Football: A game in search of its soul

The post-Hillsborough plan for the national game has failed to create a brighter, safer future for football. That will only occur if the Premiership clubs' dominance is curbed. By Glenn Moore

IN HIS final report on the Hillsborough disaster, which had been damning in its criticism of the sport's leadership from the Football Association down, Lord Justice Taylor called for "the fullest reassessment of policy for the game".

In the wake of this the Football League produced a proposal for power sharing with the FA. The FA responded in June 1991 with its 119-page "Blueprint for the Future of Football". This did not just reject the League's approach, it also emasculated the organisation by creaming off the top clubs to create the FA Premier League. The aim, the "Blueprint" admitted, was to "establish the FA as Government of the game in England".

The document added that the FA's "prime objective" was "establishing the England team at the apex of the pyramid of playing excellence". To that end the FA Premier League, which was to be "governed by a committee of the FA" and would consist of 18 clubs, was being created to forestall a "break-away league [which] would be driven by commercial considerations" rather than "a desire to elevate the England team".

Admirable sentiments, but in the light of Premiership clubs now grasping every penny they can, of clubs threatening to withdraw their players from England's forthcoming friendly in Hungary and the FA's craven decision to field a third-string Under-20 side in this month's World Championships in Nigeria (thus enabling Matthew Upson to play for Arsenal reserves and Joe Cole for West Ham's youth team), they are also laughable.

When the Premier League was constructed the amateurs of the FA were utterly outmanoeuvred by the businessmen of the Premier League. The FA has no input on decision-making by the Premier League, which is run by the 20 club chairmen and a chief executive and chairman appointed by them (and, in the case of Peter Leaver and Sir John Quinton, recently deposed by them, too). The League has no plans to reduce to 20 clubs though Arsenal and Manchester United, with an eye on their own European ambitions not the England team, have pushed for it. Crucially, the FA has no input on how the Premier League's wealth is distributed.

The consequences we reviewed yesterday. The glamorous Premier League is bathed in sunlight, with the impoverished Football League cast into its shadow. An atmosphere exists of rampant commercialism which prices out bedrock supporters while enriching directors. There is a total disregard for the mass of park players.

The future, if this continues unchecked, is worrying. Already the gulf between the Premier and Football League has grown to the extent that it can only be bridged by a rich benefactor, such as Jack Walker or Mohamed Al Fayed. A similar gap has developed within the Premiership itself. Even if well-run and managed clubs such as Charlton survive in the Premier League they will never challenge for the title. The dream that sustains supporters of lesser clubs is in danger of becoming a fantasy.

The only solution is some form of regulation, either internal, as with the Press Complaints Commission in the newspaper industry, or external, through a Government-appointed ombudsman or watchdog such as Oftel, which regulates the telecommunications industry.

The sport would prefer self-regulation and in recent years, the FA has done much to suggest it could regain a measure of control over the game. On the pitch, Howard Wilkinson's reforms as technical director should benefit the development of young players and the national team; off it, the FA has become pro-active rather than reactive.

Though still hindered by an unwieldy bureaucracy, it is attempting to streamline its structure (the proposals are "going through the various committees", a spokesman said with unintentional irony). It is also attempting to give some form of moral lead to the game. This is easier now that Keith Wiseman, who made a fortune through his shareholding in Southampton, is no longer FA chairman, but it is still inevitably compromised by the success, commercially speaking, of its merchandising arm.

However, the FA's power is limited. Most crucially it does not control the Premier League. Thus any form of self-regulation must include the Premiership chairmen. Unfortunately, while most senior FA figures appear to have the broader interests of the game at heart this cannot be said of some club chairmen, though there are exceptions.

The plcs, by definition, have to put their shareholders' interests (that is, profits) above all else and Aston Villa's refusal to pay Brighton the compensation fee agreed for their poaching of Gareth Barry (it had to be deducted from their television money at source) is typical of many Premiership clubs' view on lower division teams. As long ago as 1985 Martin Edwards, the chairman of Manchester United, said: "The smaller clubs are bleeding the game dry. For the sake of the game, they should be put to sleep."

