Football in the Digital Age – Chapter 5

5. Why football needs a regulator

Rogan Taylor

What are the prospects for a new regulator either inside or independent from the game of football? This is a question which has been increasingly raised as the deliberations of the government-appointed Football Task Force progress. The implication of the question is that there is a problem with the way in which the game is being regulated at the moment. This is a proposition which I, for one, would agree with, particularly following my experiences as a member of the Football Task Force.

Regulatory Paternalism – The FA’s First hundred Years

I think the problem at the beginning of any discussion about whether there should or shouldn’t be a regulator is that you have to decide both what the game is at the moment and what you want it to be in the future. We certainly know something about what the game was for the last hundred years or so. Though professional football has been almost entirely privately owned through limited companies throughout most of this century, that fact has made little difference to the kind of social, and perhaps even religious, hold that football has had on the hearts of a huge number of ordinary British people.

The problem for us in 2000 lies in the fact that the game is changing so fast. It is not what it once was and it has certainly not yet completed its current transformation into what it will become. After a decade of seemingly incessant restructuring, football has still not stabilised into the shape it is likely to hold even for the early part of the new century. It is difficult to make predictions, or policy, in such a fluid environment. Nevertheless, this should not mean that we, or more pertinently the football authorities, should shirk the responsibility of looking for policy solutions where obvious problems have manifested themselves.

In order to decide whether we need a regulator and what that regulator might do, I think we have to decide what we want from the game, what we think it is and what we think it should be. What place should football occupy in our national life in the next millennium? Football has been regulated for ‘the good of the game’ as a primarily sporting organisation, almost from its inception by the FA. Much has been wrong with the way the game was regulated by the FA, perhaps especially regarding the level of professionalism and competence employed. But I think there is one thing that we can say for the much-criticised ‘blazers’ of Lancaster Gate. The ‘old buffers’ were also real buffers; they did protect and defend this game. In the history of the development of professional football, under the regulation of the FA, you can see how the leftover ‘Corinthian’ vision of what the game ought to be about protected football from the outright predations of commercial business forces.

For example, right from the very beginnings of professionalisation and private ownership, strictures such as the FA Rule 34 (which deterred commercial asset-strippers) and restrictions on directors of football clubs drawing salaries or paying out dividends over a token amount were made in an attempt to ward off a kind of Americanisation of English football. The ‘franchise’ concept of sports clubs where there is very little relationship between clubs and the places they play was actively discouraged. The effect of the FA restrictions meant that football clubs were not seen in themselves as potentially profitable institutions. This in turn had the effect of immobilising them where they were born, giving them the chance to send down undisturbed and deep roots into their local communities. You could move the Brooklyn Dodgers from New York to California but who could contemplate moving Newcastle United to a more convenient location down south? I suspect that not enough people really recognise that it was this aristocratic, Corinthian vision of the game that (unintentionally) enabled it to play so significant a part in the lives of ordinary people. And this Corinthian vision did not fade within the FA for over a century after those ex-public schoolboys wrote the Rules of Association Football in 1863. You should remember that Sir Frederick Wall was playing for the Royal Engineers in the FA Cup in the 1880s, and he was still secretary of the FA in 1933. Almost a caricature of an upper-class English gent, Wall and his like ran the FA for its first 70 years. Even after Wall was succeeded by Stanley Rous, a very similar approach was adopted, if not quite so heavily moustachioed. These administrators might have been conservative and staid, but they did offer stability, and a commitment to prioritising sporting over commercial imperatives and the redistribution of income throughout the game.

Many people feel that the FA finally abandoned any last vestiges of this custodial role at the beginning of the 1990s, just one year after the Hillsborough disaster. The birth of the breakaway Premier League, encouraged secretly at first by the FA as part of its squabble over power with the Football League, was the first and most critical manifestation of this opting out. In an increasingly desperate attempt to ‘modernise’ (under a constant welter of criticism from the media for their poor management of the game), the FA, as a regulatory ‘buffer’, simply abandoned ship. At this point those traditional duties of care for the game seemed to drop down the agenda in terms of priorities. The real priorities were to secure the supremacy of the FA by, paradoxically (possibly fatally), promoting the powerful – the big clubs – into the pilot’s seat, via the Premier League. The failure of the FA to negotiate and manage their relationship with the Premier League – when they were in an all-powerful position as midwife at the birth of this new creature – was a crucial mistake. The FA Premier League (as it was first called) was allowed the full respectability of life under FA approval without any ‘caring’ responsibilities being required from what soon became the richest league in the world. Only recently – and under considerable pressure from other sources, including first the Football Task Force and now the government itself – has the Premier League agreed to send money back down the football pyramid to its roots.

