I went to Westminster the other evening to see the Luton South Member of Parliament, Margaret Moran, about the farcical saga of the town's football club, but ended up in the all-party football group's second inquiry session into football and its finances. The timing could not have been more apt, for the evidence heard by the inquiry from various witnesses representing supporters at different levels of the game demonstrated that their voices are heard but the message seldom heeded when football's decisions are made.
June opened with the Luton fans not knowing whom their club had been sold to. It looks like ending the same way. After a chap on a fleeting visit from Northampton apparently signed a letter that had been placed in front of him sacking the popular manager, Joe Kinnear, two other prospective officers of the club appeared on the scene, only to turn turtle once they learned the depths of the fans' fury. A supporters' trust was then formed with a view to influencing matters, but it does not seem to have stemmed the flow of bizarre information emanating from Kenilworth Road's managing director, John Gurney. The former player Mike Newell was appointed manager last Monday after a complex phone poll and players are now due to report back for training after experiencing some uncertainty over the payment of wages normally due on the 26th of the month.
The Football League, concerned that the coming season's fixtures will be completed, are asking questions of the club and have imposed a transfer embargo. But from the Football Association, which does so much excellent work to raise standards at the grass roots with its Charter Mark scheme and which is reported to be discussing a redundancy package with the investigator Graham Bean, not a word or flicker of interest about a full-member club that is wallowing in the mire.
The parliamentary inquiry comprises about a dozen of the 150 or so football group members from both houses sitting under the chairmanship of Alan Keen MP, supported by MPs Clive Betts, a tough-tackling member of the house football team, Mark Field, John Grogan, Christine Russell, Adrian Bailey, Peter Pike, and Lords Taylor, Carter and Faulkner. Although the rules of parliament applied to the session, evidence was not protected by privilege, which did not seem to matter very much.
It had been established primarily because of concern about finances in the game, particularly the gulf between the haves and the have nots, and the possibility that the next television contracts will realise less revenue.
The inquiry heard testimony from the Football Supporters Federation, the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association, York City Supporters Trust, AFC Wimbledon, who had just signed a contract to buy their own ground, and Supporters Direct, the organisation set up by the government to help fans organise representation in clubs.
Steven Powell of the FSF drew the inquiry's attention to a possible new model for a football club, along German lines, which combines professional football with the community element of sport for all which makes it a not-for-profit entity thereby attracting tax benefits.
It was when Andy Burnham, MP for Leigh, and Brian Lomax, both representing Supporters Direct, came to the table, that there was some real passion injected into the proceedings. We learned that Joan Laporta, the newly elected president of Barcelona, had attended the first annual conference of Supporters Direct in 1999, and heard the view of the Real Madrid president, Fernando Perez, that supporting Real is akin to having religion. You would never dream of changing it.
The game should be firmly regulated, they argued, but regulated from within, by the FA, with a register of directors and a proper code of conduct. They had heard the all platitudes about the modernisation of the FA, who only the previous week had decided to keep the FA Cup finalists' prize money unchanged but to reduce the smaller clubs' allocation, and yet the supposedly democratic governing body still granted representation on its council to the independent schools rather than the paying supporters or players.
Hanging on the wall in the corridor outside the committee room was the most wonderful oil painting of Tony Benn. Painted by Andrew Tift in 1998 it shows the veteran parliamentarian sitting in a favourite chair surrounded by what I take to be the accompaniments to his perfect working day: bulging files, a family photograph (in which one member is wearing what looks like a Sheffield United shirt), an assortment of pipes, a tea mug, a Mars bar, a collection of books and a radio. I don't recall Benn showing a great interest in football during his record 51 years in parliament, but I do know that, whatever politics they espouse, football supporters would certainly welcome some of his principles in the game today.Reuse content