Clubs In Crisis
Nobody wins unless everybody wins...
www.ClubsInCrisis.com 13 April 2009 - 16:36
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All just a little bit of history repeating...

By Dave Boyle

The first division are getting ready to blackmail their smaller brethren for a greater share of the cash and the power. The rest are fearful of the consequences of caving in, and of standing up. This was 1985, and the Premiership was just around the corner. They caved in and got rid of gate sharing, so ending the historic revenue redistributing mechanism and it was a hop, skip and a jump to the Premiership in 1992.

Fast forward to 2002 and the same events are being played out. Like Marx said, history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. And what a farce it is.

It's a dark time for football. ITV Digital's collapse has left gaping holes in club budgets and many of these holes are beneath the waterline. Is the domino rally of clubs going under about to start? Already in Italy, Fiorentina have gone and yet three years ago they were playing in the Champions League at Wembley.

About 3 months ago, I would have found the loss of a club sad in an very emotional sense. But subsequently, I've become less and less bothered. To coin a phrase, I've seen the future, and it works. At Cheshunt United's ground on August 12th, one-year old Enfield Town played two month's old AFC Wimbledon for the Supporters Direct Trust Cup and were proof that there's life beyond the old certainties and that the game isn't kicking and screaming its way to an implosion.

The debate prompted by the loss of the Football League's Court case against Carlton and Granada has been dominated by those calling for increasing commercialism. Those voices have already demanded and got the head of David Burns, the League Chief Executive, who was one of the few men in the game who had an open mind on new ideas and was receptive to supporter involvement in the game.

The young turks, in the form of Crystal Palace's Simon Jordan and Theo Paphitis of Millwall, don't seem to agree with his ideas. They want more commercial people in his stead, which would be like throwing water on a burning chip pan in this climate. They look at the Premiership, and see ludicrous hype as the thing that gives it its popularity, rather than the simple fact that it is the top flight of football which will always carry greater interest.

Their flawed analysis tells them that similar crazy hype might do it for them. To their number we can add Racing driver-cum-Chairman John Batchelor, who, fresh from renaming his club 'York City Soccer Club' argued that football needed to get rid of offside and abolish draws. These people will run straight into the arms of marketing consultants who think football should learn from the WWF spandex strutters at which point, the lunatics really will have taken over the asylum.

All the while, the Champions League grows fatter and fatter, and stretches the rubber band of domestic competitiveness to breaking point. And even though they see the problem, they can't do anything, acting like a driver careering down the hill not realising that there's a brake pedal. David Sheepshanks of Ipswich has said that football's problems stem from untrammelled greed. Yet will the governing bodies and the clubs push for a solution that fundamentally tackles this? The omens aren't positive as it involves getting to grips with the reality that football needs protection from competition law and company law, and instead needs a new framework that has proper regulation at its core.

We also have the players, who seemingly refuse to take action on this, either in the form of their union or as individuals. What union would sit by whilst other workers on 'normal' salaries and less were sacked en masse to protect their ludicrous lifestyles? In football, a player's contract is sacrosanct whilst a secretary is expendable. Steven Gerrard is reported in lifestyle magazines as a serial purchaser of expensive shirts that he'll never wear, as he gets bored in the afternoon. In a courtroom, a player is alleged to have told people that he earns more in a day than they earn in weeks and that he could get them sacked. These revelations are no longer shocking; the truth is deeper than whether they were said or not, or whether Gerrard is as prolific a shirt shopper as the article stated. We feel that regardless of the actual truth, it fits a stereotype of what players have now become and confirms that there has been a divorce between players and supporters and we now exist on different planets.

