The debate over the appropriateness of the Prime Minister’s visit to the Stadium of Light on 31st January has been played out in the letters pages of Roker Report over the last week or so. Whether you’re a supporter of Boris Johnson or his visit or not, the fact is that his government’s will shape the future of our country - and our national game - for the next five years.
There are those who wish that we could “keep football and politics separate”. The Stadium of Light is where we go to escape the worries and arguments of everyday life, where the consultant and the cleaner sit side-by-side and sing the same songs, united in a common purpose if only for 90 minutes plus injury time.
But football is, and always has been, embedded in the social and economic environment that governments help to create, and as we enter a period of unprecedented upheaval and flux, football cannot be immune from the impact of these changes.
So what does the Johnson government have in mind?
The Conservative Party Manifesto sets out a number of policies relating to football, all linked to their New Deal for Towns agenda to “level-up” the economies of communities outside of the booming centres of London, Bristol, Birmingham and Manchester.
It is an interesting set of proposals, and chimes with the more interventionist tone that Johnson has sought to strike. This agenda is explicitly designed to capture the affections of areas such as Sunderland and County Durham where, in times times past, many have seen the free-marketeer and deregulating Conservatives as not representing the interests of working class people. The devastation of the end of ship building and coal mining, mitigated by the opening of the Nissan factory in Washington and Doxford International business park, means the legacy of the 1980s and early 1990s is still highly contested in the area.
The classism and anti-football instincts of previous Tory Governments, particularly that of Margaret Thatcher, have resulted in restrictions on the rights and freedoms of citizens who attend professional football matches that are simply not replicated in other sporting arenas.
Shell out £100 for a ticket and you can drink alcohol from 10am to 7pm at the test match, and even if you don’t you’ll likely end up covered in dregs as the “beer-snake” passes over your head.
You can get as squiffy as you like at ‘Twickers’ to watch the rugger, it’s all part of the game. And, as anyone who has endured being a non-race-going passenger on the train from Chester to Bangor after Ladies Day will know, it’s not just young lads in Burberry scarves at football matches who can get violent and disorderly after a few too many.
So let’s take a little time to look at the three headline Tory policies relating to football - Safe Standing, Community Ownership and the Owners and Directors Test - and how they relate to the future of Sunderland AFC.
Being exiles, my son and I go to a lot more away games than home games, and one of the interesting features of supporting Sunderland on the road is the almost certainty that - like it or not - you’re going to be standing for the duration of the game.
It may be strictly against the terms of conditions of entry, but we love it. I grew up on the Roker End (albeit perched with my legs dangling over the top of the centre stairwell) and graduated to the Fulwell End where I spent my teenage years.
Standing amongst my fellow fans is my preference, but doing so in seating areas comes with big risks attached. Following the winning goal at Doncaster, my lad hurt his ankle as he and the crowd around us erupted in magnificent jubilation. I have heard horror stories of legs snapped in two at Wembley. The risk of deadly crushes and severe overcrowding may have thankfully been all but eliminated by the move to mandatory all-seater stadia in the Premier League and Championship, but the persistence of the desire to stand has meant the issue has never quite gone away.
It has been a refreshing change for many Sunderland fans to stand on traditional terracing at Accrington Stanley and Fleetwood Town during our time in the third tier. In July 2019, Liberal Democrat Sunderland City Councillor and safe standing campaigner, Stephen O’Brien , wrote to the Government to point out that League 1 teams that do have standing, which would include promotion-seeking Wycombe Wanderers, should not be penalised for having standing sections if they were to go up into the top two divisions.
Indeed, all three main parties at the 2019 election had promises to legislate for safe standing - this is one policy area on which there is a broad political consensus, so the impediments to its implementation are relatively low.
Currently, if the people in front of you are standing you have no option but to risk an argument or stand yourself. Introducing safe standing is, therefore, at its core, about choice for those who wish to stand and those who want, or need, to sit.
Elsewhere around the world, football fans can have a beer in the stands - although this might be a step too far in England at this stage. That being said, safe standing (and beer drinking) works in Germany, a country towards which those of us with an interest in fan culture, match-day experience and ownership models often look to with green-eyes.
The introduction of the flag display to the Roker End - a part of the SOL in which many people choose to stand rather than sit - has been amazing and the introduction of a significant proportion of “safe standing” could give another boost to the atmosphere, which so often drives our team forward towards victory and our shared goal of footballing success.
In this way, formalising the ongoing experiments with safe standing into legislation presents Johnson with an opportunity to make a symbolic gesture towards working class culture. It would take away the risk of the rules changing as teams move through the leagues, and could kick-start investment in ground improvements. If our unscientific poll of fans on twitter at the weekend is anything to go by, it would be overwhelmingly popular with Sunderland fans.
