This is our truth, tell us yours
Back in the grim and distant Blairite past, Supporters Direct came blinking into the light like a forgotten step-child who had unexpected talents.
It seems a no-brainer, that a government of the left should align itself with football supporters against the boards of clubs who seem avaricious, greedy, and obsessed with short-term solutions and objectives.
The reality is grainier and more complex than that.
First and foremost is that, whatever football fans think, football clubs are private property. Not only are they private property, but generations of football fans have consented to that, and have paid their dues at the turnstile. Listen to the advocates of supporters trusts, and they will have you believing in some romantic idyll when football clubs in the English Football League were happy bands of brothers run by a committee of pigeon fanciers and leek growers in between their shifts down the pit.
It’s a myth of course. Even when clubs started as collectives of, say, railwaymen, or Methodist churchgoers, the financial strains of professional football turned them into private companies, usually with the consent of players and fans. The histories of clubs in those early years are littered with tales of bankruptcy, financial struggles and mergers at the behest of wealthy benefactors.
So the idea that there was a beautiful time when these clubs belonged to the fans is an illusion – at best top flight English soccer clubs were benevolent dictatorships; at worst they were a kind of sporting freemasonry, a place where the mafia of the mediocre could come together and reassure themselves that in small towns they were the big men.
So the illusion that these clubs were some kind of beautiful collective is an illusion. So is the idea that they were a meritocracy. The parallel existences of the Football League and the FA paid a painful tribute to the reality, that each league was a monopoly to which entry was by no means guaranteed; for decades the bottom club of the Football League could simply be re-elected, irrespective of the merits of the sides in the lower leagues who petitioned for entry to the Football League.
Labour’s new policy recognises few of these these facts in its rhetoric, and all of them in its realities; supporter control is offered as a panacea in the face of bankruptcy, in the face of the dissolution of a team. As an alternative supporters are to be offered seats on the board, in a situation where they will constantly play Pope to the team owner’s Stalin.
The idea that a football club constitutes only one company is an illustration of the innocence, no, the naivete of the Labour approach. Increasingly clubs may be divided between a stadium company, a football company and an intellectual rights company. Requiring directors to be on one of those boards is naive at best; at worst a cynical deception of football fans.