David Conn: The cavalry arrives to little fanfare

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With football lurching into financial crisis, the Independent Football Commission finally launched at West Ham's Upton Park ground this week – introducing a new regulatory body for the game which nobody wanted and few believe can make a difference.

The IFC's chairman, Derek Fraser, the vice-chancellor of Teesside University, promised that the IFC, funded by the football authorities, represented "independent self-regulation which can work". Richard Caborn, the Sports Minister, somewhat forlornly pleaded with the Press to "give the IFC a chance".

The roots of profound scepticism lie in nearly five turgid years of battles, delays and back-room deals since the new Labour Government set up the Football Task Force in July 1997 to inquire into aspects of football, including the commercial revolution which, for all its gains, had alienated many traditional supporters.

In September 1997, the Football Association itself asked Sir John Smith, the former Metropolitan Police deputy commissioner, to produce a report on "the manner in which football regulates its financial affairs".

Sir John reported that, although football was enjoying a popular and commercial renaissance, there were "clouds on the horizon. Many parts of football have seen the benefits pass them by; in other parts, the influx of wealth has led to allegations of greed, misconduct and corruption." He said that the FA, the game's "primary regulator", had rules "insufficient to allow for proper regulation of financial affairs". He recommended a code of conduct with a tough approach to enforcement and the establishment of a "compliance and monitoring unit", to investigate irregularities and provide advice.

Graham Bean, a former detective and chairman of the Football Supporters' Association, was subsequently taken on as a compliance officer, and a Financial Advisory – not Compliance – Unit, was set up.

The Task Force, of which Sir John was a member alongside the football authorities, produced three unanimous reports, but then spent almost the whole of 1999 arguing over the final, commercial report. Finally, in December 1999, its members agreed to differ on how to resolve football's natural tension with money-making, and issued two opposing reports. The first set out a lucid history of football's commercial development and, while applauding the benefits, pointed out many fans' concerns about widening inequality between clubs, financial scandals, hyper-inflating ticket prices and the "individual fortunes made by, and the conduct of, some of those who own or control clubs".

The report said that the FA should introduce a procedure to ensure people coming in to own or run clubs should be "fit and proper" to do so. It recommended a "Football Audit Commission" with strong powers and an "Ombudsfan" to champion fans' complaints. The report was supported by 12 of the Task Force's 17 members.

The second report, produced by the football authorities, rejected "additional layers of regulation", and came to the near-incomprehensible conclusion that the football industry should "adopt the contemporary principles of customer care and a more inclusionary approach to key stakeholders." It recommended the setting up of an "Independent Scrutiny Panel", co-funded by the Government and football authorities, to review the authorities' running of the game. It also recommended clubs adopt codes of best practice and customer charters – which they have now done.

Despite the majority backing the first report, the Government nevertheless effectively backed the second one, for the formation of the IFC to review football's governance annually. That was two years ago. They then launched into an unholy row about who would be chairman, with Richard Scudamore, the Premier League's chief executive, finally given a place on the selection panel.

The bitterness of the row was revived this week when Kate Hoey, the former Sports Minister, revealed that Scudamore had in February 2001 refused to give Sir John an interview, and threatened that the football authorities would pull out if Sir John were appointed chairman.

At the launch, Scudamore claimed that Chris Smith had "agreed" with the football authorities early in the process that nobody who had been a Task Force member would be considered as chairman of the IFC. Both Smith and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport denied this yesterday. "Richard Scudamore expressed that argument on a number of occasions," a DCMS spokesman said, "but, while the Minister certainly saw its logic, it is going too far to say he agreed it should form part of the criteria for the IFC chairmanship."

Smith denied he had agreed; indeed he had said that Sir John should at least be interviewed. Whatever, Sir John was not appointed and Derek Fraser was. He then appointed six commissioners to sit with him.

For anybody depressed at this insight into the Government's approach to the national game, Caborn asked that "a line be drawn under the past", and for the IFC to be given a chance. Fraser confirmed the IFC has no enforcement powers, but will investigate and report on football's financial and regulatory framework, as well as specific issues such as ticket prices. "Where we find good practice, we will commend it," he promised, "and where we find shortcomings we will rigorously expose them."

There were some grains of optimism; Adam Crozier, the Football Association's chief executive, stressed that the FA will review its rules and regulations, and tighten them up. Senior FA sources said this week that the governing body firmly intends to introduce a "fit and proper person" test this year – a landmark change.

The FA is also understood to be widely reviewing the adequacy of its financial rules, and the current farcical position whereby they can be sidestepped if a club's directors transfer the ground and assets to a holding company, as has happened at several clubs, including York City. Discussions are also beginning about a "rescue fund" to help clubs in financial trouble, which would carry stringent conditions.

One of the IFC commissioners, Julian Wild, a lawyer, told The Independent that he was a supporter of Hull City, the club taken over in 1998 by Stephen Hinchliffe, who is now serving five years for corruption and bribery offences. Hull went into administration last year and a police fraud squad investigation is continuing. Wild said he was adamant that proper financial regulation, including a "fit and proper person test", were "absolutely central to protecting clubs from crooks".

The real question is not whether the Press and fans will give the IFC a chance; it is whether the football authorities will make long overdue and necessary changes. And how far the Government is determined to see them do so.