A shake-up in how football is governed in the UK is up in the air

There is a danger in adopting damaging reforms that could be delayed because of a looming general election

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On February 29, a Leap Day briefing pack from the estimable UK House of Commons library has set the scene for the proposed introduction of an independent football regulator in the country. That should mean that the legislation to launch the new system will come out this week, although the parliamentary timetable could yet see more delays in the initiative.

Either way, insiders from the Premier League, the top tier of English club football, see this as the most treacherous period for the game – in the very country that pioneered its modern structures.

It can be argued, for example, that the Premier League is a world-beating industry that is the single-biggest global asset that the UK has today.

Insiders at the top of football are confident that, ironically, Premier League clubs will be able to cope with the new regulation

At least 10 of the league’s top clubs are year-on-year powerhouses of growth and strength. Its global appeal might have some rivals, such as the two big Spanish football clubs that reside in Madrid and Barcelona, but as a body it has no peer. Its £5.5 billion ($7 billion) annual revenue match the top tiers of Spanish and Italian football combined.

If the Premier League’s supremacy is true internationally, it is one of the most dominant institutions domestically.

Prime among the political concerns that are driving the push for an independent football regulator is the need to address systemic issues within clubs across tiers, many of which are financially vulnerable. That is a valid choice for any country that seeks to copper-bottom the future.

But the danger lies in adopting damaging reforms – a risk that is growing because the forthcoming wrangle could take years to play out. Destabilising the whole game is not a hard scenario to sketch out.

Of course, few in the game can quibble with the principle of regulation. England’s club football was a pioneer of the rules that are now followed worldwide. Some of us call the game “soccer” as a derivative of that very development.

The proposed body is even called the Independent Regulator for Football – or IREF.

Research issued by the House of Commons meticulously set out how the ground was seeded for this leap into new regulation. Fundamental to the process was a so-called “fan-led review” in 2021. In fact, this was chaired by a politician, Tracey Crouch. Nonetheless, the government in November of that year said that it endorsed in principle its recommendation for an IREF.

The issue of regulation has been on the agenda for the entirety of Parliament’s current term. It was even part of the Conservative Party’s 2019 general election manifesto. That set off a whole series of lobbying efforts dressed up as inquiries.

The Football Supporters’ Association and a self-appointed set of former executives and players under the banner “Our Beautiful Game” produced separate reports in 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic caused widespread disruption to the game’s financial model. These fed into the Crouch fan-led review.

What these efforts had in common were “long-standing concerns” about the ownership of clubs and the financial sustainability of the game.

In seeking greater fan participation in decision making – something greatly informed by the powerful clique that is seeking a change in Manchester United’s ownership – it was also said to be a negative that whatever model of ownership, the owners usually made the major decisions affecting their respective clubs.

This, then, led to pejorative claims about foreign ownership. An MPs’ committee suggested that overseas owners “might be” less inclined to support measures in the long-term interests of the English game. Foreign magnates could underestimate the difficulties of succeeding in England and that they could make decisions that clashed with the identity of the clubs.

But I could suggest just as many English owners who have fallen short of these three yardsticks as foreigners. In fact, what seems to overhang the process is this notion of an idealised English owner who showers good but not overwhelming resources on a club, which remains orientated to the fans in its ethos.

This is the kind of model that the late Jack Walker used to take Blackburn Rovers to the English title towards the end of the last century. However, even as Blackburn remains a good club, it has hardly been all-conquering ever since Mr Walker’s funding dried up.

A white paper on IREF has already been published (early last year), and the support for the proposal is cross-party. But as recent events in Parliament have shown – not least with the media bill currently going through the stages – legislation is currently being used as a proxy for other battles in the very divided governing party. It is probable that this free-for-all atmosphere will extend to the measures related to football.

Insiders at the top of football are confident that, ironically, Premier League clubs will be able to cope with the new regulation. In fact, it is the smaller clubs, particularly the domestic fan-based ones, that won’t have the structures to jump through the compliance hoops.

With a general election looming, there is another danger: a new bill now would be vulnerable to the “wash-up” process of rushing through legislation just ahead of the vote. Then, if it does not go through, a new government will undoubtedly bring its own hobby horses to the table.

The road to IREF has already been drawn out and flawed. The long last mile to what seemed to be an inevitable shake-up in how football is governed is proving just as treacherous for the future of the beautiful game.

Published: March 11, 2024, 7:00 AM