Tougher rules for club owners will lead to a greater voice for fans

Chris Wheal, from the West Ham United Supporters' Trust, sets out what the Fan-led Review really means

As Blowing Bubbles went to press, the government was set to announce details of an independent regulator for men’s professional football in England. This would usher in tougher rules for club owners and a greater voice for fans. Finally, late and nearly killed off by Premier League lobbyists, the government is to implement the Fan-led Review of Football Governance.

In addition to the Independent Regulator for English Football (IREF), there will be higher entry requirements to test the fit and proper persons status for football owners. Clubs will have to establish shadow boards that include fan groups. And each club’s supporters’ trust will receive a ‘golden share’ enabling them to veto changes to key items of club heritage, such as the location of the club’s stadium, the club’s badge, colours and name.  

Much of this comes too late for West Ham fans who saw our club torn away from the beloved Boleyn Ground at Upton Park and the castle sacked from the club badge.  Sue Watson, chair of the West Ham United Supporters’ Trust (formerly the Independent Supporters’ Association) gave vital evidence to the review.

Sue’s details of the destruction of football heritage in the pursuit of profit and the side-lining of fans at West Ham helped formulate the 42 recommendations in the Fan-led Review.  West Ham was the second to last club in English professional football to agree to engage with fan groups (Hull was last).

The owners wanted nothing to do with fans. Since moving to a new stadium against the supporters wishes, the club has paid lip-service to consultation through a weak and ineffectual Independent Supporters Committee. That kind of foul play will be red carded under the new rules.

Football is broken in Britain. The collapse of Bury in the 2018-19 season, a football club that has existed since 1885, was just one example. The attempt by six greedy Premier League clubs to set up a super-league from which they could never be relegated, was another. And the maths don’t add up.

While Premier League clubs spend 80% of their income on players’ wages, Championship clubs spend 110% in their attempt to win promotion and a bigger slice of the broadcasting revenues. That is unsustainable and puts football clubs in financial jeopardy. The Fan-led Review was a Conservative Party manifesto commitment in 2019. Culture secretary Oliver Dowden announced it on 19 April 2021 and issued the terms of reference three days later.

The review was led by a former minister, the Conservative MP for Chatham and Alyesford Tracey Crouch, herself a Spurs fan. It was published on 24 November 2021 and a white paper was expected in the autumn of 2022. Clubs, the FA and the Premier League lobbied hard against everything within the review — and nearly got their way.

In that mad 50-day period when Liz Truss was Prime Minister and her Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng was sending mortgage rates through the roof, the government briefed journalists that it would drop the Fan-led Review completely. When pragmatism returned, the lobbyists lost out and all parties committed to full implementation. In November 2022, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Football Supporters, aided by the Football Supporters’ Association (FSA), went to the House of Lords to launch a one-year review.

Sports minister Stuart Andrew was present and confirmed that legislation to implement the Fan-led Review was his top priority. At that meeting the Premier League admitted not even having a negotiating position ready, presumably because it had been assured by its lobbyists that it would never need one.

In January this year, the Premier League tried to offer a deal to trickle down more money to Championship clubs. And it published fan engagement standards insisting all clubs talk to fan groups, but at standards way below those set out in the Fan-led Review. It was too little, too late. Tracey Crouch has made clear that all 42 recommendations in her review dovetail to create a holistic solution to football’s problems.

She compared it to listening to the tracks on your favourite band’s best album in the order the band meant you to listen to them. It’s not a shuffle, not played with a random track removed and not a Spotify playlist of similar music an algorithm thinks you may like. Numerous articles from political heavyweights have appeared recently backing the Fan-led Review. Some commentators are speculating that individuals, such as former PM Gordon Brown, are jockeying for position as the first regulator.

Implementation of the Fan-led Review will make a huge difference at West Ham.  In a league table of fan engagement, West Ham would be in the relegation zone. The new Premier League fan engagement standards, a rock-bottom bare minimum, would be a step up at West Ham.

Full implementation of the Fan-led Review will give fans that last-minute equaliser.

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