On Tuesday 2nd October, four members of the BST committee attended a Conservative Party Conference fringe event in Birmingham. Here is our report back.
"Who's in charge? Regulating English football for the good of the game" was the topic of the meeting organised by ResPublica, (an independent public policy think tank and lobbying group) in partnership with Supporters' Direct.
On the panel were:
Tom Greatrex - Chair of the meeting and Chair of Supporters Direct
Damian Collins MP - Chair of the DCMS Select Committee
Nick Vaughan - Senior Public Affairs Manager at the FA
Jaimie Fuller - Executive Chairman of Skins
Nicola Palios - Vice Chair of Tranmere Rovers
The EFL had been offered a seat on the panel but declined.
The attendees were mainly football supporters who were either attending the conference or were there specifically to represent a supporters' trust. It was good to meet up with fellow supporters from Coventry City, Leyton Orient, Reading and Torquay, to name a few.
The discussion was centred around the way football is governed, who is actually in charge and who represents the supporters when the owners of a club do not follow the generally accepted rules of football club ownership.
Nick Vaughan deserves some credit for attending what could have been a very hostile meeting from his perspective. He acknowledged that there were issues within the game, citing recent problems at Tranmere and Coventry (no mention of Blackpool FC and it seems likely that he was not very well informed about our situation prior to this meeting) but he was keen to stress the many success stories within English football and the steps which the FA has already put in place to engage with supporters and to bring football clubs into line. The FA has full governance responsibility for the lower tiers of the football pyramid (i.e. below the EFL). The difficulty as he saw it was in trying to come up with a standard governance approach that would fit the hugely divergent array of club structures and management practices within all of the tiers of the game.
Nicola Palios, who along with husband Mark owns 98% of Tranmere Rovers, conceded that there isn't a one-size-fits-all solution to ensuring that owners run their clubs in an appropriate way but that was no reason not to tackle the key issues of poor custodianship. She said she could not understand why any club owners wouldn't want to engage with their fan base, as it makes perfect sense to do so. Fans appreciate being consulted and considered and are always willing to understand problems at a club as long as these are explained and the owners are open and honest. In her opinion a more subjective assessment of inappropriate behaviours ought to be possible and the FA or an equivalent body ought to be empowered to intervene in such situations.
Jaimie Fuller highlighted the Blackpool cause and stated that the situation at Blackpool is the worst in football. He was very vocal about the need for a licensing system, given that England is one of only five countries in UEFA which does not have an independent regulator of its football. External regulation works in other countries so there is no reason why it should not work here. He pointed out that every bit of money that comes into the game comes from fans - whether that be by ticket revenue, merchandise or TV subscriptions - yet it is the fans who are left out and ignored. Jamie also appealed to the politicians to take this issue on board. He believes a bi-partisan approach is required and that it would be a vote winner for whichever party takes some serious action on behalf of the twenty-six million football fans in this country rather than just talking about it.
Tom Greatex advised the meeting that Supporters Direct has co-ordinated discussions with Supporters Trusts (including BST) in the wake of the publication of recommendations from the Expert Working Group in 2016 and has formed a set of proposals to address the issues of football governance which it will be presenting to the FA at a consultation in November.
Damian Collins was sceptical about the ability of the FA to forcefully regulate anything in the sphere of good governance. He said that it was regrettable that they really do not have the power to bring the EPL and EFL into line, but because of the huge sums of money generated by the EPL, this is where the power truly lies. In effect, the tail wags the dog. He thought progress had been extremely slow since the original DCMS enquiry into such problems back in 2011 (which led to the setting up of the Expert Working Group) and could not envisage self-regulation ever being successful. He agreed with Jaimie Fuller that some sort of licensing system is required if the game is ever going to be properly regulated. He acknowledged that for this to happen, Government will need to get involved to create by statute a body equivalent to those that oversee compliance in such sectors as banking, broadcasting and the utilities.
BST was able to explain a little about the situation at Blackpool, about how both the EPL and the EFL had failed in their duty to effectively enforce their owners and directors criteria concerning Owen Oyston and why our predicament is very different to most clubs. The emphasis is usually on clubs which overspend and get into financial difficulties; there is nothing in place to deal with owners for whom the football club is just one of a spider’s-web of businesses and where monies generated within the football club get siphoned off into non-football purposes.
We asked the question: Who speaks for us, the fans? Who do we go to for help in resolving our issues? We made it clear that Blackpool FC, its supporters and its community have been let down by all of the football authorities. Self-regulation by the Leagues simply does not work and is totally dependent on the club owners agreeing to any changes. As things stand, football clubs are run for the benefit of owners, not the clubs themselves or the fans of those clubs.
There were various good comments from the floor, including words from Leyton Orient, Coventry City and Torquay as well as BST. It was gratifying that the Orient delegates acknowledged the support given to them by Blackpool fans during their recent troubles.
The BST team was able to speak with the panel after the meeting and we have established contacts and garnered support for our situation and for the governance issue as a whole.
Damian Collins and Nick Vaughan have both requested a copy of the ‘case study’ which was prepared by BST, based on the Blackpool problems and court judgment from last year. This had already been sent out earlier in the year to our formal contacts in the FA, EFL and DCMS as well as to various other interested parties as a tool to be used in tackling the key issues requiring regulatory reform. However, it is encouraging that we have now been able to discuss Blackpool’s issues and the case study initiative this with representatives of the FA and DCMS face to face and have established personal contact with people who are in a position to take action.
Nicola Palios is also a supportive individual, another good example of a football club owner with the right approach to club ownership. Along with people like Andy Holt at Accrington Stanley, it is BST's intention to encourage the good owners to become involved in the campaign for better governance as they are the people who set the standard and can be very influential in forcing the rogue owners to either shape up or ship out.