Football: A game in search of its soul

The post-Hillsborough plan for the national game has failed to create a brighter, safer future for football. That will only occur if the Premiership clubs' dominance is curbed. By Glenn Moore

Glenn Moore
Wednesday 14 April 1999 23:02

IN HIS final report on the Hillsborough disaster, which had been damning in its criticism of the sport's leadership from the Football Association down, Lord Justice Taylor called for "the fullest reassessment of policy for the game".

In the wake of this the Football League produced a proposal for power sharing with the FA. The FA responded in June 1991 with its 119-page "Blueprint for the Future of Football". This did not just reject the League's approach, it also emasculated the organisation by creaming off the top clubs to create the FA Premier League. The aim, the "Blueprint" admitted, was to "establish the FA as Government of the game in England".

The document added that the FA's "prime objective" was "establishing the England team at the apex of the pyramid of playing excellence". To that end the FA Premier League, which was to be "governed by a committee of the FA" and would consist of 18 clubs, was being created to forestall a "break-away league [which] would be driven by commercial considerations" rather than "a desire to elevate the England team".

Admirable sentiments, but in the light of Premiership clubs now grasping every penny they can, of clubs threatening to withdraw their players from England's forthcoming friendly in Hungary and the FA's craven decision to field a third-string Under-20 side in this month's World Championships in Nigeria (thus enabling Matthew Upson to play for Arsenal reserves and Joe Cole for West Ham's youth team), they are also laughable.

When the Premier League was constructed the amateurs of the FA were utterly outmanoeuvred by the businessmen of the Premier League. The FA has no input on decision-making by the Premier League, which is run by the 20 club chairmen and a chief executive and chairman appointed by them (and, in the case of Peter Leaver and Sir John Quinton, recently deposed by them, too). The League has no plans to reduce to 20 clubs though Arsenal and Manchester United, with an eye on their own European ambitions not the England team, have pushed for it. Crucially, the FA has no input on how the Premier League's wealth is distributed.

The consequences we reviewed yesterday. The glamorous Premier League is bathed in sunlight, with the impoverished Football League cast into its shadow. An atmosphere exists of rampant commercialism which prices out bedrock supporters while enriching directors. There is a total disregard for the mass of park players.

The future, if this continues unchecked, is worrying. Already the gulf between the Premier and Football League has grown to the extent that it can only be bridged by a rich benefactor, such as Jack Walker or Mohamed Al Fayed. A similar gap has developed within the Premiership itself. Even if well-run and managed clubs such as Charlton survive in the Premier League they will never challenge for the title. The dream that sustains supporters of lesser clubs is in danger of becoming a fantasy.

The only solution is some form of regulation, either internal, as with the Press Complaints Commission in the newspaper industry, or external, through a Government-appointed ombudsman or watchdog such as Oftel, which regulates the telecommunications industry.

The sport would prefer self-regulation and in recent years, the FA has done much to suggest it could regain a measure of control over the game. On the pitch, Howard Wilkinson's reforms as technical director should benefit the development of young players and the national team; off it, the FA has become pro-active rather than reactive.

Though still hindered by an unwieldy bureaucracy, it is attempting to streamline its structure (the proposals are "going through the various committees", a spokesman said with unintentional irony). It is also attempting to give some form of moral lead to the game. This is easier now that Keith Wiseman, who made a fortune through his shareholding in Southampton, is no longer FA chairman, but it is still inevitably compromised by the success, commercially speaking, of its merchandising arm.

However, the FA's power is limited. Most crucially it does not control the Premier League. Thus any form of self-regulation must include the Premiership chairmen. Unfortunately, while most senior FA figures appear to have the broader interests of the game at heart this cannot be said of some club chairmen, though there are exceptions.

The plcs, by definition, have to put their shareholders' interests (that is, profits) above all else and Aston Villa's refusal to pay Brighton the compensation fee agreed for their poaching of Gareth Barry (it had to be deducted from their television money at source) is typical of many Premiership clubs' view on lower division teams. As long ago as 1985 Martin Edwards, the chairman of Manchester United, said: "The smaller clubs are bleeding the game dry. For the sake of the game, they should be put to sleep."

The pathetic hand-outs to the Football Trust from their TV income (less than five per cent of the pounds 170m each year) underlines the self-interest that pervades the Premiership. Recently they were unable even to agree among themselves on opening a chain of merchandise stores across Europe. The arguments centred on the sharing out of the profits. Sir John Quinton's parting remark after his resignation was that the chairmen should stop bickering among themselves.

While four clubs can be relegated from Italy's 18-team Serie A, many in the Premiership want to reduce the link with the Football League to two-up, two-down. Some would prefer to end the practice altogether, so protecting their investments.

Some of the new millionaires football has created claim they did not seek a fortune. Peter Johnson, the chairman of Everton, told the author David Conn, in his excellent analysis of the game, The Football Business, "I didn't know I would make money. It was an accident." Johnson still seeks to take a profit in the region of pounds 50m from his pounds 20m investment; allowing the club to keep his windfall appears not to have occurred to him.

So, if the power brokers of the game cannot be trusted to regulate themselves, the Government will have to step in. The political will, it seems, may exist, especially with the Government so closely connected to the World Cup 2006 bid. Charlie Whelan, Gordon Brown's confidant, wrote in the Observer recently: "Football is running out of time to organise itself. This Government [is] not about to sit back and watch the shambles at the top of our national game much longer."

David Mellor's Football Task Force, after dealing with a series of soft issues, is now investigating the financial side of the game from ticket prices to share flotations. The prospect of establishing a regulatory body will be among the subjects reviewed in the report, which is due out in about eight weeks' time.

While Government intervention carries the risk of too much interference (as well as being forbidden by Fifa, the game's world governing body) some form of independent regulation, along the lines of that established for the privatised industries, ought to be possible. The first task of an "Offoot" would be to redistribute some of the wealth being garnered by the Premier League.

This money - at least 25 per cent of any TV deal - could be administered by the Football Trust, which is probably the only body in the game genuinely committed to improving the sport at all levels. It also has close links with Government. Tom Pendry, a long-serving opposition spokesman on sport when Labour were out of power, is its chairman.

Offoot could then enforce the streamlining of the FA and bring the Premier League back under its control. If this is impossible, a new umbrella body could be established. Either way supporters should have a greater say, even to the extent of assisting them in club buy-outs, as has happened with good effect at Bournemouth.

In the meantime there are several short-term measures the Government could undertake. A windfall tax on the men who have made fortunes from the game, combined with a levy on football betting, could provide immediate financial help.

A law restricting satellite coverage of matches may also be considered, although it need not be as draconian as the one imposed in Italy to keep Rupert Murdoch out. In many respects Sky's coverage has been beneficial.

Last, but certainly not least, the Government should reopen the inquest into the deaths at Hillsborough. There has been a wealth of new evidence since both Dr Stefan Popper's original inquest and Lord Justice Stuart-Smith's unsympathetic review. Football cannot move on until the families of the Hillsborough victims, and the survivors, are able to do so.

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