The failed move by six of England’s biggest clubs to form part of a ‘European super league’ last week saw football supporters up and down the country treated with utter contempt. It rightly prompted a huge backlash that united the whole football community, as well as both sides of the House of Commons. But how did our national sport and its governing bodies end up being dragged through the mud by a group of ultra-rich football club owners?
We need to look back to 1990, when representatives of the then “big five” clubs Arsenal, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur met to propose a breakaway from the existing football league structure that would create more money for TV broadcasters. Two years later, the Premier League was formed, with Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Television winning the right to broadcast. The irony of this money grab in 1992 has not been lost on many this week, especially when some of the loudest voices against the ‘super league’ proposals came from within Sky Sports. Let us not forget that it was Sky Sports that tried to charge supporters £15 per game earlier this season until the pay-per-view plan was rightly scrapped.
The formation of the Premier League meant that the big clubs were able to free themselves from how they were traditionally governed. It meant that clubs could take on a much more profit-driven approach; leading to where we are today, where on-the-pitch success for the ‘big six’ often comes second to the growth of their ‘brand’ and commercial success. It has led to working-class people being priced out of their own game, players on obscene wages, pundits earning millions and extortionate TV subscription costs across numerous platforms.
What has happened to football since 1992 is a symptom of the Thatcherite climate of the era: it led to venture capitalists privatising any profit that comes from the biggest English football clubs. The Glazer family takeover of Manchester United in May 2005 is a prime example: the family removed the club’s public listing and forced supporters to sell their shares in the club, financed largely through acquisition debt.
It has been widely reported that Manchester United’s US-based Glazer family was the main driver behind the proposed ‘super league’, along with the current Real Madrid president Florentino Perez. Joel Glazer was even quoted on the original press release that stated the intentions of the 12 clubs involved to form the super league.
If due diligence had been done around the Glazer takeover by the FA, the Premier League and the government in 2005, via the fit and proper person test to take over a football club, perhaps the ‘super league’ would never have been proposed. Before the Glazers took over Manchester United, the club had no debts and were on a sound financial footing. In 2020 the club’s net debt stood at around £455.5m, yet the Glazer family continue to pocket huge dividends. How would this be allowed in any other walk of life?
Poor football governance is not exclusive to the ‘big six’. I represent thousands of Newcastle United fans in the Jarrow constituency who have seen a stagnation of their club under Mike Ashley. Ashley applies the same business model to his Sports Direct empire as he does his football club – one of minimalism and comparatively low spending. It is encouraging to see Newcastle United fans taking back control through the formation of the Newcastle United Supporters Trust, which encourages supporters to raise money through the Trust to one day be able to own part of the club.
Fenway Sports Group, which owns Liverpool FC, was also reported as being one of the ringleaders of the super league project. This is the same FSG that initially tried to use public money to furlough some of its lower-paid staff during the pandemic. A football club that pays one of its own players £200,000 a week tried to use government’s job retention scheme to cover the wages of its own hardworking retail and hospitality staff, and was only forced to backtrack when faced with public pressure.
The ownership model used by the likes of Mike Ashley, the Glazer family and the FSG is about private profit without any thought for solidarity with the wider game. The proposal of a new super league stunk of this attitude because it demeaned the longstanding football pyramid. Whilst many argue that the pyramid needs reform, it ensures that a proportion of money from clubs in the Premier League trickles down to lower teams and grassroots football, securing the future of the game. There would have been huge ramifications for the grassroots in this country if the six clubs had broken away from the Premier League.
It is no surprise that the Germany’s biggest clubs refused to get involved in this ‘super league’ nonsense. Football governance in Germany is based around the ‘50+1’ rule. In practice, a football club’s season ticket holders and members hold a 51% stake, with a ballot on any major changes needing a 51% majority for approval. The 50+1 model means that supporters can vote club investors out, allowing supporters to control their club democratically.
It has been encouraging to see Labour mayors Andy Burnham and Steve Rotherham campaigning for a 50+1 model, as well as a move to a single financial regulator. I hope that our frontbench can take these proposals and run with them: this is the only way fans are going to take back control. And it is only by fans taking back control that we will see cheap ticket prices, sensible kick-off times, funding for the women’s game, free-to air games, lasting anti-racism initiatives and wealth distribution throughout the grassroots.
The Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, has already started to talk about putting the game on a more sustainable footing by pointing towards the German model, and the government has announced that foreign ownership models, including the German model, will be looked at in the Tracey Crouch Review. This is welcome, but can we really trust the Tories to implement what is effectively public ownership of our football clubs? We must be bolder, by calling for the government to put its money where its mouth is and legislate in the upcoming Queen’s Speech to ensure that supporters have the majority stake in their clubs. It is the only way to prevent something like the super league ever happening again.
The energy that forced the six clubs to pull back from the brink must not be left to fizzle away. Football supporters drove the government to act on this issue. We have seen that this government can move, and move quickly, when ministers believe action will boost their popularity. The events of the last week should be a catalyst: we must channel our efforts to force the government to act on the wider issues that are blighting millions of working-class people across the country.
It can never be forgotten that a cartel of disconnected rich football club owners tried to attack our national game in such a secretive and devious manner, and it must never be allowed to happen again. Football must act as an equaliser; clubs must do all they can to ensure social justice within their communities. We cannot allow further disconnection between fans and their teams, whilst the wealthy few line their own pockets. Because, ultimately, football is nothing without its fans.