Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Is this government capable of delivering football’s new independent regulator successfully?

Posted on 29 April 2022 by Nat Hayward

Late April 2021, early evening, West London.

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A powder keg of feeling outside Stamford Bridge as Chelsea fans unite in their droves to protest the proposed European Super League before their game against Brighton.

The threat of losing football as they knew it had bought people together. They had lost the chance to watch their team in person for so long, they would not lose the essence of the game they love without kicking up a fuss.

Petr Cech pleaded with the crowd to let the team bus through as emotions reached boiling point.

Then, the news filtered through. Chelsea were jumping ship.

As other clubs followed suit in the coming days the jubilant celebrations on Fulham Road reverberated around the country.

This was a victory for fans. Billionaire owners of the ‘big six’ were forced into groveling apologies and promises of better communication and fan representation. This was a turning point in the way football is governed in this country. This could never happen again.

A year on and the independent regulator so many in the game have called for is going to become a reality as the central idea of the, now government approved, ten-point plan in Tracey Crouch’s fan led review.

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However, what was supposed to close the chapter on wildly irresponsible, out of touch and unregulated owners in English football has instead opened an entirely new book of ambiguity and uncertainty.

This is primarily a result of the proposed timeline – or lack thereof.

This regulator will be bough into law ‘before the next general election’ in 2024, bringing a vagueness Crouch herself has labelled ‘worrying’.

Then you have the logistical questions – Who makes up the independent regulator? Who are they answerable to? Where will the buck really stop?

The fact the answers to these questions, the control of the timeline, and the success of this potential ‘sea-change in the governance of English football’, lie in the hands of the British government does not exactly elicit complete confidence.

This is a body where transparency has just recently been proven scarce and self-interest and egocentricity runs amok.

A man who knows the difficulties of managing a sport nationwide better than anyone is Ed Warner – former chair of UK Athletics and prominent figure in England’s financial industry.

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He voiced his concerns to me when Tracey Crouch’s proposals were first made public.

“My view is that no independent regulator is independent of government because if you look at the way they’re set up, almost invariably civil servants get involved in the selection process of the leadership.

“Board members have to be vetted, so who is doing that? It’s not the sport. And it shouldn’t be the sport because it’s supposed to be independent of the sport.

“Politicians are playing with football right now. It will have to go through parliament so from the very off it becomes political. I don’t think politicians will ever back off football because it is so ingrained in the national culture and deemed to be a vote winner.”

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Ed is right of course. Tony Blair claimed he watched Jackie Milburn playing for Newcastle despite not being born when Milburn retired. David Cameron got himself in a muddle confusing Aston Villa and West Ham.

“They aren’t genuine football fans; they fall over themselves.”

The proposed regulator, despite the positive step of having the power to intervene when a club is being financially mismanaged by owners, is not going to be responsible for a fairer redistribution of money down the football pyramid.

That responsibility lies with English football itself. The same English football whose top club’s top dogs alienated the entirety of the rest of the pyramid just a year ago.

When you look beneath the surface of these well intended proposals, you begin to question who you trust to oversee them. Or, perhaps, if it will actually provide the answers football needs.

Warner said: “I’m no fan of the independent regulator approach, because regulators that I see in other industries create bureaucracy, they are ponderous and it’s a financial burden on someone. That has to be the sport in this instance.

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“The one thing that clearly football needs is the financial regulations to be adhered to and fairness when it comes to imposing penalties for those that break the rules. If you could constrain the independent regulators to sticking to the financial fair play rules, whatever they might be? Yeah. I think I can live with that. But there’s really no reason, in theory, why the leagues, and the FA couldn’t do that themselves if they were just organised better.”

A lot of questions remain to be answered before the white paper is presented next summer. It would be a brave person to bet against attempts at self-anointed change before then.

The principles of the fan led review are noble, but clarity and firmness will need to take centre stage if there will be any success in controlling the juggernaut that is English football.