The Lib Dems attracted derision yesterday for their conference motion on football which said “Winning has become the primary motive in the sport”, and it was a very weird thing to say. But now they have had their debate, and not all of it was all that bonkers.
The motion correctly identified the Football Creditor Rule as an evil, that many supporters have been “priced out” by soaring ticket prices, that there has been a power shift to the Premier League clubs, that the game doesn’t do enough to channel the vast TV revenues down the pyramid, and that the game could do more to promote diversity and equality.
Therefore the motion demanded that all league clubs should have “formally recognised” Supporters’ Trusts, that the Owners’ and Directors’ Test be made more robust and clearer, and that we must have total transparency and better governance.
There were some more contentious things, like demanding all stewards be SIA registered (overkill – a fair proportion already are at senior clubs and the safety regulatory environment is pretty tight as it is), or that clubs be held more responsible for the on-pitch behaviour of their players (in an age of soaring player salaries, it’s up to the authorities to fine and ban the players more aggressively). There was a rather daft line about an “influx of overseas investment unjustified on purely financial grounds” which read like a complaint about “bloody foreigners” but didn’t mean a lot else. It was more UKIP than Lib Dem.
But the debate got under way. Edward Lord, who has recently been kicked off the FA’s Inclusion Advisory Board for speaking out, had a good go at all the governing bodies for doing too little about racism and sexism within their own premises. He’s right, the failure to do anything about the Scudamore scandal is proof how entrenched sexist attitudes and sexist administrators are. Scudamore should have been sacked.
Then we heard from John Bridges, who told us a bit about Manchester Village FC, a team inclusive of gay footballers who are the current International Gay and Lesbian FA European Champions. He gave an instance of homophobic abuse of such an extent that they were obliged to make an official complaint, which took the FA seven months to adjudicate on. Two offending players were disciplined, their club fined £50, and when the two teams met again the match had to be abandoned at half time. Bridges complained that although their County FA had been supportive, the FA itself is just not geared up to deal with complaints in the amateur game. They make no resources available to the grass-roots to provide training in these kinds of issues.
Ross Pepper from Lincoln told the surprising story of how the Lincoln City Ladies team decamped to Nottingham, where they now play as Notts County. This was a scandalous move, one of several misadventures associated with the birth of the FA Womens’ Super League. It is a tacky attempt to commercialise the womens’ game and one which I am pleased to see is meeting with indifference outside its own ‘walled garden’. There is plenty of genuine community-based football played by womens’ teams elsewhere.
After that, things got a bit mad. Joe Otton, the PPC for Sheffield Central correctly identified the ridiculousness of the line in the motion about winning being a bad thing. But he then veered off himself into saying that the game offers unparalleled opportunities to ethnic minority players (because they can earn money in football they can’t earn elsewhere in the corporate world), that there is less room for racial prejudice because of the pressure to win, and that it is “smug and condescending” to lecture football about racism. It is a very strange argument. I am just glad that racism in football is at a relatively low ebb, because his analysis of it is thoroughly muddled.
Cllr Prue Bray fairly pointed out that the motion ignored the women’s game (which, as we’ve seen is mired in controversy), saying “It’s bad enough that the media ignore womens’ sport without us doing it as well”. Given the complete misgovernance of the womens’ game at the top level, that’s a very reasonable complaint.
Cllr Paul Baker, co-owner of Cheltenham Town, delivered a defence of the Football League and its “great new regulations and disciplines”. These are a bolted stable door if ever there was one, assuming we even think they are “great”, which I do not. He blamed ITV Digital, and not carried-away owners, for the problems many clubs faced after that company collapsed. He even went so far as to say that legislation to drive governance reform should be a “final straw” answer. I happen to think the camel’s back was broken a long time ago, and if Cllr Baker reads the Coalition Agreement he will see that both our parties have so far broken the promise we made in it to sort this mess out.
Jenni Ferrans, from Milton Keynes, delivered an even crazier defence of MK Dons, saying how great it was that moving the football club there means the town has a stadium which can host Rugby World Cup games next year. We were going off-the-scale for bonkersness by now.
Andrew Page redeemed proceedings a bit with a joke (one of the few during conference season anywhere which was actually funny). In his playing days he once scored against Leeds United, but as everyone does these days he didn’t think it was anything to shout about. He told the conference about the excellent work Annan Athletic are doing in guiding their young supporters to be resistant to discrimination and homophobia, and that Scottish football generally is not rampantly homophobic. It was an enlightening contribution.
Winding up the debate, the Manchester Withington MP John Leech thanked those who’d turned up (the hall was about a quarter full) for what he called the “redeye debate” (it kicked off at the unexceptional hour of 9am). But he slightly reworked the much-ridiculed line about winning becoming the primary motive to say it is the “win at all costs” attitude which brings problems with it; and he’s quite right. Look at the shocking behaviour on pitches up and down the country, the revolving-door culture of hiring and firing managers, the rampant commercialism, the obsession with what’s happening in the top 4 of the Premier League. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to win, but there definitely is something wrong with “win at all costs”, and it’s a shame the original motion used such a silly form of words.
I was surprised Cllr Vernon-Jackson, the ‘saviour of Portsmouth FC’ didn’t turn up to speak and share with the conference how he single-handedly rescued Pompey from the clutches of Chainrai, as explained in his latest bit of propaganda. As one of the speakers mentioned Pompey but got his figures round the wrong way, I wondered where he got them from. But Gerald wasn’t there.
The motion was duly passed, but we need more from all the parties than just conference resolutions. With the Lib Dems at 7% in the polls, it’s debatable whether they will have much say in the next government anyway. If they do, they will probably have more pressing concerns – Ed Davey wowed a much larger audience later on with a policy of banning coal-fired power stations, covering the countryside with solar panels and wind turbines, and hiking energy prices so much that the cost of a football ticket will seem like a trifling concern.