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Has Sunderland co-owner Charlie Methven come up with a solid plan to save the EFL?

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Roker Report editor Rich Speight - who has been setting out the case for fan ownership at Sunderland for a while - cautiously welcomes the radical new plan proposed by Charlie Methven to save English football.

Sunderland v Bradford City - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Late on Thursday evening, a week or so ago, news broke of a radical new plan to save the English game from Covid-19 induced bankruptcy through state intervention in the marketplace of football and at the same time empower both fans and local government to take part actively in the ownership of professional football clubs.

This story in itself was of interest to me as football fan interested in alternative models of club ownership, but what I didn’t expect to read was that this revolutionary plan was born of a collaboration between former Sunderland AFC director and six per cent shareholder, Charlie Methven, and his old friend, the Tory former Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Damian Collins MP.

Methven has become something of a pantomime villain amongst a large part of our fanbase over the last year or so. I’m one of the growing number of fans who have been highly critical of his role not only in the failed sale of the club to the American consortium and the £20m loan to Madrox Partners written off by the club, but also his outrageous “off the cuff” denigration of the business acumen of fans and his associated attempts to manipulate and control the media narrative around the sale of the club.

I’ve seen the current ownership fail to deliver what we demand on the pitch and fail to deliver on their word off the pitch. I’ve seen young talent and loyal servants leave the club they love and that has nurtured them. Some may rate the Donald, Methven and Sartori tenure as 25/40 overall, but I’m not one of them.

Charlton Athletic v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Play-off Final Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images

As a lifelong socialist and trade unionist, I have been highly sceptical of the move from Methven’s friends in the current Conservative government, consisting of lifelong devotees of deregulation and opponents of collectivism and an interventionist state, to make “levelling up” the post-industrial economies of regions like the North East of England a real priority. My scepticism has extended to the promises in the 2019 Tory election manifesto to introduce a Community Ownership fund that could be used by supporters to takeover community assets, such as football clubs, that may be under threat. Trust is something hard to win and easy to loose.

Football finance is a hot topic at the moment, and when the game does return we can be guaranteed it will not be in the form it took before the coronavirus lockdown. The future of football, integral to so many communities like Sunderland, is a political issue. Collin’s previous position at the head of the House of Commons Select Committee that oversees sport means he has a natural interest in the governance and standing of the football. It’s also a big industry, employing thousands of people directly and tens of thousands in the wider economy of towns and cities across the country.

Charlie Methven’s involvement, as someone with a six per cent stake in Sunderland AFC and therefore a personal interest in the financial viability of English football, is more unexpected. He claims that Sunderland is not in need of a bailout, but as we could not be excluded from any plan to rescue the game so questions immediately arose as to the appropriateness of his being closely associated to the proposals.

Sunderland v Charlton Athletic - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Yet I have previously called on Charlie to sell his shares to the fans, and it would be churlish to dismiss his apparent conversion to the cause out of hand. Methven has spoken, as seen on Sunderland Til I Die, about the role of owners and directors of clubs as custodians and how fans are the true owners of the club. And whatever you think of the man, he clearly is a football fan himself.

Initially, he was all about engagement through volunteer-drives, talk-ins and the Structured Dialogue meetings but, when things went wrong and the owners’ plans to move the club on didn't materialise despite due diligence being carried out, that relationship turned sour. Methven left the club soon after the “unbelievably uneducated” controversy to pursue is political communications career. We are now, it seems, seeing the result of a period of reflection from our minority shareholder.


The Collins-Methven Plan

The Football Supporters’ Association (FSA), which represents and supports fan groups and Supporters’ Trusts across England and Wales, has actively backed Collins and Methven’s Six Point Plan, “A Way Forward for Football”, and it was launched with an article by Collins on on their website.

It sets out in clear and unambiguous terms the perilous state of English League football at this moment in time. The almost certain loss of dozens of historic and locally vital professional clubs hangs over us. Covid-19 has hit the industry, particularly outside the Premier League, hard. Collins sets out that private investment is unlikely for an industry that, outside of the top two divisions, relies heavily upon match day income. The day when clubs like Sunderland will play a football match in front of a live paying crowd again may be a long way off. The plan recognises the social and economic value of the clubs.

The only feasible response to the financial crisis, it may turn out, is a complete restructuring of the ownership model of football clubs along these lines:

The creation of the Football Finance Authority (FFA), a UK government-backed agency of the Football Association. This would provide finance to EFL clubs.

Funding would be in return for between 10 and 49 per cent of the shares in the clubs.

Independent directors would be appointed to the club’s board to represent the FFA shareholding, and could be chosen through a Supporters’ Trust or by local councils. They would have to be non-political and pass a newly beefed-up Fit & Proper Persons test set by the FFA.

