The Government’s independent fan-led review of football governance has formally recommended the introduction of a new ‘Independent Regulator for English Football’ (Iref) – with powers to block any future European Super League and police club ownership.
Tracey Crouch MP, the chair of the review panel, sent Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, an interim report in which she also revealed plans to grant supporters a ‘golden share’, giving them a veto over the sale of a team’s stadium and changes to a side’s name, badge and kit colours.
“It is absolutely evident from our sessions that the football authorities have lost the trust and confidence of fans as have, in a number of cases, clubs themselves,” she wrote, accusing the game of failing to heed repeated warnings that it was in the “last-chance saloon”. “Therefore it is now time for external assistance”.
Crouch said the ‘Iref’ would “likely” police “cost controls” and “revised separate tests for owners and directors of clubs on an initial and on-going basis”.
Revealing it could operate through “a formal licensing system”, she added: “I also expect that a licensing model, in conjunction with better fan engagement and veto powers, will allow the regulator to protect existing competitions against any future European Super League type proposals.”
On what she called “protecting heritage assets,” she said she would “develop proposals with the panel to offer greater protection for these important assets through a ‘golden share’ for fans, giving veto powers over reserved items, to be held by a democratic legally constituted fan group.
“I will work over the summer to consider the appropriate matters to be covered by this golden share veto and alongside this we will develop proposals for additional protections such as enhancing the existing legal provision for ‘Assets of Community Value’.”
She also said she would “consider” evidence from some fans groups who would like the ability to buy shares in clubs or buy them outright if they become insolvent.
Crouch said a licensing system could allow a regulator to force the game to become more diverse and that “a substantially reformed” Football Association could eventually absorb its functions, “though evidence received indicates this possibility is some way off”.
To that end, she recommended the FA should ensure at least half of its board was made up of “genuinely independent non-executive directors and that significant reform of the FA council is undertaken”.
The Crouch review was promised as part of the Conservatives’ 2019 General Election manifesto and commissioned early after the launch and swift collapse of the Super League in April.
Crouch, the Conservative MP for Chatham and Aylesford, said the review had heard more than 100 hours of evidence from fans, leagues, the FA and clubs at every level of the pyramid.
It has received 70 pieces of written evidence and also accepted feedback from fans via a survey which closes on Thursday.
Crouch wrote: “The evidence has been clear that football clubs are not ordinary businesses. They play a critical social, civic and cultural role in their local communities. They need to be protected - sometimes from their owners who are, after all, simply the current custodians of a community asset.”
Crouch continued: “Key aspects of our national game are at genuine risk. The short-lived threat of the European Super League jeopardised the future of the English football pyramid.
“While that threat has receded – for now – the dangers facing many clubs across the country are very real with their futures precarious and dependent in most cases on the willingness and continuing ability of owners to fund significant losses.”
Dowden said: “We’ve seen this year with the failed European Super League proposals and Euro 2020 how central football is to our national life.
“I’ve been clear that now is the time to take a wide-ranging look at reform of the game. I will not hesitate to take bold steps where necessary.
“I am grateful to the chair and panel for their update on the fan led review. I look forward to receiving the final report and recommendations in the autumn.”
Crouch shows she is determined to protect football's heritage assets
Tracey Crouch’s recommendation that an independent regulator be imposed on English football was entirely expected – she had long backed calls for one.
Less clear was her stance on a so-called ‘golden share’ for fans – the power of veto over certain decisions made by a club – something her interim report has now laid out in black and white.
When the Government first confirmed Crouch would be asked to consider such powers under the terms of reference of her review, it was warned clubs would wage war against the plan.
Mehmet Dalman, the chairman of Cardiff City, told Telegraph Sport: “It goes against every principle of capitalism.”
But such opposition has failed to deter Crouch when it comes to what she calls “protecting heritage assets” or “items of great cultural and emotional importance to fans”.
She highlighted those clubs “who appear to have lost the rights to their home grounds” but also those to have seen owners change their club’s badges and colours in defiance of supporter opposition.
It was Cardiff owner Vincent Tan who infamously rebranded the club from blue to red in 2012 in the face of an overwhelming backlash because he believed it would bring them good fortune.
He eventually caved in three years later but, under Crouch’s plan, such a move would have never been allowed to happen.
An owner looking to change a clubs’ identity against the fans’ wishes is – thankfully – relatively rare.
But the selling of a stadium, ostensibly because a side have got themselves into financial difficulty, has become more common in recent years.
Aston Villa, Derby County and Sheffield Wednesday all exploited a loophole in the English Football League’s cost-control rules to do so.
And although that loophole has now been closed, a truly unscrupulous owner who cares only about money could still look to sell a ground simply to line his or her own pockets.
Of course, even if the Government was to make the introduction of a ‘golden share’ law, that would always be subject to legal challenge in the courts.