Two years ago, on 28th August 2019, my local football club Bury FC were expelled from the Football League. Founded in 1885, and having played at Gigg Lane ever since, it saw off two world wars, 26 different Prime Ministers, but couldn’t survive two bad owners and a completely broken funding and governance system.
This fact is noted in Tracey Crouch’s new Fan-Led Review of Football Governance, published last week. Indeed, Bury’s story is central to the existence of the review in the first place: it was the collapse of Bury that led to it becoming a Conservative Party manifesto commitment in 2019.
Fans have been calling for changes to the way that football is governed for years. Clubs in the English Football League have lurched from crisis to crisis, with self-regulation seemingly powerless to intervene. The review’s landmark proposals include a new independent regulator for football, a complete reformation of the so-called fit-and-proper-person’s test that didn’t stop the likes of Steve Dale being eligible to buy Bury for a pound, and a transfer tax for Premier League clubs to ensure adequate funding for the rest of the football pyramid.
These are all eminently sensible suggestions that would do much to help re-balance the sport, and claw back money and power from those who have centralised football’s riches to the detriment of every other football club in England. As such, the backlash from the Premier League has been predictably short and swift. Richard Masters says that the EFL’s request for more broadcast revenue would be “a disaster”. Karren Brady likens the introduction of an independent regulator to something that would happen in North Korea. Sticking with the theme, Leeds United’s Angus Kinnear says that such a move would be akin to Mao's Great Leap Forward. Steve Parish, meanwhile, has suggested that Bury’s demise is an exception that proves the football industry is being run well. League One revenues are similar to Scottish Premiership ones, he says, so where is the problem?
At this point, it is worth reminding ourselves of some of the figures involved. As per Fair Game, a group of football clubs focused on governance reform, a Premier League club receives £55m as a parachute payment upon relegation. By comparison, that’s more than is given to all 24 League One clubs, all 24 League Two clubs, the 12 FA Women’s Super League clubs, the 12 FA Women’s Championship clubs, and the 72 clubs that make up the National League, National League North, and National League South. It would take quite some argument to suggest that this is a good thing for the English game, especially with the role that these clubs play in developing talent for the Premier League in the first place.
Steve Parish is correct in one thing: football is a business. But suggesting that it is a good one is nothing short of ludicrous. Revenues mean nothing if the losses being incurred by football league clubs are completely unsustainable. Take Derby County, forced into administration with £83m of debts. Bolton Wanderers, saved from expulsion at the same time as Bury over a £1.2m unpaid tax bill. Wigan Athletic, rescued from their own administration proceedings earlier this year. And those are just the former Premier League clubs that have had to go through last resort proceedings in the past two years alone. Fans of Rochdale, Oldham, Macclesfield, Charlton, Coventry City, and many more have had to fight their own battles to protect the heart and soul of their towns.
For this is what people like Kinnear, Masters, and Parish may not understand. For towns like Bury, a football club is not the plaything of millionaires, or a cash cow for shareholders to generate returns from. Instead, it is the centre of your community. It’s what keeps the local pubs open. It’s what puts your town on the map. It is the one place where, on a Saturday afternoon, it doesn’t matter who you are, what you do, or where you’re from. It used to be churches where people used to have their weekly gatherings. Now, in towns like mine, football stadiums serve that purpose.
What is being proposed here is not some sort of sweeping societal reform that will change capitalism as we know it. It is the introduction of sector-specific regulations to protect assets of significant community value from being destroyed. Football clubs, and sports clubs in general, are more than the sum of their parts, so it is only natural that they have protections in place that other enterprises do not. If you don’t understand that, you probably shouldn’t be involved in the business of football.
This sense of shared belonging isn’t exclusive to lower league clubs. But it is, perhaps, reflective of a game that has lost its sense of purpose at the upper echelons of the sport. It was only fan power that stopped the European Super League from decimating the Premier League. Now, we must do the same for every other football club across the country.
The same visceral anger that we saw from fans - and executives of the fourteen Premier League clubs that would have been cut adrift - is how clubs outside the Premier League have felt for decades. The sense of unfairness. The worries about finances. If you’re a fan of a Premier League club who feels that the proposals might negatively affect your team’s chances of success, it is worth remembering what might happen if you leave the Premier League by the exit door: coming back up, even with parachute payments, is never guaranteed. Fans of Bolton, Oldham Athletic, and Sunderland know the consequences of that only too well.
Over the next few months, the Premier League and their member clubs will do everything they can to dilute the recommendations of this review to have as little impact as possible. It is up to us fans now to help see these recommendations through and try and ensure a fighting chance for the future of the sport that we all love. Football in this country has been broken for far too long, and this is the best chance in a generation to try and fix it. If we fail, expect to see many more clubs like Bury in the future.