At what would normally be the climax of the football season the sudden but now quite prolonged period without any live sport has left sports journalists, commentators and pundits with column inches, website pixels and broadcast hours to fill. In light of the scale of the public health emergency, many have been careful to preface their contributions by quoting Bill Shankly (and more recent comments from one of his Anfield successors, current Liverpool manager, Jurgen Klopp) about the relative importance of football in the context of the global response to coronavirus.
Filling that space there has undoubtedly been a lot of nostalgia – enabling reflections on top tens, on this day and replayed classic matches. But this has been combined with pontification about top level player wages and deductions, the rights and wrongs of the richest clubs using government furlough schemes and whether, when or how the current season should conclude. This matters in the, as yet unseen but in all likelihood soon to be felt, impact on football clubs further down the pyramid that could be one of the significant consequences for life after the pandemic.
‘So what?’ you might think – businesses across all sectors that have grimly hung on in recent lean years are just now going to go into liquidation, shedding jobs and reducing tax revenue – and ultimately what is so different about football clubs as opposed to shops, gyms or factories that may never open up again? And football is awash with money – look at how much players are sold for, their salaries and the obscene amounts of money that agents, and agents of agents, skim off the top.
That is – at least partly – true. English football at the top level is a successful, highly marketed, internationally sold entertainment business with huge amounts of broadcast revenue accrued for the domestic and international rights to show those games. What is perhaps less well understood is how unevenly that wealth is distributed in football. The Premier League is the golden ticket, and clubs lower down and in the League are either desperately striving to reach the promised land by becoming hugely indebted, or are operating on a completely different level with the theoretical possibility of promotion to the top level far from a realistic prospect.
Yet often it is those smaller clubs that are such an important part of the communities – when Bury FC, one of the oldest names in professional football in England and an FA Cup winner, were discharged from the League back in August (a time which now seems like generations ago rather than the start of the current season) there was a sudden and belated attention to how poor owners, massive indebtedness and ultimately lax self-regulation could all but finish off an institution of history, heritage and real community value. These assets of community value, expressions of civic identity and historic parts of the fabric of towns and cities across the country are fragile institutions and could go under.
For many years, as Supporters Direct – now part of the Football Supporters’ Association – argued, the toxic combination of poor governance and bad ownership put clubs into crisis. It was often only thanks to supporters’ trust and fans groups that the pieces were picked up at all and clubs managed to survive when those owners departed. Only with good regulation, better governance and recognition of the role of supporters in running clubs could football become sustainable in the long term.
While Bury shook football authorities out of some of the habitual complacency, and the media and select committee shone a light on those shortcomings, some small steps were being taken to look again at regulation and oversight. Senior figures at the FA, and the EFL, were at least implicitly acknowledging things would need to change. That was before coronavirus.
Now, suddenly, the whole of football is facing an existential crisis – from even some of the richest clubs in professional football to those whose community activity has become as significant as their first team in non-league – and the response will have to come from football itself. The likely backdrop is one where broadcast revenue will fall, sponsorship riches will reduce and supporters who have lost jobs through this crisis may forsake their season tickets.
Clubs that are well run, prudently administered, and owned by supporters are facing up to as grim a situation as those who have been more cavalier. When so much of the money in football is concentrated at the top, but then mostly goes out in transfer fees and player salaries, even the relatively small amounts in solidarity payments made to lower league clubs will hardly scratch the surface. The big clubs that sometimes talk about the importance of the pyramid and the value of lower leagues as part of what makes the top level of English football so prized a sporting asset will need to think not only of their own survival, but also of that which exists below them. Acting as part of what is often called the football family will be harder than paying it lip service – and not something that has had to be done to any great extent for close to thirty years.
It is only through a real exercise in solidarity, fundamental reform of governance and an approach that places restrictions on professional football clubs operating beyond their means that football as we recognise it will be able to survive. That matters in places where the football club is a cultural anchor, where the identity of a place is enshrined and where work with communities demonstrates a positive and ongoing value in health, education and social cohesion with some of the hardest to reach and most vulnerable individuals.
There are worse places to start than the proposals published by the Football Supporters’ Association and recognised as a contribution to the solution by the DCMS select committee ahead of the last election. Back then, we described the situation at Bury as a wake-up call for football. What has happened since, in a way that nobody could have imagined, is the equivalent of a bucket of ice-cold water being poured from a great height over the sleeping. Nobody wants to see clubs go under – but without a fundamentally different approach that is more likely.