For Keir Starmer, the time has come to not just stop The Super League. Football has reached the “watershed moment” to finally address club ownership in England, and introduce legislation that entrenches supporter control of clubs.
“We haven’t been listening to fans for a very long time now,” the Labour Party leader tells The Independent, in an exclusive interview. Had football or the government done that earlier, the game might not have been left powerless in the face of a “cartel” – to use Starmer’s own word – of owners obliterating its history and future.
As such, Labour’s policy would be to assess a number of different ownership models, with that in the Bundesliga – where supporters own 51 per cent stakes in their clubs – particularly appealing.
“There are different models around the world, there’s the German model obviously. Two things need to be tackled, the first is there has got to be a mechanism on ownership, and what the percentage of ownership would be on any given club, and the German model is quite interesting there.
“The second is giving fans a proper say, to think through carefully how that works. The government has been promising a fan-led review for some time. We, the Labour Party, have had it in our manifesto for the best part of a decade. We need a mechanism to entrench a way of fans having a much greater say in what happens to their clubs. I would be open to different models.”
Starmer is not a politician jumping on a populist bandwagon here. His football credentials couldn’t be sounder. A lifelong Arsenal fan who has been a long-time season-ticket holder, Starmer was also considered one of his year’s best players during his time at Leeds University. On Tuesday afternoon, he conducted an emergency meeting with supporter trusts, having spent a lot of the last year visiting non-league clubs to gauge the community effect of football at such a difficult time.
This is what The Super League is potentially corroding. The proposed competition threatens clubs’ place as representations of their local community above all else; of being social institutions for the betterment of their community, in a way that fits with the core of Labour’s principles.
That is why this represents such a watershed.
“I think it’s a combination of things,” Starmer says. “This has been going on for years. It’s brought near ruin. Look at Wigan. Again, I’m an Arsenal fan, but foreign speculation has almost brought down Wigan as a football club but I think people are beginning to see where this leads.
“Look at women’s football, look at grassroots football, so that’s reason number one, reason number two is being a football fan is about seeing those moments in football when the club you didn’t think were going to do something suddenly performs well, when Leicester win, 97th-minute equalisers, and I think there’s an additional factor. We’ve been in a pandemic for 14 months, fans have seen lower-league clubs really struggling. I’ve been to see lots of lower-league clubs in the last 12-14 months; without the fans, they are struggling to survive, and I think all fans would say at the very moment we came together as a nation through the pandemic, we wanted the football family to come together, and the idea of a cartel breaking away at this point is contrary to the whole spirit of the pandemic [situation].
“What we want is much greater say for the fans, much greater degree over the control of clubs but also, alongside that, we need to be much more supportive of grassroots football and lower-league football. I’ve been to Stevenage, Accrington [Stanley], lots of clubs around the country, they have really struggled in this pandemic. We need to bridge them through, to make sure they can survive into the future, because if these clubs go down it’s not just a football club that goes down, it is parts of the community that go down. Look what happened with Bury. This is more than just a football club, it is a part of a local community.
“I think we’ve been on a slippery slope. I’m afraid the Premier League, Uefa, and the government have to take some responsibility for that. That is all contributing to this being a watershed moment, and it needs to be a watershed moment in the positive sense, that fans and others rise up against it to stop it.”
Is it, in essence, about upending the priorities of football?
“Absolutely, and taking the game back to its roots, as to what it really is, a simple game accessible to everybody. That’s the great attraction of football across the world. It’s an uncomplicated simple game accessible to everybody and the mood today, it’s been a slippery slope for a number of years, and this move takes it so far from the very idea of football as that simple game accessible to everybody.”
Starmer would back long-argued plans for an independent regulator of the game.
“This is interesting because a number of prominent Tories think the same as well,” he said. “We should look at an independent regulator. I think this calls for government to put the ideas forward in a proposal or legislation and let us all look at it, because this may be one of those areas where there is consensus across political parties which would be a good thing for the sport.”
Starmer went further and insisted all parties will back the government to act, such is the strength of feeling. It is understood Boris Johnson told the Premier League on Tuesday that he wants to drop “a legislative bomb” on the plan.
“I would be open to different models, and would look at any models that the government puts forward but if it has to be legislation then it has to be legislation,” Starmer added.
“The government is talking a good game, it has the power to bring forward legislation, and it now knows the other parties would almost certainly support it so the government has within its power to do something. The question is whether it will do that.
“They’ve got a majority, they’ve got support from other parties including ours, if they need to do something, there’s no excuse for not doing something, given the level of support.”
The time has come, then, and action may go a lot deeper than blocking a super league.
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