The supporters too need of long hard look in the mirror. Fulham fans might just now be reconsidering whether they should have been more circumspect with Mohammed Al-Fayed after he's marched them off to Loftus Road and might not march them back to Craven Cottage. Northampton fans need to evaluate whether they want elusive and unlikely success or whether they're happy to take the money of a man who is a friend of Slobodan Milosevic and a business partner of Arkan. Tottenham fans need to realise that the demands to spend money to match Arsenal contain within a proviso; unless they provide the cash, that cash must come from somewhere, and it is likely that such cash will be spent without a concomitant level of power for the provider. Never again Alan Sugar? Maybe not. But never again the circumstances that lead to Alan Sugar? Memories are short, it seems.

How did it come to this? Was it in 1985 when gate-sharing was abolished thus ending any any sense of collectivity within football, reducing the 'integrity' of the pyramid to little more than platitudes and begrudging crumbs from the top-flight table. However, that in itself was a response to a wider situation where various clubs were threatening a break away. It was however the moment when 'big clubbism' became enshrined in regulations.

A wider social perspective is needed - the 80s were in full swing and the key players, such as Martin Edwards at Manchester United and David Dein at Arsenal were all Thatcherite men. What was happening was very similar to the wider transformation under the grocer's daughter. Economic Darwinism was killing industrial communities, so why shouldn't this ill wind have run through the game?

There was the lack of self-confidence by administrators in the early 80s. The patrician school at the FA was challenged by the new heroes of the age. In the League, the dictatorial style of Alan Hardaker caused resentment. In the face of these people relying on institutional and organisational inertia, the self-made men exuded a confidence that steamrollered the old school.

This was compounded by appalling mistakes; ITV's concentration on showing games involving the so-called 'big five' fed resentment in the rest of the top division that helped Sky win the deal for the Premiership. The FA aiding the breakaway of the Premiership from the Football League to try and decisively slay its old foe in Lytham St Annes was a green light for the untrammelled greed that Sheepshanks refers too.

The Football Trust failed to attach any criteria to the post-Hillsborough loans for ground improvements, and the Tory government of the time wasn't interested in football. As a result, the only legacy of the Taylor Report into that tragedy was all seater stadia, which appealed to their fundamental dislike of a terrace culture, representing as it did the fearful and uncontrollable urban masses. The government certainly weren't interested in promoting a full examination of the game that Taylor recommended, and neither was football given the role of many within the game in creating the culture and climate of neglect for stadia maintenance and disdain for the supporters who used them.

And what now? There's talk of realism, which would be a solid base from which to proceed. But will it happen? Players aren't up for realism, still less club owners, especially at the higher level. Supporters too need to show that realism, and whilst many thankfully grasp it, many don't.

Can football be reformed? At all levels, the game is beset by vested interests who refuse to take action to transfer power to new places - to supporters at the clubs, and to central bodies who can regulate in the wider interest. UEFA are more interested in powerplays to maintain the relevance of an association founded by nations in an age of clubs and players. The less said about FIFA, the better.

But what's the alternative? Is there a better way than handing over more power to the larger clubs? Is the solution to further commercialise the game and finish the job started in 1980s? There is hope for the future and as they say, it's always darkest before the dawn.

The starting point is the game itself. There's a problem with the language used to describe the crisis. Predictions talk of the clubs that might go under when it is the company that will go under. The club can't be killed as it's an institution that exists in the form of collective understanding, memories and friendships which can't be wound up or placed in receivership.

The clubs that all 'disappeared' in some sense over the past 40 years are all still there - Accrington Stanley, Bradford PA, Maidstone, Dartford, Newport County and Aldershot have been re-formed by supporters. That's because the wellspring for such institutions is the love of the people in that area for football and for a team from that area to play the game. The only way to truly kill football is to stop people liking it.

Football is a communal experience and is needed more than ever. Anything that brings a million people each week into contact with others to share a collective experience is precious indeed in an age of increasing individualism, where families are geographically more widespread and social interaction becomes more and more attenuated.

The language dominating this debate gives no credence to this view, yet it's the basic starting point for any serious analysis of football. Instead, we are told that the solution is to hand yet more power to the people who brought us here in the first place, lest clubs and supporters fall into the abyss.

