By Harry Fone, grassroots campaign manager at the TaxPayers’ Alliance
For many Brits Boxing Day means tidying up wrapping paper and nibbling on cold turkey sandwiches. For me it’s football. That’s because today there will be six Premier League matches kicking off up and down the country. It’s already been a turbulent season with six managers getting the axe and a controversial takeover of Newcastle United.
Premier League football is big business. Billions of pounds worth of television rights have flooded into the game both from home and abroad. The league recently signed a £1.6 billion deal with US broadcasting giant NBC to televise matches until 2028. The beautiful game has never been richer, but many people are worried that fans are getting a bad deal. In the lower leagues we’ve seen clubs face financial hardship and even administration, which in Bury’s case resulted in expulsion from the English Football League.
Addressing these fears, the government launched a fan-led review into the governance of football, the results of which were published last month. Chaired by former sports minister Tracey Crouch, the 162-page review has recommended a new Independent Regulator for English Football (IREF). In turn it would create a licencing system to try and ensure that clubs practice good governance and financial competency.
At first glance this sounds reasonable but the question has to be asked, will this new regulator be just another unnecessary and ineffective quango? In 2019 public bodies cost the taxpayer £206 billion and as we revealed in 2008 there were over 1,100 of them.
In her foreword to the report, Tracey Crouch (no relation to the eponymous Peter!) argues that there is a “real risk of widespread failures and a potential collapse of the [football] pyramid as we know it”. This may prove to be true, but why does she think a quango is capable of averting such a crisis? Mercifully there’s no suggestion at the moment that it will be taxpayer-funded (it’s hoped the licensing system will cover the costs) although it hasn’t been completely ruled out.
As so often is the case, public bodies engage in ever greater mission creep. After all, one of Public Health England’s primary responsibilities was to prepare the country to deal with a pandemic. When the time came it was woefully inept with out-of-date PPE and no clear plan in place - perhaps not surprising after years of nannying the public about salt and sugar. Who will ensure this new quango doesn’t morph into yet another bureaucratic arm of the state that will only help to dissuade investment into the game?
The main trigger for this review was the proposed European Super League (ESL) which Ms Crouch says, “was a threat to the entire English football pyramid and led to an unprecedented outpouring of protests from fans, commentators, clubs and government.” As a football fan I don’t disagree, but her statement clearly demonstrates why a regulator isn’t needed.
Within minutes of clubs announcing their intentions to form the ESL it was condemned in all corners. Little more than 48 hours later the plans were in the bin and many of the clubs concerned were forced to make grovelling apologies to their fanbase. The idea was dead on arrival without the need for a public regulator to stick its nose in and muddy the waters.
But it’s not like there’s a lack of oversight in football as it stands. We have the Football Association, the Premier League and the English Football League. That’s just in this country. On an international level there’s UEFA and FIFA who both have a huge influence on the game in all countries. Then there’s fan power which clubs ignore at their peril these days. Back in 2008 Liverpool supporters founded Spirit of Shankly in response to a string of broken promises made by the then owners. Thanks to this group (and many others like them) fans are once again having a huge say in the running of their club. That’s just at the top level - non-league clubs are effectively run by their armies of volunteers.
The review is certainly thorough and lengthy, something Ms Crouch makes no apologies for. But her “strategic recommendations” are just a wish list. Setting up a new regulator and appointing a board won’t happen overnight. Assuming it does get up and running, how will the government measure its success? After all, this was a fan-led review and as fans up and down the country know, we will always find something to complain about. If this new body doesn’t achieve the goals of the strategic recommendations, will the government blow the whistle on what could be a massive own goal?