Indeed, for many years there was certainly a sense that the Conservatives and football fans weren’t natural partners. Very few top-flight football clubs had a Conservative MP until the Red Wall fell in the 2019 General Election.
Conservatives, like the public in general, are also rightly suspicious of mixing politics and sport. People attend a game to witness footballing skill and feel a sense of camaderie with people of all races and classes cheering for their team.
However, the undignified mess that was the European Super League (ESL) “launch” the other week, suggests the Government need to give attention to the governance of football. Thankfully, they have the personnel to do this and are developing exciting ideas about how to reform the beautiful game.
Firstly, the Party has people who know this space well. Damian Collins MP has led various inquiries into Football Governance when Chair of the DCMS Committee. The formidable No10 advisor Elena Narozanski successfully linked the power of communities and sport in their 2019 manifesto. And Tracey Crouch MP – former Sports Minister (and rather handy player); respected on both sides of the House – is now leading this fan-led review.
Secondly, there is a recognition at the top of government of a key aspect of the game: grassroots football. Boris is not a diehard football fan and rightly does not pretend to be. However, he does recognise the importance of football governance and acted decisively on the proposed European Super League.
Thirdly, this commitment is not new. Take Boris’s visit to Cheadle back in December 2019 for example – when he announced additional £550m investment for grassroots football. The Government support for a 2030 World Cup bid, and a legacy of new facilities for budding sportspeople throughout the country, all show emphatic Conservative commitment.
Fourthly, grassroots sport is also central to the new government focus on tackling obesity. The social value of a thriving grassroots game undoubtedly helps address the tide of young kids glued to their games consoles, who aren’t getting enough physical activity in every week.
Put simply, football is so much more than what you see on the TV screen. It has deep roots in every community. Over 12 million adults (pre-Covid) kick a football every week in some shape or form. And this participation in the grassroots football makes a hefty £10.16bn contribution to society every year.
Now that the terms of reference for the fan led of review football has been published, I therefore urge Tracey Crouch to give this area of the game – grassroots football – even further attention – specifically with regard to facilities and the review’s focus on the “flow of money through the football pyramid”.
She won’t need to go far to find out what is needed to support its future. The Football Foundation set out last year precisely what is needed with regard to grassroots facilities – and where. The Premier League, The FA and DCMS are all funders of the Football Foundation and have contributed significantly – but the evidence is that this investment simply is not enough.
But why is this aspect of the game so important?
As the riches of the Premier League and popularity of football have both grown, it demonstrates that our stewardship and investment in the game has not moved at the same pace. Poor regulation means bad owners can rip the heart out of a football club without fear of retaliation. The European Super League and the rumours of a top flight club considering a move abroad suggest a danger that English football could become more like American sport – where teams move cities for tax breaks and are not as moored in their communities as they are here.
In turn, any attention or concern for our poor grassroots facilities has been predictably minimal – with predictable results to boot.
Indeed, when I was speaking at a UEFA roundtable in Geneva a few years ago, my counterpart in Germany expressed his envy at just how large and significant even our semi-professional game was. Conversely, I expressed my envy at the fact that Germany were now building more artificial football pitches in a single year than what we had in total!
We can clearly learn from our European partners on some of these issues and the review should consider what we can learn and replicate where beneficial. The terms of reference for this fan led review in response to the European Super League are to be welcomed and touch on all the relevant issues.
But it does seem obvious that we need to settle once and for all three core questions that perhaps haven’t been discussed enough:
Tracey Crouch, over to you!
Nick Vaughan joined MHP from 10 Downing Street where he was a Special Advisor to the Prime Minister. He was also Chairman of a Football Community Trust for three years and headed up Public Affairs at The FA.