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Not just another talking shop?

On June 9th an inquiry into the health of the English national game will begin when a selection of supporters' bodies give presentations to the Government's All Party Parliamentary Football Group.

The Group, which comprises politicians representing each of the main political parties, aims to raise parliamentary awareness on football policy at both professional and grass roots levels at a time when football's financial security has never been more fragile.

But what can the Group's inquiry possibly tell us that we don't already know? Will it be able to find a remedy to cure the game's ills? Well, Alan Keen MP, Chair of the All Party Football Group (APFG), certainly hopes so.

Speaking to Soccernet, Keen explained that to ensure that the inquiry is open to everyone interested in football the APFG 'wrote to all the major interests groups in the game including supporters' groups, the football authorities, the leagues, managers, players, broadcasters and many more organisations inviting them to send us a written presentation'.

What Keen and the APFG can expect to hear are reasoned and impassioned arguments from disenchanted fans who believe they are being priced out of an increasingly commercial and corporate game, and whose clubs have either disappeared from League football or teeter on the brink of oblivion.

While every written submission received will be taken into consideration, several groups will be invited to give evidence to the APFG, beginning with the supporters early next month.

Keen expects 'a really interesting and lively first session' when the Football Supporters Federation, Supporters Direct, and fans from AFC Wimbledon, the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association and the York City Supporters Trust open the inquiry.

'Interesting and lively' is perhaps an understatement.

What Keen and the APFG can expect to hear are reasoned and impassioned arguments from disenchanted fans who believe they are being priced out of an increasingly commercial and corporate game, and whose clubs have either disappeared from League football or teeter on the brink of oblivion.

Although the situation is serious some view with distrust and scepticism the fact that the Government is looking into the financial health of the sport.

They argue that the last thing football needs is a 'Nanny State' telling it what it can and can't do, and rightly point out that politicians latching onto sport in order to gain political bonus points is a sickly sight.

However, others feel it is about time the Government took a truly active interest and made a concerted effort to safeguard what is to many one of the most sacrosanct elements of life in England.

'Football is part of the nation's heritage', says Keen. 'The game has made great strides forward as a spectacle in recent years and broadened its supporter base from the old working class traditions.

'However, despite its increased popularity, there are serious financial problems at the professional end of the game.

'There is concern that the grass roots could be affected as well as the long-term future of the professional game itself if the wrong decisions are made. We hope that the APFG's report may assist to gather together the joint wisdom of all those involved in the game at all levels.'

'Sport - and especially football - is hugely important to the lives of so many people in this country. Government is one of the key stakeholders in the game and therefore has a responsibility, along with others, to the health of the game'.

Keen is absolutely spot-on.

The APFG inquiry comes at a time when domestic football is in deep financial trouble. Many clubs are facing uncertain futures and record numbers of players are out of work because clubs cannot afford to retain their services.

The inquiry plans to look into players' ever-increasing wages, the increase in clubs' debts, the disparity between a handful of top clubs and smaller sides and the increasing commercialisation of the sport.

It will also examine the alienation of supporters as tension between traditional indicators of club performance and pressure to provide returns for shareholders increases.

It's all very worthy stuff, but surely the risk is that the inquiry will teach us very little.

We already know that clubs are going to the wall, that television companies do not have bottomless pockets, and that the loyal fans are being abused and pushed to the limit.

We are not here to point the finger of blame. We want to make a positive contribution to the health of our national game by hearing from all sides and suggesting possible courses of action.
Alan Keen

The challenge for the inquiry must be not only to bring about debate but proffer solutions.

Keen insists that 'We are not here to point the finger of blame. We want to make a positive contribution to the health of our national game by hearing from all sides and suggesting possible courses of action'.

'[We hope] to publish a report in the autumn which will contain recommendations for action. Without wanting to pre-judge the Report's recommendations, it is likely that some will apply to Government, others to the football authorities, some to broadcasters etc.

'The inquiry is intended to provoke debate not only in Government but also amongst the whole football fraternity.

'It's clear that despite the huge popularity of football, the professional game is suffering from serious financial problems. This is one of the main reasons behind the decision of the All-Party Group to launch an Inquiry.

'We hope to get to the bottom of this and we are looking forward to hearing the differing perspectives of the FA and the clubs on this issue.

'The football authorities are one of the key stakeholders in the game and they have a responsibility to its future. We will want to look at the distribution of income within football as part of the inquiry'.

As Keen rightly points out it is, of course, too early to say what the inquiry will recommend, not least because the evidence giving process has yet to begin.

But it is not a massive leap of faith to expect that its final report might call for the introduction of legislation to help clubs by forcing a more equal sharing of the sport's riches to benefit all, not just the upper echelons of the Premier League.

There may also be moves to try and help fans by limiting the increase in ticket prices or forbid the relocation of clubs outside their traditional heartlands.

What the report will not be able to do is alter market forces. Players hold all the cards and invariably the majority of the sport's wealth.

And with no legislative power of its own the APFG can only make recommendations, so let us hope that it succeeds in its primary task of fostering real debate at senior levels within the Government and that that may in turn have an impact on the Football Association and the Football League, who are, after all, the custodians of the game in England.

  • Any thoughts? Feel free to email Phil Holland.