The Last Word: Margaret Thatcher treated them all as a disease. Now football fans are the cure
What has happened at Portsmouth must become the model for club ownership – supporters rule
Sunday 14 April 2013
In an immortal moment of clarity, François Mitterand, the former French president, suggested Margaret Thatcher had "the eyes of Caligula". On this particular summer morning, in a first-floor meeting room at 10 Downing Street, those eyes bored into the back of our skulls.
They reflected her chilling certainty and possessed their own gravitational field. We were a confection of commentators who had been summoned, following the Heysel disaster, to offer observations and possible solutions to the scourge of football hooliganism.
A prime minister at the height of her powers, she went around the large walnut table canvassing opinions she was predisposed to ignore. She thanked us with a smile, which snapped shut like a carnivorous plant, and swept away, ministers and mandarins trailing in her wake.
The dark ages beckoned. The ultimate conviction politician had decided football supporters were a social disease, a blight to be eradicated. They were the enemy within, second-class citizens who had forfeited their right to trust, decency and respect. They were to be lied to and put upon.
In a sense, the revisionist nonsense that Mrs Thatcher was football's saviour is an irrelevance. The Spitting Image puppets, Graham Kelly, David Mellor and Colin Moynihan, are already back in the attic. The bumbling football administrator, caricature football activist and Olympian boy scout are historical artefacts.
The future belongs to the sort of people who, in a different time, were traduced as the dregs of society. Football fans may still be subjected to disrespect and injustice, but they have a significant opportunity to contribute to a game which seems determined to grow away from its natural constituency.
It has been a momentous week. All four Champions' League semi-finalists are, in theory at least, owned by supporters. Portsmouth fans have driven the money-changers out of Fratton Park, that rather dowdy temple where ancient advertisements under the main stand promote seats for five shillings and sixpence.
There is a new plaque at the mock-Tudor entrance to the ground which reads: "On this site once more stands a mighty football club. We cannot change the past but we can shape the future." It is dedicated to "all those fans who took a stand and refused to allow Portsmouth FC to die".
Their success was instructive, even though the names of key characters such as Iain McInnes, Ashley Brown, Mick Williams, Mark Trapani, Bob Beech and Micah Hall will probably not register. Pompey's Supporters Trust have paid just over £3 million to own 51 per cent of a club who hope to re-emerge from administration next Friday.
The Football League, whose leadership in consistently spurning the opportunistic interventions of the financier Keith Harris was exemplary, will confirm relegation by imposing an immediate 10-point penalty. Life can begin again in League Two next season. A chief executive, Mark Catlin, has been appointed, and Guy Whittingham is likely to be confirmed as manager. The solidarity shown by supporters during the process of renewal is more significant. Representatives of fans from more than 30 clubs have contacted Portsmouth since their High Court victory on Wednesday. They will seek guidance, and inspiration, from their peers.
Problems will persist. The bigger clubs, with their fictional attendances and corporate fixations, will get bigger. The institutionalised inequality of TV revenue means a two-tier Premier League, featuring between 32 and 36 clubs, is likely to be operating before the end of this decade. A different model will evolve.
Supporters' trusts are ideally equipped to be the lifeline for those beyond the bubble of football tourism, in places like Bury, whose penury is by no means unique. A counter- culture will evolve. Clubs will need to become more proactive in the community, more responsive to their customers. They will be run by the right people, in the right way, for the right reasons.
Rejoice, as someone once said on the steps of 10 Downing Street.
Premier League's chance to help
The postman delivers a slickly produced brochure together with a personally addressed circular letter from Richard Scudamore, chief executive of the Premier League.
He commends the work of the League's Creating Chances programme which, according to the blurb, uses "the power of football to positively change lives".
It is an excellent publication which charts the work done by clubs across the course of a year in addressing such key issues as health, education and community cohesion – in all, 4.14 million people were involved in 843 separate projects.
The weakness of the League's position is the collective greed enshrined by an intellectually flawed youth system which, to use a small example, this week allowed Chelsea to poach Kasey Palmer, an England youth international, from Charlton, who had nurtured him from the age of nine.
Its strength is its ability to end the abuse of unpaid internships, which is likely to land the likes of Reading, Wigan and Swansea in trouble with the tax authorities. Sports-science graduates have become educated slave labour.
It would cost the League less than £3 million to fund two interns at their constituent clubs, and one at each Football League club. Over to you, Mr Scudamore.
Create more chances.
Augusta National's worthies will rise as one tonight when Tianlang Guan receives the Silver Cup for best amateur at the Masters. They should also present John Paramore, the English official who penalised Guan for slow play, with his Jobsworth of the Year award.
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