I really wanted to embrace the “fan-led” Tracey Crouch review of football governance in England. But with each turn of its 162 pages my heart sank further at the unmistakable sight of the heavy hand of Whitehall.
The Crouch review’s recommendations revolve around the creation of an independent regulator for the sport. This displays a touching faith in regulators that defies real world experience.
The report trumpets over 100 hours of interviews with a long list of stakeholders. Trawling the roll call of contributors, I can spot only half of the Premier League’s 20 clubs – the clique being asked to bear the financial burden of the measures proposed, in particular a tax on certain player transfers.
Given the sheer scale of detail in the document, I’m surprised the time devoted to interviews was so slight. One hundred hours doesn’t seem sufficient to me given the import of the subject, and the radical nature of the conclusions drawn.
The gap between inputs and outputs must have been filled by the “officials” thanked in the introduction, and perhaps explains the weight of bureaucracy that Crouch would like to heap on a regulator. Led by fans; made by mandarins.
The proposed regulator would be independent of government but answerable to Parliament. Square that if you can.
It is said to need a world class chief executive. Next thing we know there will be calls for that individual to be paid no more than the prime minister.
Quite how they will be recruited is unclear, but the civil service has a pretty patchy record in securing regulatory leaders across a range of industries.
Up front the Crouch review makes her position on her package of reforms clear: “It is important to stress that the recommendations should be considered holistically and not as a set of individual options from which football can cherry pick.”
Proponents have picked up on this line and banged it out over recent days. But this, of course, is a nonsense and, if anything, highlights that the Crouch review team knows some of its recommendations are far weaker than others. Take all of it or forget it? They don’t mean that surely?
There is momentum behind the review at present. It will appear to government to present an open goal. Committing to an “independent” regulator (forgive me if I now use inverted commas each time) would be an easy policy win.
Let’s face it, the ineffectual Football Association has only itself to blame. Indeed the whole football industry, as a collective, has witnessed multiple financial failures down the years and proven unable to sort out its governance – so no wonder the wind is in Crouch’s sails.
But don’t think one can conjure into existence a precedent-defying regulatory body that will magically refashion football’s ecosystem.
A leading football executive this week described to me the web of arrangements that underpin the game – stretching at least as far back as Jimmy Hill’s successful campaign to abolish the wage cap – as a Rubik’s Cube.
Twist it one way to change one of those arrangements, and then twist to alter another, and you may find yourself even further from a solution to the puzzle.
The Crouch review’s “all or nothing” recommendations don’t provide a holistic solution. I fear they may have unintended consequences. Could they even drive the Premier League away?
I’m a big believer in the importance of England’s football pyramid, in which an AFC Wimbledon can rise from nothing to League One in 14 years, move into a new stadium four years later and have realistic dreams of climbing further.
But the ability of any club to chase promotion, coupled with the lure of riches in the uppermost tier, is at the root of the problem that the review is trying to solve.
Crouch argues that her transfer tax could provide a grant to ensure that League One and League Two clubs broke even. A footnote says that this is illustrative only as direct payments to clubs could encourage further loss making.
Isn’t that the nub? Why should poorly run businesses be subsidised to the sporting detriment of their immediate peers who are managed prudently?
Contemplate for a moment the Premier League becoming a two-tier structure, maybe with 20 teams in each division, four teams being promoted and four relegated each year, but with no demotion out of the second tier. Spread television money on a sliding scale across the 40 clubs, so removing the cliff-edge between the two divisions.
Too outlandish? But what if the 40 made a single, massive payment to the rest of English football to enable their ring-fencing? Say, £50m each, or £2bn in total. Maybe that price is too low. Effectively it would be a negotiation to balance a one-off cost today against long-term riches from a protected pair of leagues.
It sounds hideous – and I speak as a Crystal Palace fan enjoying Premier League life right now, but with far more of my 50 seasons of fandom outside the top flight, as well as the agonies of two spells of administration.
But for all the drama and public revulsion at the attempted breakaway European Super League last year (one of the triggers of the Crouch review), it’s clear that we shouldn’t assume competition structures to be set in stone. Push Premier League clubs to correct the ills of the wider game and don’t be surprised if their response is radical.
In the expectation that Crouch’s recommendations will indeed be cherry-picked rather than adopted wholesale, let me just conclude by stating that the concept of “shadow boards” of elected fans looks doomed to disappoint.
You might as well ask the creators of Arsenal Fan TV to sign non-disclosure agreements and sit down with Arsenal CEO Vinai Venkatesham for regular briefings on the club’s affairs as hope to find a cross-section of fans who could discharge their limited duties confidentially on behalf of all.
Limerick and the roses red and bull
Last week’s thoughts on Team of the Year candidates prompted late entries into my consciousness from readers.
I confess I should have remembered rugby union’s Red Roses. England’s women are 18 matches without a loss, and inflicted a record defeat on New Zealand’s world champion Black Ferns last month. In 10 months they head to NZ to challenge for that title in the World Cup.
And it was unforgivable to forget Limerick’s hurlers, having included a clip of the All Ireland Champions in an earlier Sport inc.
My man with his finger on the sport’s pulse writes: “My boys, Tipperary, were the only team to worry them, but Limerick blew them away after being 10 points down at half-time.
“Everyone hates them for playing on the edge of the law, but their skill and power is incredible, at a time when there are at least three other teams that might have dominated in other years.”
Finally, what odds Red Bull as TOTY if they manage to squeeze out Mercedes in the final two races of this most compelling of Formula 1 seasons to end their rival’s seven-year run of success?
Ed Warner is chair of GB Wheelchair Rugby and writes at sportinc.substack.com