Though the FA operated in a protective role for so long, I do not believe that this rather peculiar organisation demonstrated any great concern to involve supporters in the way they managed the game from 1863 onwards. The regulatory process was private. Even ‘respectable’, conservative fan associations were excluded. For example, the National Federation of Football Supporters Clubs (NatFed), formed in the late 1920s, was an extremely respectable organisation representing many of the supporters’ clubs who contributed so much to the game through running lotteries and other fundraising initiatives at football clubs, generating the cash to build and roof the popular ends of grounds all over the country. The members of these fan groups and their dedication are the major reason why we still have 92 professional clubs in this country. Many of the 92 have only survived through private and public benevolence: of organised supporters and of local individuals. (The same can still be the case today as we have seen at Northampton Town where a supporters’ trust was instrumental in saving the club from bankruptcy in 1992.)1 Yet, extraordinarily, the FA’s regulatory process did not even allow an organisation as respectable as NatFed inside the doors of its Lancaster Gate headquarters until well into the 1970s when the game had become mired in the hooligan crisis. There were a few informal meetings, inevitably off-the-record, but the FA did not officially meet these eminently respectable, be-suited, representatives of the supporters’ groups (despite their often looking more like the directors of small football clubs than real football fans) until nearly 50 years after the organisation was formed. So there was never any question that the vast mass of football fans (in the 1948–49 season there were 42 million attendances at League games alone) were ever properly represented at any level in the game’s administration.

The FA’s Regulation Opt-Out

Now, with the FA’s opt-out, there is a double vacuum at the heart of football’s administration. There is the vacuum that was always there: the absence of representatives of fans with any serious input into policy-making in the game. And there is a second vacuum where once the regulatory body, the FA, did some regulating in the interests of the game as a whole, however paternalistically this operated in practice. Suddenly, a decade ago, this role was substantially abandoned. To many, the FA does not appear to be entirely neutral any more in the way it uses its power. This is, of course, anathema to the principles of regulation of which the cardinal rule is neutrality in the application of power and influence. Clearly there are now some favoured parties – one in particular. The current restructuring (‘modernising’) of the FA will represent an even greater capitulation to the Premier League who (it is rumoured) want a complete veto over any regulations the FA enacts which might affect the way they run their affairs.

To these prospects must be added the fact that there has been a kind of stage-two privatisation in the game in the 1990s; the result of a number of processes which gathered speed during the previous decade. One of these was a change in the type of owner of football clubs. During the 1980s, men like Irving Scholar at Spurs, modern ‘entrepreneurs’ in a changing economy under Mrs Thatcher’s government, began to view football clubs in a different light from more traditional owners (who had often made their fortunes locally in more traditional industries). The move onto the stockmarket by many clubs in the 1990s confirms this shift in vision towards a profit-orientated ownership. There is an additional danger now which threatens the traditional relationships between fans and their clubs. Local supporters (and for a club like Manchester United that means within the UK) are becoming even more marginalised from the core agenda of England’s leading clubs. For the balance of power of the established interests in the game is shifting from administrative organisations to the big clubs, and the focus of the latter is shifting from the local to the global. This is exemplified by Manchester United’s decision to opt out of the FA Cup to go to the World Club championship in Brazil. I believe the extent to which this was a straightforward commercial decision by United has been obscured by the FA’s self-destructive decision to support it. Consequently, the decision has been cloaked and disguised – wrapped up in the Union Jack – by the FA’s insistence that it was part of the wider campaign to have the 2006 World Cup held in England. I think that United’s decision would have been the same regardless of any World Cup bid. Critically, Manchester United’s duty to their institutional shareholders requires them to prioritise global markets over local ones.

When one remembers that a football club is an odd kind of monopoly supplier of a product which some people just have to buy – almost like an essential service – the ownership of clubs is an important public affair. Despite decades of television exposure of the big, glamorous clubs, most fans’ choice of club is still largely based on family or local affinity – blood and soil – and once chosen you stick with it for life. These factors alone produce quite a strong argument for some form of independent regulation if the traditional, ‘neutral’ regulator has abandoned that role.

My experience as a member of the Football Task Force has only added strength to this belief. The actions and words of some of those who represent the Premier League, and to a lesser extent the FA, have given the impression that they do not think there are any problems in the game at all, bar a few minor matters which they can take care of. Their complacency is almost tangible. It is as if they cannot work out quite why the Minister for Culture, Media and Sport has bothered to set up a group like the Football Task Force. Until July 1999, at no point in our lengthy deliberations had any positive suggestions been made about how the Task Force might address the most difficult problems that the Minister had raised as serious concerns.