POLL: Would you like to see safe standing introduced at The SOL?— Roker Report (@RokerReport) February 9, 2020
Community Ownership Fund
On his recent visit to our fair city, Mr Johnson made a statement that we should all hold him and his government to over the next few years:
We are going to maximise the power of the North East, unleash its potential and put the people of Sunderland in real control over the things that matter to you and your families.
What institution matters more to the people of Sunderland and the surrounding areas than our football club?
An investment of £25 million from the proposed £150 million Community Ownership Fund would make instantly viable the “pipe dream” I have of an independent, democratic Sunderland Supporters Trust taking a controlling stake in the club we love.
However, the line in the manifesto relating to the promised fund speaks of “local football clubs” and, despite being in League 1 and being the most important cultural institution in the local area of Sunderland, I strongly suspect the government has Macclesfield and Oldham in mind rather than clubs of our size and potential revenues.
Expect limits on individual applications of no more than a million pounds or so; £150 million is not a vast amount to go round when community pubs and post offices across the UK are shutting down. However, it would be difficult for them to write legislation regulating access to the fund in a way that would preclude this pot being part of a mix of funding sources that could one day help us to buy a communal stake in the club.
But with the process of Donald and Co selling Sunderland already in train, the Community Ownership Fund not yet established (we await the first real Johnson budget on 11 March) and the members of Red & White Army having chosen not to go down the Supporters’ Trust route, in all likelihood we as supporters will not have the opportunity to take back control of our club this time round.
Nevertheless, it’s one to watch.
Owners & Directors Tests
The Tory manifesto pledge to conduct a fan-led review of the governance of football is perhaps the most interesting and potentially transformative of all of Johnson’s pledges - particularly to a club like Sunderland facing the uncertainty of an impending change of ownership.
Who is allowed to buy and run a football club, and what they’re allowed to a club do when they have their hands on it, should be at the forefront of every Sunderland fan’s mind right now.
The governance of English football is at a critical juncture. We have already lost one historic club to a bad owner who was allowed to get away with killing a beloved community asset, and others in deep trouble.
Championship clubs have been selling their stadiums and the “Big 6” have used their pre-financial fair play splurges to cement their place at the pinnacle of the game. Clubs that have used fancy schemes to try to buy their way back to the big time face points deductions, which only punishes the fans for the sins of the owners.
Johnson’s proposed review comes on the back of an open letter in November 2019 from the Conservative MP Damian Collins, then Chair of the UK Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee, to Debbie Jevans CBE, Executive Chair EFL, and Greg Clarke, Chairman of the FA.
In this letter Mr Collins excoriates the EFL for their role in the demise of Bury, and the almost-extinction of Bolton Wanderers FC, and sets out their plans for a licensing system for English league clubs, which would involve:
- anyone wishing to acquire or increase control of a club must apply for prior approval from the licensing authority;
- sanctions for non-compliance with the licensing framework or other rules and regulations should be taken against individuals, rather than clubs;
- owners should be required to a pay a bond to the licensing authority that will be forfeited in the event of default in payment of wages, suppliers or taxes;
- robust change of control procedures should include the ability to bring about compulsory sale of an in cases where they fail to meet the required standards.
The Football Supporters Association welcomed the letter, and highlighted other recommendations made including the establishment of a Supporters’ Ombudsman to hear the concerns of fans and the banning of the practice of clubs and owners borrowing against fixed assets such as stadiums, other than for related capital projects - something that has concerned many Sunderland fans after the FPP loan to Madrox partners was secured against the Stadium of Light and Academy.
Little time has passed since the election, so no real progress towards setting up the review has yet been announced and - crucially - the scope of the review is yet to be decided.
Do we have the confidence that these promises will be delivered upon? The popularity of safe standing makes it an almost certainty by 2024 - especially if opposition parties continue to put pressure on DCMS to legislate and the evidence base builds.
The size and remit of any Community Ownership Fund may depend on the state of the public finances, which will be far from certain from 2021 onwards.
The owners and directors test, and plans for the licensing and further reform of the governance and financing of the game, will face the entrenched, vested interests who own and control the Premier League behemoths. In these early weeks of Johnson’s government, the focus seems to have shifted towards the perceived evils of the gambling industry’s grip over the game.
If the government are to move against betting firms in the interests of public health, a quid-pro-quo with the club owners who make up Britain’s biggest brand will likely be required. In that case, the fan-led review could find itself either fatally constrained or delayed until it’s too late to be implemented.
Sunderland fans have a tendency to remember the promises of the people in power and hold them to their word. Johnson will have to deliver on his promise of “real control” if he is to use football as a means transform the Tory brand in the eyes of the many in our communities who have suffered terribly under their rule.