white and blue soccer ball on green grass field during daytime
Photo by Daniel Norin on Unsplash

On Sunday 18th April 2021 a handful of Europe’s most powerful clubs sought to obliterate football’s current structure and replace it with a closed shop league in order to hoard even more of the game’s wealth.

The European Super League provoked such a furious response from supporters that, within 72 hours, the whole concept had fallen apart while the Government said it would launch the fan-led review of football governance (which was in their 2019 manifesto).

Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Spurs all pulled out of the ESL proposals as owners and chief executives scrambled to explain their involvement.

While the EFL has committed to this change the Premier League, having initially appeared willing to do anything to reign in the power of the breakaway clubs the status quo remains as the top clubs once again claim football will fix its own problems. It can’t and won’t.

Tracey Crouch MP was tasked with leading fan-led review and pulled together an expert panel which featured, amongst others, the FSA’s chief executive Kevin Miles. During the process 130+ supporters’ trusts and groups from across the game gave evidence.

While the review was “ownership neutral” in many senses its recommendations offer protections that come along with the FSA’s preferred model – supporter ownership.

There were detailed plans for a new independent regulator for English football (the snappily titled “IREF”) which would operate a licensing system for professional men’s football.

That means increased financial controls, as IREF would have a far more proactive approach towards intervening in crisis clubs, alongside a new owners’ and directors’ test for clubs to protect these important community and cultural assets.

Almost every club trades on the name of its town or city, its local community. Its behaviour affects that community financially and emotionally. If they go bust its local businesses who are often hardest hit while the damage to the supporter base is immeasurable.

The unique position football clubs hold in our national psyche – you can change your supermarket but not your club – means that anyone who wishes to own a football club should expect more scrutiny than other businesses, not less.

The review would also see better supporter engagement models, the protection of club heritage and redistribution of football’s wealth throughout the grassroots and the pyramid.

These are all positive steps that we’d expect supporter ownership to deliver but supporter ownership at the elite level is not a realistic goal while top-flight clubs are valued at as much as £5bn. So the review, and the resulting White Paper, is an effective workaround.

So how does the Government’s White Paper measure up to this?

We’re scrutinising the detail now but, as an initial assessment, the White Paper addresses our key concerns around protecting against bad ownership and breakaway competitions whilst seeking to distribute football’s wealth in a more equitable manner throughout the game. There are also progressive ideas on supporter engagement and new protections around heritage issues (stadiums, kit colours, club crests and so on).

Does the White Paper commit to every single thing the FSA wants? No. Will the Premier League’s club owners oppose it with all their might? Yes. That’s a good indication this is a step in the right direction.

The size of that step will be determined by legislative progress through Parliament in 2023.