The independent director would have access to all of the financial information and accounts of the club at all times, and have a remit to report to the FFA any impropriety they might find. Clubs that fail to abide by new financial constraints, on wages for instance, would be put into administration to keep the club in existence while auditors implement the rules.

The Supporters’ Trusts and local authorities would have the option to purchase the FFA shareholding at a discounted rate, so that the Treasury can recoup some of their investment. (Ultimately we ultimately pay for football one way or another, whatever the ownership model and the immediate source of funding).

The financial rules for the EFL would be set by the FFA. The FFA would be governed by a board involving a majority the players’ union the PFA, and the FSA, as well as the clubs themselves.

This package would clearly need to sit alongside other reforms to player wages, involving a new wage cap, as well as more stringent tests for majority private owners of the clubs. Agreeing this between the FA, the DCMS, the PFA, FSA and the majority of the clubs in the EFL is a huge undertaking under any conditions.

The political path to the implementation of these proposals is also not yet clear. A week on, Damian Collins has now requested that urgent talks be held involving all stakeholders, including the Department for Culture, Media & Sport, to discuss his and Methven and FSA’s proposals.

The plan, if agreed would, I expect, then require primary legislation at Westminster and possibly in the Welsh Senedd (Cardiff, Swansea and Newport are all affected) in order to go ahead. Our representatives will ultimately decide the future of the game.

The Treasury has been active in supporting other sports, including agreeing a rescue package for Rugby League where the fan ownership model is more common. But the sums of money involved in rescuing ELF clubs - Championship lost a reported £361m collectively in 2018-19 - might make them think twice about what is, on one level, a massive public bailout to shareholders in an industry that was clearly failing financially well before this horrific pandemic, in a country ravaged by this deadly disease where many more worthy causes can be found. There would be a moral hazard in normal circumstances, and the Chancellor might decide that football needs to take the virus on the chin, as it were, and be reformed by the creative destruction of the winds of global capital.

We know the value of football to our communities cannot be measured merely in terms of pounds and pence, a fact also laid out in Collin’s statement. Clubs are in the process of going bust right now. Once the EFL clubs have finally resolved how the League One season will be concluded, and the play-offs and Premier League have been played out behind closed doors, football people everywhere - including us as Sunderland fans - should be singularly focused on the saving the game and making it sustainable for the future.

We have an opportunity, amidst the anger and sorry of 2020, to reshape the game we love so it is there for us to enjoy when this, eventually, has passed.

Football is political.

Sunderland Unveil New Manager - Martin O’Neill Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Trust the Supporters

If implemented, however, “A Way Forward for Football” moves the professional game - at least outside Premier League - clearly in the direction of Germany’s 50+1 rule, and this was explicitly referenced by Collins in his article.

It is not full-on fan ownership along the lines of the smaller teams like FC United of Manchester or even AFC Wimbledon, and with the involvement of local government is more akin to the mixed model of fan and local government ownership used by Hajduk Split than entirely member-owned Athletic Bilbao. It allows private ownership and big investment to come in for the majority of shares in a club.

It’s not free market capitalism, it’s not state directed communism. It’s a compromise.

On the face of it, the plan is a solution to many of the largely valid and questions and criticisms of the whole idea of fan ownership for Sunderland, which I’ve been writing about for a while now.

These concerns include the source of funds for the purchase of shares and the ongoing running of the club, the capacity of fans to be actively involved in club boards, the fact that a fan owned Sunderland would be competing against other clubs that were entirely privately owned by billionaires. I think most if not all of these concerns are addressed in the proposals, but this is why active involvement and scrutiny of fans, media and our elected representatives is so important.

The FFA scheme would be voluntary; Donald, Methven and Sartori would not be forced to sell their shares to the government or anyone else. It would, however, be a safety net for us and every other set of fans out there who fear for the future of their clubs.

Sunderland v Ipswich Town - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

We have to act quickly as a fanbase. I am the Red & White Army’s Co-opted Member for Roker Report and, in my view, when the fan group convenes digitally for a General Meeting this summer, motions should be tabled to either convert RAWA to a Supporters’ Trust or to create a Supporters’ Trust as a separate organisation, with an optional monthly subscription in order to raise funds.

The existence of a Supporters’ Trust with its own financial resources will be central to our collective ability to be involved as fans in the future direction of the club whether or not a version of the Collins-Methven plan is every implemented by the football authorities and backed by the government.

We don’t know if, how and to whom Stewart Donald is going to sell Sunderland AFC. We don’t know if the holding company’s American creditors, FPP Partners, will eventually take control of the club. We don't know if Juan Sartori will buy out Steward Donald, pass the fit and proper persons test and bankroll the club to the Premier League.

We do know that the risk of not having a club to support when football comes back is real.

My concern, in exploring fan ownership for Sunderland AFC, has only ever been for the future survival of Sunderland AFC. and I now think it is vital that we take this next step together so that we are prepared for every eventuality.

Sunderland v Ipswich Town - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images