On 26th of September 1860, Sheffield FC faced Hallam FC at Sandygate Road, just outside of the City. Formed five years before by members of the local cricket club, Sheffield FC had been joined earlier in the year by Hallam FC, and on a cold Boxing Day the first and second-oldest football clubs in the World met for the first time. Thus club football – and with it, a festive tradition – was born.
157 years on, the game played on the pitch in packed stadiums and local grounds across the country this 26th of December would be still be recognisable to those players.
Off the pitch, it’s a different story.
Last year, the Premier League alone had revenues of almost £5bn, with a further £556m from the Championship. Football is big business – a frenzied market in which clubs, players and stadia change hands for hundreds of millions of pounds, and in which fortunes can be made or broken in a 90 minute relegation dogfight.
But beyond the romance and theatre, and there’s a dark side. From the glamorous heights of the Premier League to local clubs lower down the leagues, English football is littered with tales of mismanagement and naked greed. Broken promises to communities by owners who make off with the football ground itself, never to be seen again. Of profits pocketed, tax bills avoided, and clubs at the heart of communities for generations consigned to the history books.
For years, Blackpool FC was owned by the Oyston family, with Owen Oyston and his son accused by fans of chronic under-investment, and for helping themselves to salaries of £11m, the highest amount ever awarded to a football director. Last month a high court judgement found them to have carried out an “illegitimate stripping” of Blackpool FC, having taken a total of £26.77m out of the club to companies they owned. The Judgement went on to describe them as having used the Club as a ‘personal cash machine’ – a cash machine built, lest we forget, on the backs of a community that is consistently ranked among the poorest in the country.
There’s a better way.
Since being established with Co-operative Party support in 2000, Supporters Direct has created a network of over 50 community-owned clubs and raised more than £50 million to be reinvested back into clubs and their communities. Supporters Direct requires each club to give members a minimum of 50% +1 of the voting rights of the club, working on a one-member one-vote principle. In these clubs, profits are reinvested and redistributed, rather than extracted by owners and shareholders.
Sportswear firm SKINS have joined Supporters Direct in their efforts to reform of English football. Together, they launched the Fans Not Numbers campaign, creating a national platform for dissatisfied fans to come together in ‘re-shaping football’s future.’ The campaign culminated in the development of a set of Recommendations for the Regulatory Reform of English Football, calling for:
- The creation of an independent body to regulate clubs
- A new club licensing system with the power to sanction non-compliant clubs
- A review of current governing body rulebooks to correct for new obstacles faced by the modern game.
if the Government chooses to lend its support, Supporters Direct are confident that their recommendations can “change football for good.”
Too often, demands for change have fallen on deaf ears as unscrupulous owners continue to exploit the sport’s millions of fans. The FA itself has allowed for the moral collapse of football clubs by giving too much power to owners, preventing the regulatory body from properly overseeing the game. Changes to club ownership, financing, and facility protection can only be made if large majorities of club owners support them. But, then – why would they?
If owners refuse to be held accountable for their failings, fans must rally together to demand fundamental changes in the structure of the FA, restoring regulatory power to the organisation – and that’s what exactly what Supporters Direct and the wider movement of co-operatively-run fans trusts are working to do.