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Independent regulator for football edges closer after breakaway fears | Football

The football season may almost be over, but a busy summer awaits. The Euros, of course, a transfer window distorted by Covid and plans – not to mention hopes – for the full return of fans next season. But in the background something equally important will be bubbling away, the consequences of which could have a much greater impact.

The Conservative MP Tracey Crouch recently confirmed the star chamber of experts who will help inform her “fan-led” review of the game. Roy Hodgson is on it, as is Clarke Carlisle, media executive and chair of the Women’s Super League Dawn Airey and Everton CEO Prof Denise Barrett-Baxendale.

It’s a high-powered list, albeit light on the being-led-by-fans bit. The only supporter representative is Kevin Miles of the Football Supporters’ Association, though it is intended that the panel will help Crouch in consulting fan groups on their thoughts.

The history of parliamentary scrutiny into the form and future of the national game is long, or at least some of the reports’ names are. In the past decade alone there has been the 2011 DCMS Select Committee report into domestic football governance and the 2016 Expert Working Group on Football Supporter Ownership and Engagement. Both were thorough and well-intentioned, neither resulted in any meaningful change.

People burned before are concerned that change will not happen this time either, and some are senior figures within the game. But there are also good reasons to think that the latest process may be different and that one idea in particular, an independent regulator, may come to pass.

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When fan groups argue for a regulator, as the FSA has done for years, they do so for many reasons; from making sure bad owners don’t drive a club into the ground, to looking for a more equitable distribution of the money that sloshes around the game. That these calls have never been heeded are partly because of a Conservative government’s reluctance to intervene in the sacred functions of the marketplace and because the clubs themselves (in the shape of the leagues of which they are part) wouldn’t countenance it.

Roy Hodgson is on the panel, chaired by Tracey Crouch, tasked with carrying out a ‘fan-led’ review of English football.
Roy Hodgson is on the panel, chaired by Tracey Crouch, tasked with carrying out a ‘fan-led’ review of English football. Photograph: John Powell/Liverpool FC/Getty Images

At last, that may be about to change. In an interview with the Business of Sport podcast last week Crouch said that, when it comes to a regulator, the “genie was out of the bottle”. Under the terms of reference of her report, she will be expected to make a recommendation to the government about a regulator that they will have to either accept or reject. It can be understood from Crouch’s remarks that her recommendation will be positive.

How the government responds will likely depend on the detail. But as has been seen in recent months, not only over the European Super League, but in talking up Wembley for the Champions League final and launching research into a World Cup bid for 2030, this administration sees football as something that can win the favour of the public. This is underscored by the fact that, thanks to their “Red Wall” victories, more Tory MPs have a league club in their constituency than for many years.

It’s not only that the government is more receptive to the idea of change, however, the game is too. The EFL, forced into taking commercial loans to keep clubs afloat during the Covid crisis, is upfront in declaring the current system – whereby Championship clubs regularly spend more than 100% of their income – as unsustainable. It wants regulation.

The Premier League, meanwhile, is sticking publicly to the line that the game can regulate itself perfectly well, thank you very much. The problem with that position is the small matter of the whole game nearly collapsing in April, with opinions split over whether the league would have been able to stop the breakaway league had the matter gone to the courts.

Recently the FSA held a meeting with the Premier League’s senior strategist, Bill Bush, who offered a tweaked position in light of the ESL. The league, he said, supported self-regulation but “this only works if everyone plays fairly within the rules”. It would appear therefore that a regulator, appointed by government with legal powers to prevent a future split, may be of interest to the Premier League.

If it got that, what else might it accept? Not much, you’d think, but other stakeholders seem to be coming round to an idea that would see a regulator enforce rules which are already there but which the game’s authorities have struggled with: namely financial stability, and making sure owners are fit and proper people.

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If a regulator could make sure a club’s finances were above board and that a club’s owner was in funds, there may also be a role in making sure the same owner didn’t want to change the club’s name or move it to Guadeloupe.

The process has yet to begin, with Crouch expected to deliver a preliminary verdict by the end of July and a full report in October. The ultimate landing ground for any deal could shift. At this point, it seems that big hopes for a financial reset, or of fans controlling clubs in a 50+1 style scenario, will not come to pass. But real tangible change appears possible, and it only took an existential crisis to get there.

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