Fans of both politics and football may be aware that something called a ‘fan-led review’ was recently published. Created (if that’s the right word) by MP Tracey Crouch (no relation to Peter, I’m told), it looked specifically at the key issues affecting fans of clubs at all levels of the pyramid and was brought in, essentially, as a direct response to the proposed European Super League that was mentioned earlier this year.
The documentation produced was massive, weighing in at a hefty 162 pages according to the PDF currently sat on my laptop desktop. “Ok, so what?” I hear you ask. Well, this report is potentially a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reset the governance of the game in England on a sustainable financial basis and more in the interests of supporters and communities. If it does not happen now, it may never happen at all.
Before I dissect parts of the report and try to align those with the interests of our own club, it’s important to note that there were plenty of lower-league chairmen and executives who welcomed this report. Gary Neville, an outspoken critic of the way money is handled at football’s highest level, said: “Reading that report made me feel warm about the opportunity that exists for football to come together and let’s not forget that at this moment in time the Premier League has lost control of its own members” - referring to the supposed “Big Six” who thought they’d pop off and have a little jolly across the continent, effectively taking their ball home and not letting anyone else have a turn.
In stark contrast, various Premier League officials have come out in opposition, not least at the suggestion that all transfers should be subject to a 10% tax. Unsurprising really, seeing as they wanted to give a generous amount (not really that generous) away to EFL clubs in exchange for making the Premier League clubs’ seasons easier (calendar refits, no League Cup etc). Of course, keeping the money within the league helps the league, right? The rich get richer and all that. Which is why, with the key points below, you can see how they’d object in their own worlds.
Fan-led review: Key recommendations
- The UK government should create a new independent regulator (IREF).
- The independent regulator should oversee financial regulation in football.
- The independent regulator should establish a new ‘fit and proper persons’ test to replace the existing system, which would also include an ‘integrity’ test on potential owners and ‘real time’ financial checks.
- Fans should be consulted on all key off-field decisions through a ‘shadow board’.
- Equality, diversity and inclusion plans should be mandatory for all clubs.
- Key items of club heritage should be protected by a ‘golden share’ for fans.
- A new corporate governance code should be set up.
- Women’s football should be treated equally and given its own review.
- Stakeholders should work to increase protection of welfare of players leaving the game.
- There should be more support from the Premier League to the pyramid through a solidarity transfer levy.
The report itself is broken down into 11 chapters, but I’ve selected the key ones for your perusal below. Of course, don’t let me stop you from reading the whole thing, but we all want to know how we’d benefit from such reforms, being a lower-league club by tradition and current status.
Tests for owners and directors of football clubs
Look, this one is obvious. And if it’s not, go and do your recent history on Reading FC and then come back to me. We’ve had too many false dawns, quite frankly. Beginning with Anton Z, who was passed by the EFL to take over our club to then be found to have little or no money to spend of his own, which meant that we were quickly rescued (again) by Sir John. We then had the Thai consortium who bought up lots of land around the stadium, but couldn’t really see the full picture when it came to the footballing side of things. You know, the stuff supporters actually care about. They did leave us a nice music video though…
One contributor to this section called the fit and proper test, as a whole, “a disaster of a system”. Fair point. The review went even further than to just look at passing the main person as the “owner”, but to consider the impact of those in the owner’s ear. I’ll let the aptly named recommendation 10 explain it in more detail:
Through licence conditions, the new Owners’ and Directors’ Test should be split into two parts, one test for owners’ (i.e. those who own a minimum of 25% shares in the club alone or acting in concert with others) and one test for directors as well as shadow directors, executive management and any individuals holding those roles regardless of job title.
Effectively, anyone coming onto the board would be subject to these tests and ratification of their suitability to manage a football club. So, if we were ever sold again, we wouldn’t be subject to the horrifying circumstances that were aired for all to see in the recent “Price of Football” TV documentary. Anyone looking to make a quick pound out of a club wouldn’t be allowed to do so, they’d be tied in for the long haul with clear expectations to provide financial plans, as Recommendation 11 states:
In addition to not being subject to any disqualification criteria based on existing rules, prospective new owners should also be required to:
a. Submit a business plan for assessment by IREF (to include financial forecasts).
b. Evidence sufficient financial resources to meet the requirements of the business plan.
c. Be subject to enhanced due diligence checks on source of funds to be developed with the Home Office and National Crime Agency.
d. Pass an integrity test.
Improving supporter engagement
Tough one, this. It’s a fact that our attendances have plummeted in recent years. Is that because of the standard of football or the match-day experience? Or both? Depends who you ask I guess. Every club up and down the country has supporters’ groups, some even more than one. Do these supporters’ groups have a say in the big decisions at their clubs? Again, it depends.
From a Reading point of view, STAR has been in operation for 20 years. As a member for half of that time, I can say that they haven’t always got it right, but from being on the board currently, I know the amount of work that goes in to running a supporters’ trust and how tricky it can be to strike that balance between a voice for the fans and a critical friend of the club. To give the club their due, they have listened to everything we’ve put to them over the last few months, all with the backdrop of a skeleton staff base and looking at a points deduction.
Add into the mix that we are currently only one of 12 clubs in the entire league who operate a memorandum of understanding in terms of the structured dialogue meetings we hold with the club, and it shows that, in some respects, the club and STAR are pioneers in this area.
Is this a privilege or a bare-minimum requirement in terms of the relationship between fans and clubs? Not for me to say, but looking at the facts, it puts us in a position that 80 other clubs currently aren’t in. Again, it comes down to how open the hierarchy want to be with the supporters, at any club and at the moment, although the club don’t always give the answers some of our supporters want, at least they are giving some answers.
Furthermore, the review proposes a “shadow board” at each club, made up of supporters. Recommendation 26 says:
A Shadow Board should be a licensing condition of IREF. The club should engage and consult with this Shadow Board on all material ‘non football/off pitch’ business and financial matters. The Shadow Board’s effectiveness would be policed by the SB reporting to IREF if it felt it wasn’t getting the information and attention it merited.
Basically, full transparency. If you are interested (and for me it was the best chapter) take a look at chapter 7 in its entirety and then make up your own mind.
Other key areas
Protecting club heritage and growing women’s football were the other areas that caught my eye for different reasons. We know that there are teams in our league who have almost had to sell their soul to appease the owner. Name changes, badge alterations, even proposed relocations of clubs have all had their fair share of attention and interest. Clubs are the heartbeat and focal point of most, if not all communities around the country and sadly, some of those have completely gone under (Bury) while some have been threatened with oblivion (Portsmouth).
The review looks to stop these events from occurring in the first instance by protecting the ethos and traditions of clubs and developing a “golden share” - an idea that roots specific elements of the club in legal protection and allows challenge from supporters, should anyone of these elements of clubs be up for change, discussion or potential sale.
In terms of the women’s game, you could argue that in the case of our club, it’s the most proactive and forward-thinking department at RG2 currently. Nationally and globally, there is still lots to do in this area and it’s an area that both STAR and The Tilehurst End are actively looking promote and help in any way we can.
All in all, lots to think about. The report itself is heavy but readable and raises some very pertinent points. The recommendations have been made, it’s now up to the government to pass them into law in the hope of protecting our game from those that would use it as a means to get rich quick.
We all know we’ve been victims of the darker side of football in previous years at Reading FC, but this review could be the start of making sure those mistakes aren’t repeated at any club moving forward.
You can see another take on the fan-led review with more of an overview and what it means for STAR and supporters trusts here.