The pathetic hand-outs to the Football Trust from their TV income (less than five per cent of the pounds 170m each year) underlines the self-interest that pervades the Premiership. Recently they were unable even to agree among themselves on opening a chain of merchandise stores across Europe. The arguments centred on the sharing out of the profits. Sir John Quinton's parting remark after his resignation was that the chairmen should stop bickering among themselves.

While four clubs can be relegated from Italy's 18-team Serie A, many in the Premiership want to reduce the link with the Football League to two-up, two-down. Some would prefer to end the practice altogether, so protecting their investments.

Some of the new millionaires football has created claim they did not seek a fortune. Peter Johnson, the chairman of Everton, told the author David Conn, in his excellent analysis of the game, The Football Business, "I didn't know I would make money. It was an accident." Johnson still seeks to take a profit in the region of pounds 50m from his pounds 20m investment; allowing the club to keep his windfall appears not to have occurred to him.

So, if the power brokers of the game cannot be trusted to regulate themselves, the Government will have to step in. The political will, it seems, may exist, especially with the Government so closely connected to the World Cup 2006 bid. Charlie Whelan, Gordon Brown's confidant, wrote in the Observer recently: "Football is running out of time to organise itself. This Government [is] not about to sit back and watch the shambles at the top of our national game much longer."

David Mellor's Football Task Force, after dealing with a series of soft issues, is now investigating the financial side of the game from ticket prices to share flotations. The prospect of establishing a regulatory body will be among the subjects reviewed in the report, which is due out in about eight weeks' time.

While Government intervention carries the risk of too much interference (as well as being forbidden by Fifa, the game's world governing body) some form of independent regulation, along the lines of that established for the privatised industries, ought to be possible. The first task of an "Offoot" would be to redistribute some of the wealth being garnered by the Premier League.

This money - at least 25 per cent of any TV deal - could be administered by the Football Trust, which is probably the only body in the game genuinely committed to improving the sport at all levels. It also has close links with Government. Tom Pendry, a long-serving opposition spokesman on sport when Labour were out of power, is its chairman.

Offoot could then enforce the streamlining of the FA and bring the Premier League back under its control. If this is impossible, a new umbrella body could be established. Either way supporters should have a greater say, even to the extent of assisting them in club buy-outs, as has happened with good effect at Bournemouth.

In the meantime there are several short-term measures the Government could undertake. A windfall tax on the men who have made fortunes from the game, combined with a levy on football betting, could provide immediate financial help.

A law restricting satellite coverage of matches may also be considered, although it need not be as draconian as the one imposed in Italy to keep Rupert Murdoch out. In many respects Sky's coverage has been beneficial.

Last, but certainly not least, the Government should reopen the inquest into the deaths at Hillsborough. There has been a wealth of new evidence since both Dr Stefan Popper's original inquest and Lord Justice Stuart-Smith's unsympathetic review. Football cannot move on until the families of the Hillsborough victims, and the survivors, are able to do so.

Life and Style
A monstrous idea? Body transplants might no longer be science fiction
Science An Italian neurosurgeon believes so - and it's not quite as implausible as it sounds, says Steve Connor
Sport
Demba Ba (right) celebrates after Besiktas win on penalties
footballThere was no happy return to the Ataturk Stadium, where the Reds famously won Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
arts + ents
News
Mia Freedman, editorial director of the Mamamia website, reads out a tweet she was sent.
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
The write stuff: masters of story-telling James Joyce, left, and Thomas Hardy
arts + ents...begging to differ, John Walsh can't even begin to number the ways
News
Image from a flyer at the CPAC event where Nigel Farage will be speaking
news
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

£23000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small, friendly, proactive...

Recruitment Genius: Photographic Event Crew

£14500 - £22800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developers - .NET / ASP.NET / WebAPI / JavaScript

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Software Developer is required to join a lea...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Tax Solicitor - City

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A first rate opportunity to join a top ranking...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower