Despite the fantastic progress of our national teams, club football in England needs radical fundamental reform, from the Premier League to grassroots – across both men’s and women’s football – if it is to survive and grow. Many attempts have been made to implement changes – FFP, owners and directors tests – but self-regulation has always been maintained and it has resulted in gross inequalities and a financially unsustainable industry.
As much as I welcomed the formation of the long-promised fan-led review into football governance this spring, which was kick-started after the Super League debacle, I have to admit to an underlying scepticism; a panel including a host of industry insiders, chaired by a Tory former sports minister, Tracey Crouch MP. Just how receptive to criticism and open to new ideas would they really be?
I had received reassurance from Dave Rose, Vice-Chair of the RAWA and staffer at the Football Supporter’s Association (FSA), that my concerns about the constitution of the review were misplaced; that the FSA is facilitating the process of the review and that the resulting report will be authored by Crouch alone, which should increase the likelihood that it won’t be an exercise in fudge geared to satisfying the lowest common denominator of interests within the game, but also will be politically acceptable to a Conservative government.
So when, last week, Ian Todd (the Red & White Army (RAWA)’s coopted rep for Lasses fans) invited me to join him on a video call to present to the review’s evidence session about the women’s game this Monday, I was both honoured and intrigued. My prejudices would be tested, and by all accounts, they wanted to hear not just experiences but ideas. I would have to clarify and crystallise my thoughts: what it is that I’d like see change, and how?
I’ve been writing about the need for a greater emphasis on equality within the football industry for the last 18 months or so, and Roker Report is the only Sunderland fan media outlet that has consistently covered the fortunes of Mel Reay’s squad, so I certainly had lots I wanted to say on the matter.
We decided that Ian would outline the case study of Sunderland AFC Ladies – how they’ve been forced back down the leagues on two occasions because of FA decisions and lack of support by the wider club, and how despite these setbacks has produced a whole generation of Lionesses. I would outline my view of what the future of the sport might look like, given the trials and tribulations at Sunderland, with practical suggestions for how, through a new independent regulator, greater equality between the two sides of the game might be achieved.
I was greeted on arrival into the virtual room by the friendly face of ex-QPR, Leeds and Burnley centre-back and former PFA chair, Clarke Carlisle – well known as one of the modern game’s more cerebral figures – and we were quickly joined by Ian, WSL Chief Executive Dawn Airey, former Downing Street media chief and Cambridge United Director Godric Smith, FSA Chair Kevin Miles and Tracey Crouch herself, along with a number of other attendees including a DCMS official to take notes.
It was a supportive and good-natured exchange, with the panel clearly interested in hearing our views. Ian did a great job in setting out the history of Sunderland AFC Ladies, how the team had repeatedly lost the England stars to the game’s rich clubs as it was forced back down the pyramid by licensing requirements and the lack of financial commitment from absentee and neglectful owners. He gave his account of the session to the FSA website:
In the context of the women’s game needing a more sustainable and independently administered long term development, Sunderland was presented as an example of how external factors over which coaches, players and supporters had no control had affected it over the last 22 years.
Despite consistent on-field performances it had three times been refused what it considered to be deserved promotion by decisions from the FA on either financial grounds or changes to the pyramid league structure. The fluctuating fortunes of the nominally associated men’s team had also affected the closeness of that partnership, the degree of financial support and access to men’s club facilities.
Whilst the current situation is perhaps the most promising it has been for some time, how long will it last? In the meantime the pathway for local talent has been sequentially broken, 11 players having left (some to gain international honours) as a result of decisions out of the club’s control. This surely highlights a need to appraise the whole future structure of the game.
I thought it important to begin my contribution by noting my awareness of the fact that Ian and I were two men speaking about women’s football, acknowledging that this isn’t ideal but also suggesting it demonstrates the broad range of Sunderland supporters who follow the Lasses as well as the Lads. (RAWA needs more women involved at all levels, and is always looking for new and committed volunteers to get involved.)
My argument about the future centred on addressing the debt owed to women’s football by the men’s game from the past, and ensuring that never again would a club like Sunderland be able to cut its women’s side off from support due to the relegation of the men’s team, as happened to us in 2017.
Women were systematically excluded from the sport for 50 years between the 1920s and 1970s, during which time the men had no competition for crowds, wages and sponsorships. This injustice is still with us and the debt needs to be replayed, so I suggested that any new independent regulator must ensure that a mandatory percentage of revenues generated by men’s football should be reserved for the women's game.
On top of the revenues generated organically by women’s football in England, professional clubs should be required to support women’s football in their local area, including but not exclusively directly within their own club. Commercial partners and sponsors will likely require this of them, providing a commercial imperative, but it has to be backed up by regulation and the system monitored.
The discussion extended to independent clubs, and with the panel, we explored ways to ensure the pyramid remained open to new entrants. Perhaps a pot of monies, sliced off Premier League, EFL and FA commercial deals, could be reallocated to clubs such as Durham Wildcats so that they can compete with other sides that are part of a wider football club (or group of clubs, as is the case with Manchester City) on a more equal footing. Such a fund could also allow more fan-owned clubs to be created.
Not repeating the mistakes made in the men’s game, but learning from them and building the game together for the future, were key themes of the session. Salary caps were suggested as part of the solution to make the game sustainable, which could well be part of the model adopted, but I emphasised the need first and foremost for women to be able to earn a good living for providing the entertainment on the pitch.
Sunderland Ladies have suffered from FA decisions regarding the structure of competitions, so we talked about the need to stabilise the pyramid and ensure promotion and relegation is conducted on footballing merit, and how cross-financing from men’s football coupled with effective regulation would underpin this.
I also set out how encouraging it is that the new Louis-Dreyfus controlled regime at Sunderland AFC has shown its commitment to reestablishing the Ladies by providing them with the same access to off-the-field support as the men.
We finished by highlighting the fact that RAWA’s structured dialogue meetings with the club will, from now on, have a standing agenda item focused on their plans for SAFC Ladies. Ian suggested that clubs like Sunderland could even move to having a specific Structured Dialogue process for their women’s sides, and panellists were very interested in this aspect of our evidence.
It was an interesting hour, and we covered a lot of ground. I am not an expert on the finance and governance of women’s football – but I am an ally who wants to see the game flourish as we come out of the pandemic, and I was privileged to be able to contribute in a small way.
Yesterday supporters from our recently-formed Women’s Game Network gave evidence to the Government’s ongoing Fan-led Review about the big issues in the women's game: https://t.co/sPx0t1ldai— The FSA (@WeAreTheFSA) June 29, 2021
This review is an opportunity to see real, lasting and positive change across our national sport. Tracey Crouch and her panel were genuinely interested in hearing from us as fans, and really wanted our input – it actually felt like fan involvement rather than fan consultation. The recommendations made in Crouch Report will need to be scrutinised by fans, and then hopefully brought forward into primary legislation by the Government for Parliament to have its say. This is where we can all play our part.
Whether you’re represented by a Labour, Conservative, Liberal or Nationalist MP in Westminster, they will have a voice and a vote on any new laws that result from the recommendations. When the time comes, we should make sure they know how important the future of football is to our country.