Listen up! Football governance matters and here's why...

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2012 could be a game-changer for football in England and Wales with the Government threatening legislation in Parliament if the professional game does not wake up to its problems regarding “governance”. In October the Government gave the game until February 29th 2012 to come up with the answers.

The joint response from the FA, Football League, and Premier League has now been delivered and, although they have declined to publish it, the Football Supporters’ Federation understands that it falls short of what is needed.

The FSF believes the FA should be the game’s undisputed governing body and protector. That has been its historic role and it is the role of FAs throughout the world. Yet our FA, the oldest and perhaps best known in world football, increasingly sees itself as an association of interests, happy to be lead by others, rather than the captain guiding the ship.

While these issues might seem abstract, dry, or even irrelevant to many fans they have very real consequences and the long-term health of football suffers as a result. At a time when football has more money than ever before, clubs are still going under at a terrifying rate with the latest fans to suffer being those at Port Vale. This should not be happening - football governance matters.

The House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee – an influential backbench group of MPs - launched its inquiry into football governance at the end of 2010 and published its report and recommendations in July 2011. Three months later the Government published its response. It agreed with the Select Committee that football needed to implement a club licensing system and create a modern, accountable, and representative FA Board. The FSF welcomed these recommendations.

Sports minister Hugh Robertson said that improvements had to be made in governance arrangements which had “failed to keep up with the changing pace of the modern game”. While the sports minister was clear he wanted football to fix its own problems, the implication was obvious. Sort it, or else…

A modern, accountable, and representative FA Board?

The Government’s preferred option was for the FA’s current 14-member Board to be cut to 10, including six independent directors. These people would have no vested interests within football. They would scrutinise the performance of the game from the park to the Premier League. They would see that long-term strategies for the good of the game are in place and discourage clubs and leagues from unnecessary financial risks.

However, this option has been rejected, only two independent non-executive directors sit on the Board, and power is becoming more concentrated. If the Government accepts football’s joint response – and the FSF hopes it does not – the Board will be even less accountable than ever.

At present the FA Board is, in theory at least, answerable to the 118-person FA Council. But the Board now wishes to cut the Council out of the loop when it comes to vital information without which Council members won’t be able to hold the Board to account.

This might sound a relatively trivial point to the 99.9% of fans who – quite understandably – don’t read about the FA’s internal politics for light-entertainment but it does have real world implications.

One small example - it was only from reading the minutes of a committee meeting that the fans’ representative on the FA Council found out the Premier League and Football League were opposed to having a supporter representative on, of all things, the Crowd Control Working Party. It was an illogical stance which the Football Regulatory Authority rightly overturned but it shows the importance of our representative having access to key information.

While the media often caricatures  the FA Council as “blazers” they should play an important role in reigning in some of the professional game’s excesses. They often share many of the values that fans do – think stability over risk, tradition over money. Balance is important and sidelining these people, who often have great experience in the game, is not necessarily a good thing.

Second-class citizens

But it’s not just the FSF which opposes football’s joint response. According to The Daily Telegraph so too do the organisations representing referees, managers, players, minority-ethnic groups, and disability groups. These six groups are not part of either the “professional game” or the “national game” (i.e. amateur).

Remarkably the FA still treats fans, managers, players, and referees, as second class citizens when it comes to FA representation. While each “stakeholder” group has a representative on the FA Council they cannot propose anything to the Board, stand for the Board, vote for anyone on the Board, or have anyone representing their interests on the Board. Football is an industry that doesn’t properly engage its consumers (fans) or employees (players/referees/managers) – that is not a healthy situation.

But it's not just fans, players, referees, and managers who feel marginalised. So too does the Football Conference and levels below that. They do not have any representation on the Board, something which the Select Committee proposed to rectify, and it could stay that way which the FSF thinks is wrong. There’s more to the professional game than just the Premier League and Football League.

England must be one of the few countries, if not the only country, where fifth-tier games have been known to attract 10,000+ gates. English football’s roots go very deep and this deserves respect and representation. Sadly football’s joint response promises only further marginalisation which cannot be good for the long-term health of football at levels five and below.

Club licensing

As well as recommending greater engagement and accountability the Government also backed the idea of a club licensing system. Many of the game’s most serious problems during the last 20 years – think financial meltdown and dodgy owners – might have been avoided with a proper club licensing system in place.

Self-regulation is not enough, think of the recent problems with the Press Complaints Commission for an example of that. But the joint response from the FA, Football League, and Premier League proposes only the most minimal and basic form of license. The FA has a Membership Committee which would be the appropriate vehicle to implement a proper club licensing framework such as that outlined by Supporters Direct.

As well as ensuring financial and social responsibility SD’s preferred club license would balance the sporting, commercial and social objectives of clubs and seek to ensure that clubs and their assets are protected for future generations. It would also embed the requirement for greater supporter engagement and thus expand fans’ rights.

It is difficult to draw any conclusion other than that the FA, Football League, and Premier League still believe that it is business as usual. If these “reforms” were approved it would mean that clubs could continue regulating themselves and be answerable only to an enfeebled FA whose Board is made up of peers from within the professional game.

What could possibly go wrong?

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