Tim HillyerWho governs English football?

Problems at EFL clubs in the past year have brought the governance of the game into question. Dons Trust Board member Tim Hillyer reports on an initiative by the Football Supporters’ Association to tighten things up.

The early months of this season saw the demise of Bury FC, along with points deductions for both Bolton Wanderers and Macclesfield Town. These clubs’ offenses included not paying debts, lack of realistic financial projections, no security of tenure of their stadium, not fulfilling scheduled fixtures, and not paying their players and staff on time.

It’s now nearly thirty years since Aldershot FC ceased trading (on 26 March 1992), and since then a succession of clubs have been rescued, often suffering relegation(s) whilst in the process of restructuring their finances. Portsmouth are notable survivors. The fans of Leyton Orient still have a team to follow, though their fate was to leave the Football League – a route that has been followed by Luton Town, Hereford United and others.

Supporters Direct was formed in January 2000 with the objective of increasing supporters’ influence on how their clubs are run. Since then, over 200 supporters’ trusts have become involved with their clubs, with more than 50 clubs owned by their supporters. But running a fans-owned club in the Football League for a sustained period has proved difficult. Rushden & Diamonds no longer exist, having being replaced by AFC Rushden & Diamonds. At Stockport County and Notts County, the fans who became directors ill-advisedly signed monetary deals that cost them control.

AFC Wimbledon and Exeter City are the highest-placed fans-owned clubs. Newport County and Wycombe Wanderers still have active supporters’ trusts that wield a degree of influence but no longer run the show. The obvious question is whether fan ownership at Football League level is sustainable in the long term. That follows on from why supporters’ trusts exist, which is often due to previous mismanagement of clubs by owners under the traditional model.

Why is it that this has been allowed to happen? Rulebooks for the Premier League (EPL), Football League (EFL) and National League are as bulky as telephone directories. Reporting requirements have increased hugely down the years, in an attempt to ensure fair play and sound practice. Monitoring includes checking that wages, taxes and bills are paid on time. The Salary Cost Management Protocol tries to stop clubs paying excessive wages. QPR breached that regulation, which cost them hefty fines and penalties – albeit to a lesser extent than Saracens suffered in Rugby Union.

Clubs in the EPL should have few worries about cash flow. In the EFL, financial disparities between clubs are huge. Clubs relegated to the Championship enjoy huge parachute payments, giving them a massive advantage for three years. Sunderland must deal with the loss of this handout next season. Wealthy owners arrive with ambitious talk of investment in the first team and promotion. But when the financial taps are turned off, enthusiasm wanes and reality begins to bite, who deals with the aftermath? Last summer, the EFL demonstrated its weakness in dealing with such situations, having previously shown their reluctance to act against the owners of Blackpool. Their stated focus is “organising the Football League”.

So what is the solution – what can be done to rebalance the financial books and ensure a level playing field? Before their merger to form the Football Supporters’ Association (FSA), Supporters Direct and the Football Supporters’ Federation worked together to draw up a paper setting out suggested reforms. That document was drafted by a supporter from Coventry City, who clearly has a passionate interest, and is also a solicitor. It has been carefully written in such a way that traditional owners should not reject it outright.

What is the key proposal? Instead of advocating new organisations such as an independent football regulator or another ombudsman, the FSA are proposing that the FA strengthen its role, governing football throughout the pyramid – including the EPL. By reinforcing existing regulations and setting firm sanctions for transgressions, acceptance can be sought from club owners and the transition thereby smoothed.

There is also government pressure for reform. Officials and elected boards of the football bodies have looked at the FSA’s proposals, and on the whole reaction has been encouraging. In the absence of alternative solutions from the football authorities, the FSA are hopeful that all, most or some of the suggestions will be adopted.