Like so many government initiatives, it is hard to put too much faith in Tracey Crouch’s fan-led review of football governance. Most of the problems in the game detailed in the 162-page document are obvious. The solutions are more opaque.
The main recommendation by the Conservative MP for Chatham and Aylesford and her 10-person panel of experts is that Parliament passes legislation to create an Independent Regulator for English Football (IREF). To do this would require strong political will.
Organisations like the Football Supporters’ Association have come out strongly in favour of the ideas expressed in the report. The English Football League believes that the sections discussing the redistribution of wealth send out positive signals. Other organisations are less impressed.
This month the Football Association proposed to the Premier League and the EFL that the ruling bodies co-sign a letter saying that an independent regulator was not necessary and that the sport could get its own house in order. The EFL refused because the FA appeared to have no coherent policy on a fairer dispersal of cash across the pyramid. The Premier League jealously guards its power and can be expected to lobby ferociously against any legal restraints.
The review says explicitly that it “considered carefully whether the Review or IREF itself should directly intervene on the question of financial distributions.” The answer is not as committed to change as most observers might have hoped. “On balance…” the document continues, “… it would be preferable that this should be left to the football authorities to resolve. However, given the poor history of the industry reaching agreement, IREF should be given backstop powers that can be used if no solution is found.”
The government has had enough trouble with backstops over the past four years. The insertion of the word does not generate confidence.
Nor does some of the feedback from those within the game who participated in the conversations with Crouch and her team. There seemed to be little grasp of issues like whether top-flight clubs should be allowed to sell their overseas TV rights individually – one of the fault lines between the so-called Big Six and the rest of the division – and the possibility of the Championship becoming Premier League 2. There are no stupid questions but just this week the prime minister Boris Johnson and Nadine Dorries, the secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, have shown a remarkable capacity for being unprepared and not understanding their brief. Some came away from their dialogue with Crouch with an uneasy feeling.
The document makes no reference to the impact of the Gulf-state ownership of Manchester City and Newcastle United. Point one in the introduction refers to the European Super League as “an existential threat” to the game but the catalyst for the failed breakaway competition was the fear of Abu Dhabi’s use of City as a sporting arm of the Emirate and Qatar’s spending on Paris Saint-Germain. The artificial inbalance of resources is as much a philosophical danger as any new league.
It was the backlash to the Super League that hastened the review, which was originally promised in the Conservative election manifesto two years ago. Big questions remain about Downing Street’s involvement in the controversy, however. Ed Woodward visited No 10 mere days before the Super League plans were made public and the Manchester United executive vice-chairman is said to have left under the impression that the prime minister was in favour of the venture. Johnson, who has a record of playing both sides until he gets an indication about which way to jump – he wrote for and against Brexit columns before making a last-minute decision to plump for leave – later billed himself as the man who killed the “cartel” of superclubs. Putting too much trust in anything created by this regime is a dangerous business.
A number of senior figures in the game – even those who are broadly in favour of the review – believe that the political impetus will stall before the regulator is enshrined in law. If it does, it will be a shame. There are many good suggestions within the document.
But in the end, the biggest issue in the sport comes down to money. The lessons of history tell us that Tories are not naturally sympathetic to supporters. They have even less interest in taking from the rich and giving to the poor.
The warning is clear, though. Football needs to sort itself out. That is the one point everyone can agree with.