This is more a chimera than a chasm though, because the business case sees the club solely in terms of a business. But clubs aren't businesses in any meaningful sense beyond the basic requirement to spend less than they can afford. And few can manage even that. 'Football is a business' - the failed mantra shown to be a dangerous and damaging lie.

The first step has to be a reform of the conception of what a club is. That has implications for its structure and for its governance. The club needs to be run by its supporters for community benefit, not ending up on the rocks after being beguiled by the sirens' song of shareholder value and profit in a game which is chronically unable to deliver on either on a consistent basis, as the share price of floated plc clubs demonstrates.

There is a model available - the Industrial and Provident Society. Mutualism offers a way forward and since the birth of the government-backed Supporters Direct 2 years ago, 60 clubs have now got a Supporters' Trust. They can't be owned by an egomaniac or an asset stripper and can't turn a profit or dividend and are democratic and orientated towards their communities. It's a satisfying and potent mix.

A community owned club can work - witness Chesterfield and Lincoln. But at these places, they only get hold of the club as a poisoned chalice with massive debt run up by previous regimes. Imagine what they could do when things weren't in dire straits and magnanimous current owners put their money were their mouths where and actually did something for the good of the club, instead of just claiming to.

Will the professional game grasp the nettle? Will they reach out to their local community and their supporters? It gives the impression that it has swallowed its own hype and forgotten that it is a simple game we're talking about here. A magical game, for sure, and a meaningful and emotional game at that, but a game nonetheless. It's supposed to be fun, and football for many just isn't anymore, and doesn't look likely to become so any time soon.

Supporters predicting the disaster years ago were ridiculed at the time as dinosaurs but we can see who was right. The chickens have now come home to roost and yet those warnings, which should have been heeded at the time, are still marginalised. The income gap grows bigger and the platitudes louder and all involved give the impression of identifying with Nero as he gazed down on Rome in flames. The first division will blackmail the game out of existence and English football will die at the hands of a 1000 cuts.

For club-companies that don't survive, there's a heartening example of why it's not the end of the world. I've been privileged to witness the creation of both AFC Wimbledon and Enfield Town, where fans have broken away from the club they used to support and voluntary relegated themselves to preserve the club's they love. The supporters are realistic, but optimistic too. They're collectively owned by supporters through their Supporters Trusts and have a balance between volunteer labour and professional expertise. They have roots in their communities and wish to deepen those roots.

AFC Wimbledon and Enfield Town are different from the Aldershots and the Maidstones in that they have been formed despite 'their' clubs still existing. They left the company as a shell; as Jock Stein said, 'Football without supporters is nothing' and the relative gates of the old and new clubs is telling - 668 people were in the home end for Wimbledon FC Ltd's first game of the season, whereas AFC Wimbledon's had 4200 with hundreds locked out. Fans need clubs, but clubs needs fans too. There's no doubt which club is the real Wimbledon club or real Enfield club.

Starting again might sound defeatist - particularly fans wondering whether they'll finish the forthcoming season. But it's defeatist to fight a battle on terrain chosen by the opponent, on their terms and at their convenience. Supporters need to realise that they have within them the power to change things and to make a real difference. They need to push for control and ownership at their clubs and reform them from within. But they need to do it without fear and they should take heart from the Enfield and Wimbledon examples. The club is dead - long live the club.

The deepest conservatism is to believe that you are powerless and that there is no alternative. This has fostered a fear that has led to the rising income gap between leagues and between clubs. It's a fear that keeps smaller clubs in thrall to the giants, that renders administrators weak and vacillating, and keeps supporters in a state of near-terror. Reclaim the game? Rebuilding it would be better. Can the fans do it? They could hardly do any worse.

(c) Dave Boyle

Wednesday, 7th August 2002


Dave Boyle is Caseworker at Supporters Direct and Vice-Chair of the Football Supporters Federation and is writing in a personal capacity.

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