik Darlington: Getting football governance right

Nik Darlington is a freelance journalist and parliamentary adviser in Westminster. He is the editor of the Tory Reform Group's new blog, Egremont

“Football is an art more central to our culture than anything the Arts Council deigns to recognise.”

I see where Germaine Greer is coming from. Or I used to see where Germaine Greer was coming from. She wrote it in the Independent nearly fifteen years ago during Euro ‘96, that heady English summer when football was coming home, but was shaken out of its stupor on the doorstep and remembered it still lodged in Germany.

As I was growing up, football was nothing short of an obsession. Merlin sticker books. Championship Manager. Dennis Bergkamp, Ian Wright, David Seaman, David Platt, and Paul Merson. Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch. Historic Wembley’s twin towers. The FA Cup. Exotic names at 4.45pm on a Saturday afternoon: Accrington Stanley and Crewe Alexandra, Port Vale and Plymouth Argyle, Queens Park Rangers and Queen of the South, Stenhousemuir and Sheffield Wednesday. And always Arsenal - a name clipped, robust, militaristic.

Those green senses. The smell of fried onions outside the North Bank. The blisters in August’s new boots. Blades. Then no blades. Doing a ‘Beckham’, on the pitch and in the barber’s. The pain of defeat, but the ecstasy of winning. Steve Bould to Tony Adams (above), 4-0.

But football had become less magical. I have become older, certainly, but football had become more childish, more vagrant, even.

Hooliganism has been around for decades, and actually feels less prevalent today. However, police think it might be on the rise again, and it is true that going to a football match can sometimes leave a bad taste in your mouth, or a foul ringing in your ears. There is no need for ‘family enclosures’ in rugby and cricket grounds.

Yet the behaviour of England fans in the most recent World Cup was mostly exemplary, for instance, and hooliganism is not always the reserve of a thuggish minority of fans. Brian Clough, County and Nottingham Forest, said in 1990, “Football hooligans? Well, there are ninety-two club chairmen for a start.” And as former England manager Sven Goran Eriksson said in 2004, “There is more politics in football than in politics.”

Football governance is a hot topic. The Culture, Media & Sport Select Committee are currently receiving oral evidence as part of a review into the sport, which was set up by the Government last December. Its remit, according to committee chairman John Whittingdale MP, is to “look at the case for strategic Government intervention and improved self-regulation and…consider models which involve supporters more in how clubs are run.”

It is not the Government’s place to interfere in sport or sports teams - unless completely necessary, such as the inquiry following the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. All the same, football clubs should not be treated differently from other commercial organisations. Football is a multi-billion dollar global business and clubs are listed companies with millions invested in them from this country and overseas. We have seen how destructive an over-leveraged business structure can be in the financial sector - how long until we wake up to the fact in sport?

UEFA has issued its Fair Play Rules, which call on clubs across Europe at least to break even by the 2012-13 financial year. A UEFA report cited that 47 per cent of Europe’s top clubs made a loss in 2008, in spite of record revenues. In 2010, the debt-to-value ratio for Manchester United was 46 per cent, Arsenal 41 per cent and Liverpool 47 per cent. Chelsea and Manchester City are debt free only because their vastly wealthy owners wrote off debts last year of £701m and £305m respectively. Only six out of twenty Premier League clubs turned a profit. Surely, this is unsustainable?

For whilst football clubs are now set up as commercial entities, with debts and securities and bonds and balance sheets, they are something more intrinsically valuable than an investment bank or an oil company. Like Germaine Greer said, football is part of our culture. Attachments have weakened in recent years but clubs remain the heartbeat of communities the length and breadth of the country. Sky high ticket prices, anti-social kick-off times to suit satellite television companies, stratospheric salaries and transfer fees - all of this alienates fans who invest so much of their time, love and money in the game. The prolongated anti-Glazer protests by Manchester United’s ‘Green & Gold’ supporters demonstrates how fans can fight back.

Can, or should, Governments act on something like salaries? The Professional Footballers Association chairman, Gordon Taylor, insists that there is no need for a salary cap, such as exists in rugby union. As obnoxious as John Terry’s £150,000 weekly payslip is (and we complain about people getting paid more than the Prime Minister in one year, when Terry gets more in one week), that is what the market pays. As long as clubs can afford to pay their players such wages, they should be allowed to. It becomes dangerous when clubs spend beyond their means - see Leeds United’s fall from Champions League semi-finals to the third tier - so perhaps an enforced ratio of wage bill to revenue might be appropriate, at least on a voluntary basis.

The sport needs to get closer to its supporters again. Players make many noises about ‘doing it for our fans’ and beat their chests about ‘humble backgrounds’, but ever more and ever faster, professional footballers and the clubs who employ them are becoming utterly divorced from the real world and their fans - who, ultimately, pay their wages through gate receipts, merchandise and TV subscriptions. Bankers are probably more accessible.

The Culture, Media & Sport Committee asks, “Are there any lessons to be learned from football governance models across the UK and abroad, and from governance models in other sports?”

Yes, and one lesson comes from a surprising place. We often think that the commercialisation of sport is an American export and in many ways it is. Think daft team names in Twenty20 county cricket (Spitfires, Sharks and Sabres) and the rise of the Jeremy Maguire style ‘super agent’. Yet in the NFL there is a lesson for better governance of any sports team. A few weeks ago, the Green Bay Packers beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-25 in a pulsating Super Bowl XLV. No other team has won more league championships than Green Bay. No other team is owned mostly by small-scale shareholders. As LeftFootForward reports, they are also the only American major sports franchise to release its balance sheet every year. It is a mutualised club ownership and it has kept the NFL’s smallest side going, successfully, year after year.

Similarly, in Germany’s Bundesliga, no less than 51 per cent of a football club must be owned by club members. Barcelona and Real Madrid are ‘run’ (ostensibly) by supporters.

Football in Britain is a long way from that yet but the Select Committee’s review is a timely intervention by the Government into addressing the concerning and growing problems with our nation’s most popular sport. It is of cultural importance that we get this right. It should not be down to the Government to instruct and regulate, merely to collect the necessary evidence, advise and point in the right direction. Exposure of fault and threat of legislation might be more effective than legislation itself. Whatever happens, football needs to put itself on a sustainable financial footing and re-connect with the public. Without fans the beautiful game is no longer beautiful, it is just a game.


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