The decision by the Premier League to cut its funding to Supporters Direct has been met with vocal, widespread criticism from a variety of areas. One voice which has remained silent thus far, however, is that of Hugh Robertson MP, the minister for Sport and Olympics.
Robertson and his government’s silence is particularly striking, given that page 14 of the Coalition Agreement, set out by the Conservatives and Lib Dems in May 2010, contains an express commitment to “encourage the reform of football governance rules to support the co-operative ownership of football clubs by supporters“.
Robertson then reaffirmed this aim in September of last year in a debate in Westminster Hall on the governance of football, saying:
The twin aims of greater supporter involvement in running football clubs and the reform of football governance are shared across the political spectrum and are, as the hon. Gentleman correctly said, part of the coalition agreement. However, I have to tell him that, although the issue is widely agreed in this place, it is not entirely shared in the wider football family. There is a battle to be fought to convince the football family of the merits of this case.
A battle to be fought, indeed, and yet Robertson’s failure to act when an essential component of supporter involvement in football clubs becomes compromised is disappointing.
Further to this, when Robertson – a former army major and investment banker – was an opposition MP, he was a key note speaker at the Supporters Direct Conference in October 2008. Robertson told the conference of the Conservative’s belief in “empowering local communities” (recently re-expressed as a key tenet of David Cameron’s “Big Society”), congratulated SD on their success so far, wished them luck for the future and assured them they had the full support of the Conservative Party.
In addition to his silence in the press, Robertson is also yet to sign an Early Day Motion in Parliament, tabled by the Labour MP Tom Greatrex, which criticises the Premier League’s decision to withdraw funding. Greatrex wrote on his website today that:
The Sports Minister, Hugh Robertson MP, recently described football as the worst governed sport in the country. He must now step in to protect the future of Supporters Direct, which has advanced the cause of good governance and transparency in the national game so much. The government must prove that it is not just paying lip service to the voice of football fans and use its influence to urge the FSIF to re-consider.
It’s hard to argue with that, regardless of whether you are to the left or the right of the political spectrum.
Greatrex and Robertson, it seems, have crossed paths on this issue before. On 16th June last year Robertson told Greatrex in a written answer that the government had no plans to provide funding for SD itself, a position that seems consistent with the coalition’s commitment to big society, not big government. With this in mind, it seems even more essential that Robertson act on his earlier pledges, follow through on his government’s stated wish to enable local communities to have a greater say in the running of local bodies, and speak out against the Premier League’s decision to withdraw their funding from Supporters Direct.
It may have passed with little to no coverage, but over the weekend the Premier League pulled a stunt that was every bit as stupid and undemocratic as anything that went on in the FIFA congress two weeks ago.
Supporters Direct, the group set up in 2000 to help football fans struggle for greater accountability and democracy within their teams, as well as helping fans run their own teams, had its funding withdrawn by the Premier League, reneging on a previous commitment to provide £1.8m of funding over the next three years.
But for what reason? Had there been allegations of bungs, bribes, corruption, as has been levelled at the upper echelons of FIFA? What great scandal was it that appalled the Premier League so that they felt they had to withdraw their funding pledge? Well, it seems that messers Scudamore, Richards and co. were unhappy with SD chief exec Dave Boyle using swear words on Twitter whilst celebrating AFC Wimbledon’s promotion to the Football League.
In the manner of Mary Whitehouse, or a particularly pernickity conservative pensioner watching a stand-up comedy DVD, the PL decided that swearing would not be tolerated and Supporters Direct chair Pauline Green had not sufficiently reprimanded Boyle for his Twitter outburst, so the money that had previously been pledged to the organisation would no longer be available.
Who knew that the Premier League had such stringent moral guidelines? They seemed to be strangely absent when Thakshin Shinawatra was allowed to purchase Manchester City, or when the son of a then-wanted arms dealer bought Portsmouth FC; or, indeed, in the debt-laden takeover of Manchester United. All of these ethically questionable actions, which knaw at the credibility of our national game, were allowed to pass without comment but swearing, it seems, was a step too far.
But the decision to stop Supporters Direct dead in its tracks is more than just another example of Premier League incompetence. In an age where Football League clubs are going bust like never before, SD is a vital organisation that helps the fans put their views front and centre and makes them a force to be reckoned with again. It is a voice of the fans which had previously gone unheard in a world of clubs and governing bodies making solely commercial considerations.
SD had helped establish 200 supporters trusts and it looked like we were entering a decade where ventures like these were making real, demonstrable progress. For instance, not only have fan-owned AFC Wimbledon entered the Football League, but Swansea City, whose supporters trust has a 20% share in the club and a full-time representative on the board, have been promoted to the Premier League. These need to set new precedents in fan-ownership, not just be quaint anomalies. The cutting of funding to SD goes against this great endeavour and helps the commercial side of the game gain an upper-hand on the fans once more.