For example, every suggestion various members have made about tackling the problem of exclusion has been met with the insistence that the FA and the Premier League have done all they possibly can on this issue and there really is nothing else they can do about it. It is as if the fact that supporters are being priced out of grounds because of the rapid increase in match-day ticket prices – priced out of a game that they may have spent 40 or 50 years supporting – is an unassailable process. If they believe this, they should say so explicitly. Up until July 1999, they had made no serious attempts to solve these kinds of problems – or even at least to alleviate some of their worst effects – despite their presence on the Task Force agenda. The subtext of their contributions read: ‘Football’s fine and dandy. There are rising gates, massive media exposure, the financial turnover of clubs is exploding. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it!’ They think the game is so healthy it does not matter if some of the old ‘core’ support misses out.

Finally, in late July 1999, the Premier League and FA did make a submission to the Task Force which did involve some promising proposals including the setting up of an independent scrutiny panel to examine vexed issues in the game whose appointees would be selected in consultation with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. While this proposal has some promise, until the final report of the Task Force appears there is no way of telling how committed either the Premier League or the FA is to such potentially radical reforms of the game’s administration.

The problem I have with this attitude of begrudgery to the need for reform – apart from its obvious injustice – is that I think football is a much more delicate plant than some representatives of the FA and the Premier League appear to believe. True, the game has survived some extraordinary crises despite being poorly managed in many respects from its inception by the FA and the Football League. (It might be said to have survived despite their stewardship rather than because of it.) For example, it has treated its paying customers, on average, abominably. It has presided over a game that has regularly killed its supporters, in significant numbers, in virtually every decade of this century except the 1990s. Yet, until very recently, the FA and the Football League never consulted those customers about any important decisions that they have taken throughout the twentieth century. And largely they have expected them to pay for the privilege of standing in death traps.

Nevertheless, the ability of football and its fans to survive that kind of battering points us toward the game’s current weakness in a rather odd, ironic way. Where did that strength to survive come from for most of this century? Even, in 1985, after 20 years of chronic hooliganism and disasters which took the lives of hundreds of football fans, there were still 16.5 million attendances in the season after Heysel. That figure is an amazing tribute to the power and depth of fans’ relations with the game.

But did that fantastic hardness and fastness of supporters’ connections to football and their clubs – that cultural diamond at the heart of the game – did it have anything to do with the kind of people who attended games? ‘The Labour Party at prayer’ was one eloquent description of traditional football crowds. (The Old Labour Party at prayer as opposed to New Labour!) Did it have anything to do with the sense of place and ownership that those people and their communities had, and felt, for their football clubs? I think that it did. But now it seems that the newer type of football fans that the game seems so keen to attract will not demonstrate the same kind of diehard commitment that the old ones did.2 What worries me is not the arrival at grounds of the kind of people who did not attend football matches before, and who might not attend in the future, but the systematic exclusion of many who represent the communities that have sustained the game for so many years. Not only is this not fair, but it is not good business either. It looks like a very short-sighted pursuit of short-term advantage to target higher-spending fans whose loyalty may be fickle, over more traditional lower-income fans who will stick with you forever if you maintain strong links with them. If we want a game that remains in touch with a broad swathe of the British public, it seems like some form of independent regulation may be the only way to persuade football to do itself a favour.

What role for a regulator?

That said, I think the running of some kind of independent regulatory régime is not unproblematic. A host of questions regarding how such a body would be funded, what would be its remit, its relationship with other football bodies; all these questions remain to be answered. But one thing is clear from a scrutiny of the game’s history. The players and the mass of fans were traditionally always the last in line when football’s governing bodies were drawing up their list of priorities for action. At least for the players, in recent years, matters appear to have improved significantly on this score. It is well past the time when the game should be properly involving its fans.

In Liverpool the cry for ‘justice’ for supporters in football is most often associated with the cause of the families of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster. While a discussion of the consequences of Hillsborough is outside the scope of this chapter, I must say I do believe that these families deserve a justice they have yet to receive. But I would also like to remind you of the other half a million fans who were out at matches that fateful Saturday afternoon, 15 April 1989, stuffed into other football grounds throughout the country which we now know could easily have hosted similar horrors. What about justice for them? Those fans also deserve some justice, at the very least to have someone to look out for their interests in this period of traumatic change. There is a case for the establishment of some independent ombudsman – the ‘ombudsfan’ – to whom they can take their grievances. It was Hillsborough and the consequent Taylor Report which persuaded the government that public money must be drafted in alongside private money to reconstruct the game. This government intervention was a core building block on which football’s recovery in the 1990s was based. It was imposed by external regulation and it paved the way for football’s renaissance.