Bury FC’s threatened expulsion from the EFL rumbles on and should haunt all fans.
While the headlines focus on the club’s woes, those who follow these things closely know the blame lies with owner Steve Dale, his predecessors, and the ineffective rules which failed to prevent this on-going catastrophe.
A football club is more than its owner but players, club staff and fans are being punished for the owner’s shortcomings and a large part of the blame lies with the football industry’s inability to get its act together.
Dale bought the club for £1 in December 2018 but it would be overstating the stability of the operation to describe it as being built on sand. Players unpaid, staff sacked, games cancelled, bizarre statements blaming everyone but himself.
By the EFL’s own admission he has never been able to show them that he has “sufficiency of funds” – yet the “fit and proper person” tests didn’t stop him buying the club. If that isn’t a sign that the tests are inadequate, then what is?
You don't have to go far to encounter more horror shows either. Travel six miles west and Bolton Wanderers fans have their own nightmarish tales of administration, unpaid tax bills and fixture cancellation. The club was relegated last season and starts life in League One on minus 12 points.
Coventry City’s stadium nightmare has been going on since 2013/14 – when the club was first forced to groundshare with Northampton Town – and despite five years back at the Ricoh Arena they’ve now been forced to groundshare again (this time with Birmingham City).
Fans of Blackpool, Charlton Athletic, Hull City, Leyton Orient, Morecambe, and Notts County have all been through the mill having fallen out with owners at various points in recent years.
These issues run right down through the pyramid, just look at Basingstoke Town where stadium owner Rafi Razzak is trying to sell the ground from under the club in a move which club chairman Terry Brown described as an eviction.
The need for better regulation isn’t just staring us in the face – it’s just done a two-footed tackle from behind on a rival striker and nutted the referee.
The Football Supporters’ Association has argued this case to the Premier League and EFL for years, but the problem is these are member organisations owned by the clubs (or the club owners) and they resist outside “interference” as owners see it. Or rules as fans see it.
The body who could be, no, should be the ruling regulatory force in this country is the FA. Yes, the national team is important, and county FAs do a lot of good work to keep grassroots football ticking over, but the FA should also be the overarching regulatory body who can protect our clubs.
It’s a role we’ve been lobbying them to take for some time, and we recently presented an extremely detailed policy paper to the FA board which outlines exactly how that can be done. This course of action even has Parliamentary support from many MPs.
Our proposals rest on two key principles:
- Football clubs are the biggest expression of community identity in our society and should be afforded levels of protection in keeping with listed buildings or conservation areas.
- Massive conflicts of interest exist within the game and they must be removed. Leagues are effectively private companies and self-regulation does not work. The not-for-profit FA should be the game’s regulator.
Focus is typically placed on the Owners and Directors test which although does need further improvements should not be considered the sole solution to crisis clubs.
We must also look to strengthen regulation around the ongoing stewardship of clubs, with an eye across all financial dealings, asset protection, heritage, and supporter engagement.
Our regulator’s aim must be prevention and education, but when everything fails and we find ourselves in a crisis situation such as we currently see at Bury then sanctions must be directed primarily at the owners and Directors.
Our proposals would significantly reduce the number of clubs in crisis and, crucially, help restore trust at the lower levels of the professional game where a handful of rogue owners overshadow the good work done by those who take a responsible approach.
We want those good owners to stand up and be counted alongside supporters when these proposals are debated by the football authorities – it’s in all our best interests.
Thanks to PA Images for the image used in this blog.