Football: Fans want their voices to be heard

Many supporters want an independent regulator to keep the game's authorities in check.
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The Independent Online
ENGLISH FOOTBALL'S governing bodies are incapable of running the game equably and need to be kept in check by an independent regulator, the country's largest supporters' association told a major conference on the future of the sport yesterday.

"We cannot see any way that the existing authorities can sort out the important issues that face football," Alison Pilling, the spokeswoman for the Football Supporters' Association, said. "We're talking not only about ticket prices and money in the game, but the ownership of clubs, the wealth gap between the richest and poorest clubs and supporters having a voice."

Pilling, who was addressing the conference on the Governance and Regulation of Professional Football in London, was also speaking on behalf of the national Coalition of Football Supporters, a fledgling umbrella organisation that represents dozens of special interest groups and independent supporters' associations. The CFS now intends to campaign, alongside the Labour MP Gerry Sutcliffe, for the introduction of Offoot, an independent organisation that will monitor all aspects of football for the good of the sport.

A range of issues would fall within Offoot's jurisdiction, from the price of tickets, the ownership and running of clubs, the sale of TV rights and how income is best distributed. Bodies such as the Football Association and Premier League would be vehemently opposed to such a regulator as it could deprive them of a final say on matters they believe are best left to them.

"Fans are sick and tired of people who are incompetent or worse coming into the game and then leaving us, the supporters, to pick up the pieces of clubs we feel are ours, our institutions," Pilling said. She added that the issue extended beyond clubs recently or presently in trouble - Portsmouth, Crystal Palace, Luton and Bournemouth among them - and that ordinary football fans need to have a say in the running of their clubs.

"Football is a national treasure, not a device for squeezing money out of people," Sutcliffe told the conference in reference to the spiralling price of tickets, which have risen on average by four times the rate of inflation in the Premiership in the past 10 years. "Many people are being priced out of the game, and that, quite frankly, is a disgrace. People have no faith in the FA. And we're not getting action quick enough to stop football going into a downward spiral."

Andy Burnham, an advisor to the Department of Culture, Media & Sport and a past Administrator of the Government's football Task Force, said he understood that most fans did not believe the FA was effective at enforcing its own rules (on duel ownership, for example, with Peter Johnson having held stakes in both Everton and Tranmere without being stopped). He added, however, that Offoot was not the answer. "The Government's preference is for the game to get its own house in order."

Around 200 delegates - administrators, financial experts, supporters' representatives and academics, but no players or managers - discussed a wide range of issues, including financing of clubs, collective ownership and the Monopolies and Mergers' Commission ruling against BSkyB's bid for Manchester United.

There was also a discussion on the Task Force, which was criticised by one fan for being "a cheap stunt by the Labour Government to gain publicity".

The Task Force was set up three months after Labour came to power in 1997. The total cost to the Government, which paid the salary of appointees such as Burnham but relied on the many fans involved giving their time voluntarily, has been pounds 130,000 over two years.

The Task Force has produced three reports - on racism, the disabled and investment in the community - and is due to produce a fourth and final report soon on the general state of the game. Issues such as ticket prices, club ownership and terracing have not been addressed. "It's expedient for the Government to become associated with football," said Dr Tim Crabbe, an academic and voluntary Task Force worker, who added that other, more divisive issues, such as PLCs and ownership and supporter power had been ignored.

Sir Alex Ferguson, who has recently said that football needs to become more community-minded and aware of fans' concerns, was unable to attend yesterday as he was at a funeral.

Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, did attend and was critical of the FA's decision to encourage Manchester United to pull out of the FA Cup in favour of next year's world club tournament in Brazil. "Even in the weeks after the Munich air disaster, Manchester United managed to field a team in the FA Cup. If pulling out now is the path down which football is going, I can't say I like it," he said.