The success of English football is an achievement that should rightly be celebrated. Our clubs, across the top divisions, have been great generators of tourism, jobs, and local pride. The Premier League is often looked at as the international standard for topflight football and attracts more viewers and revenue than any of its international rivals. It demonstrates the best of the UK on the world stage.
There have, however, been the litany of issues that have plagued the footballing world of late. Poor governance, lacklustre industry self-regulation and poor incentives have left many clubs endangered, with growing numbers of organisations across the top five tiers at risk of financial failure. Indeed, our own Maidstone United Football Club has suffered the effects of failings in the national administration of the game, and I have been working with them to try and find a level playing field (excuse the pun) for many months.
Debt has been growing in all levels of the sport, with pre-tax losses across the Premier League and Championship totalling nearly £1.1bn in 2020/21, and net debt reaching a combined £5.9 billion. Other challenges have also threatened to derail the sport – the efforts to create a breakaway ‘Super League’ tarnished the reputations of, and trust in, many clubs.
It is abundantly clear that greater protection of the grassroots core of the sport is needed, and I was very pleased to be invited to join an illustrious group of individuals back in 2020 to initiate a serious lobby for change in the governance of the game in England. Members of the group included former England defender Gary Neville, former Chair of the FA David Bernstein, former governor of the Bank of England Lord Mervyn King and former Executive Director of the FA David Davies, among others. Our publication ‘Save the Beautiful Game – a manifesto for change’ was launched in October 2020, setting out the case and our recommendations.
Our proposals were taken seriously by Government, and the subsequent ‘Fan Led Review of football Governance’, that was chaired by my friend and neighbouring Kent colleague Tracy Crouch CBE MP.
Tracy’s ‘Fan Led Review’ report was published in November 2021, and the government has now set out measures in a White Paper, including proposals for a new Regulator, empowered to safeguard the interests of fans and local football communities. The paper contains many of my group’s original recommendations, so this is something of a red-letter day for us!
This Regulator will set out, and operate, a licencing system to ensure that all clubs operating professionally are licenced, and therefore meeting the relevant requirements for appropriate financial resources, management, conduct and fan engagement.
As part of this system, the regulator will properly scrutinise the ownership, management and wider corporate governance of professional clubs, ensuring that any changes to these are in the best interests of the club as a whole.
The regulator will also put fans at the heart of football. This will include implementing minimum standards for fan engagement, reinforced protection of club heritage, and fan consultation and approval for any sales or relocations of the club. It will also ensure that clubs are only able to compete in approved competitions, preventing future ‘super-league’ attempts.
There does appear, however, to be something of a glaring hole at the centre of the White Paper. The range of financial issues that need addressing are central to rebalancing the game and preserving the football pyramid. As it stands, it would seem that the Independent Regulator will only step in as a measure of last resort, if football cannot sort its own house out in this regard. I firmly believe the regulator should have a primary role in this area to avoid a dilution of authority. This is a point I raised with Sports minister Stuart Andrew in the Commons when the Paper was published on 23rd February, and I hope the issue is taken on board.
Across the piece, these changes will help to protect many of the grassroots clubs, like Maidstone United FC, in the best interests of players, investors, fans and communities, current and future. I will be talking with the owners of MUFC to gain their response to the white paper and seek to ensure the provisions eventually passed by Parliament will be effective and workable. Football is part of our national heritage, and I am very pleased to see the developments taken today.