Sad demise for Mellor's flawed Task Force

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The Independent Online

The Football Task Force will meet tomorrow, almost certainly for the last time, bringing to an end the Government-sponsored process in which most people, not least the Task Force's own members, have increasingly ceased to believe. It was always a deeply flawed idea, to invite the football authorities - the Football Association, the Premier League and the Football League - to sit on a critical inquiry into their own running of the game, and so it will be no great surprise if the Task Force concludes with no satisfactory agreement reached on radical reforms.

The Football Task Force will meet tomorrow, almost certainly for the last time, bringing to an end the Government-sponsored process in which most people, not least the Task Force's own members, have increasingly ceased to believe. It was always a deeply flawed idea, to invite the football authorities - the Football Association, the Premier League and the Football League - to sit on a critical inquiry into their own running of the game, and so it will be no great surprise if the Task Force concludes with no satisfactory agreement reached on radical reforms.

Formally, tomorrow's meeting is called to finalise a report into four specific commercial areas of concern, including ticket pricing. However, discussions will centre instead on the precise terms of a "scrutiny panel" offered up by the football authorities as an apparent sop to the idea of independent regulation. If the idea, which the authorities have taken seven months to produce, is too insubstantial for other members, including supporter representatives, the process will end in disagreement, perhaps with the publication of two opposing reports. It is not clear whether David Mellor, the Task Force chairman, will put the reports to a vote, but if he does, a majority is likely to vote against the authorities. The Government will then have to respond, but hopes are not high for any legislation to force a more community-orientated approach on the all-powerful Premier League club-companies.

Such a dispiriting conclusion will be a long way from the heady days of July 1997, when the newly elected Labour Sports Minister, Tony Banks, kicked a ball around with Mellor at The Valley, Charlton's home, setting up the Task Force to inquire into seven specific areas of concern. Summarising, Banks raised a broad question: "How can clubs avoid alienating the less well off from the sport that they love?" Charlton was selected as the venue, because they had "maintained reasonable ticket pricing", and had "a member of the supporters' organisation on the board". A long two-and-a-half years later, it will be a surprise if the final report produces any concrete proposals from the authorities to cater for the less well off, or an agreement to encourage supporters on to club boards.

The impasse over the commercial issues follows three previous reports passed unanimously by the Task Force, which made modest gains, first, in anti-racism and then, in July 1998, on disabled facilities at grounds. The third report produced the Task Force's most significant achievement: in return for supporting the Premier League's case against the Office of Fair Trading for collective negotiation of TV rights, the Premier League pledged five per cent of its next TV deal, in 2001, towards rebuilding facilities at the grass roots level. There was also a recommendation on encouraging supporters to form shareholding trusts, which has been developed further since then.

That, however, was in January. Knowing that any issues directly concerned with money would be the most contentious, the four commercial matters were left till last: ticket pricing, merchandising, encouraging supporter involvement in clubs, and resolving the conflict between supporters and shareholders where clubs have floated. Agreement on these issues has proved more difficult.

A draft report was produced in May, proposing an independent regulatory body for football, and measures such as concessionary match tickets for under-16s, OAPs and people on income support. It was immediately publicly rubbished by the authorities, in particular by Mike Lee, the Premier League's press spokesman. The authorities then took four months to produce a joint series of counter-proposals which, leaked soon afterwards apparently via the supporter network, appeared to contain no firm proposals to deal with these areas. Instead, it suggested the idea of a "scrutiny panel", which the Task Force has now taken a further six weeks to consider.

Task Force members were this week refusing to comment, but it is believed that the process has come down to an argument over the constitution and powers of this proposed body. Fan representatives are likely to lose patience and reject it unless the authorities agree to make it a robust and independent examination of the running of the game, with sanctions for clubs which fail to adopt good practices. If no breakthrough is made, and a vote is taken, the supporter groups are favourites to win a majority of other members. They include representatives of local government, academia, Eleanor Oldroyd of Radio Five Live and Sir John Smith, the former deputy chief commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, whose 1997 report recommending strengthening of the game's financial regulations has still not been acted upon by the FA.

The FA itself meets on Tuesday, when its 1,200 shareholders will vote on restructuring the organisation. Hailed by its executive director, David Davies, as a "revolution for the governing body in the 21st century", the restructuring greatly increases the Premier League's power. A new main board, formed to run the FA as a commercial business, will have six out of its 12 members drawn from the professional game, including four from the Premier League, almost certain to be Dave Richards, the chairman of Sheffield Wednesday, Peter Ridsdale of Leeds, David Dein of Arsenal and Ken Bates of Chelsea.

The FA promises a reorganisation of the game at amateur, youth and semi-professional levels, into a formal National Game structure, funded by money from the Premier League, but its form is not yet certain. At the time of Geoff Thompson's election as the FA chairman last June, there was talk, mostly unattributed, that £12m annually for 10 years would come from the Premier League to fund the National Game. But it has since become clear that no such investment is promised, indeed that no investment is pledged beyond the five per cent already made via the Task Force. Within the FA, frustration has grown among many working in football at its grass-roots level. They bemoan a lack of consultation and that the National Game proposals are not yet developed.

The end of the Task Force, combined with the FA's restructuring, concludes a flurry of work on the game's organisation, but throws tougher questions back to the Government. The idea of a regulator, aired by Banks, and believed to be supported privately by his successor Kate Hoey, has received no senior Government support; indeed Chris Smith, the Culture Secretary, has publicly dismissed the idea. This approach has increased the authorities' confidence that they will not be seriously touched, and left it unlikely that the game will enter the next millennium with much other than a relentlessly commercial sense of its priorities.

The Task Force process, to which hundreds of people, particularly supporters, gave their time for free, will have produced some small gains and the encouraging spectacle of consultation. But barring a last-minute upset, it is unlikely that the authorities will sign up to a charter which proposes substantial reforms. If the Government then remains reluctant to act, the Premier League will have escaped largely unscathed and barely restrained, hurtling towards the glitter and riches of their next TV pay bonanza in 2001.

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