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English football faces a “stark choice” between modernisation and “the inevitable consequences of inaction”, according to Tracey Crouch MP, whose review into the game has called for strict financial controls and the introduction of an independent regulator.
The former sports minister, who chaired the Fan Led Review of Football Governance, described the game as “at a crossroads” as she recommended a series of reforms in the 162-page report, published Wednesday.
A new independent regulator (IREF) would be established by Parliament and run a licensing system for all professional men’s clubs. The new organisation would be able to demand clubs show proof of financial sustainability and have sweeping powers to intervene at poorly run outfits.
The IREF would additionally oversee new tests for both owners and directors, which would require anyone wanting to own a club to prove their ‘good character’.
Crouch also called for more financial support from the Premier League for the pyramid, including a levy on top-flight transfers from overseas, and the IREF could have the power to intervene if authorities fail to agree a package.
The review was launched in May in response to the collapse of Bury, the financial crisis caused by the pandemic and the aborted attempt by six Premier League clubs – Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool, Manchester United and Man City – to join the 12-team European Super League (ESL) in April.
"The Review has formed the firm belief that our national game is at a crossroads with the proposed ESL just one of many, albeit the most recent and clearest, illustrations of deep seated problems in the game,” Crouch said.
"I believe there is a stark choice facing football in this country. Build on its strengths, modernise its governance, make it fairer and stronger still at every level or do nothing and suffer the inevitable consequences of inaction in towns and cities across the country: more owners gambling the future of football clubs unchecked; more fan groups forced to mobilise and fight to preserve the very existence of the club they love and inevitably more clubs failing with all the pain on communities that brings.”
As part of 10 key recommendations, Crouch called for a new mandatory code of corporate governance for all professional clubs, as well as mandatory “equality, diversity and inclusion plans” – with potential penalties for those who fail to comply.
She continued: “As was remarked to the Review, for all the good owners in the game clubs are only one bad owner away from disaster.
"For those who say that English football is world leading at club level and there is no need to change I would argue that it is possible simultaneously to celebrate the current global success of the Premier League at the same time as having deep concerns about the fragility of the wider foundations of the game.
"It is both true that our game is genuinely world leading and that there is also a real risk of widespread failures and a potential collapse of the pyramid as we know it. We ignore the warning signs at our peril and I hope this Review protects the good and the special but sets a clear course for a stronger national game with the interests of fans at its heart.”
Crouch’s review panel – which included former England manager Roy Hodgson, former PFA chairman Clarke Carlisle, and FSA chief executive Kevin Miles – heard over 100 hours of evidence over six months, with contributions from supporters of over 130 football clubs.
Crouch said it was “heartbreaking” to hear testimony from fans who had been “betrayed” by owners of their clubs and her recommendation include the introduction of a Shadow Board of fans to deal with clubs.
Supporters would also have a veto or Golden Share to protect clubs’ heritage, which would include owners changing the club's name, selling off the stadium or joining a breakaway competition.
Football is sport but it is also big business. As the game has grown and developed its governance has failed to grow and modernise with it.
Spurs chairman Daniel Levy, Chelsea’s chairman Bruce Buck and Arsenal chief executive Vinai Venkatesham were all contributors to the review, having conspired to join the ESL.
Crouch continued: “The commitment and passion of the fans who have contributed to the Review has been genuinely humbling to see. Where this passion had been betrayed by owners it has been heartbreaking – and testimony from those who had lost their club in Bury particularly so.
“The sophistication of thought about the problems of the game and solutions presented by those fans was also remarkable. It is often said that football would be nothing without the fans. The same can be said for this Review and I want to thank each and every one who has contributed.
“The Review concluded that English football’s fragility is the result of three main factors: misaligned incentives to 'chase success’; club corporate structures that lack governance, diversity or sufficient account of supporters failing to scrutinise decision making; and the inability of the existing regulatory structure to address the new and complex structural challenges created by the scale of modern professional men’s football.
“Football is sport but it is also big business. As the game has grown and developed its governance has failed to grow and modernise with it.”
Other key recommendations include a separate review for women’s football and improved protection and aftercare for players who leave the professional game.
The FA said it “welcomed” to review and promised to liaise with government on its recommendations.
In a statement, the Premier League also welcomed the report and said it would work with Whitehall and relevant stakeholders in football but added: “It is important to everyone that any reforms do not damage our game, its competitive balance or the levels of current investment.”
An EFL statement read: “We hope that through constructive dialogue with the football industry, the Fan Led Review is a catalyst for positive change that can make clubs sustainable, while serving the English game for many decades to come and we look forward to working with the Government, and the game’s stakeholders in the weeks and months ahead.
“While we may not always agree on the best approach to take, we believe that the vast majority of clubs and supporters want the same outcome which is a sustainable and competitive pyramid in which any club can prosper.
“Having been consistent in our view that professional football requires a fundamental financial reset in order to deliver sustainability across the pyramid, we are happy that this is a key recommendation in the Fan Led Review of Football Governance published today.”