A historic moment for English football... but introduction of new regulator doesn’t go far enough

A historic moment for English football... but introduction of new regulator doesn’t go far enough

The Government has promised the introduction of a new footballregulator will lead to “a radical transformation” of the game, but one of the many questions about today’s White Paper is: do the measures go far enough?

Football bodies, including the Premier League and English Football League, have repeatedly failed to get their house in order, proving beyond doubt that they cannot be trusted to fix the game’s many problems without intervention.

Chronic financial mismanagement at clubs (highlighted by the pandemic), the aborted Super League proposal and the loss of treasured institutions such as Bury have moved the government to act, and football can have few complaints about increased state regulation.

An increased say for supporters, stricter owners’ and directors’ tests and powers to prevent clubs from joining breakaway Super Leagues should all be particularly welcomed.

The Premier League fear the measures will have the “unintended consequences” by limiting investment in the top flight and decreasing their popularity and competitiveness, warning today that the new regulation could ultimately “damage the game”.

It is telling, though, that Paul Barber, chief executive of perhaps the League’s best-run club, Brighton, has said there is “nothing to fear” from the plans, while West Ham chairman David Sullivan led the public backlash.

The Premier League, though, should really be relieved at having escaped even harsher regulation.

While the new regulator will have the power to intervene as a “last resort” if the top flight cannot reach an agreement with the rest of the pyramid over wealth redistribution, the game will be allowed to continue to try to reach a solution itself, despite having repeatedly failed to do so. It feels like a weak starting point for the new body.

The top flight should also be grateful there are no plans for tighter scrutiny of potential investors, with little to suggest the regulator will be able to tackle the scourge of sportwashing.

The Government insists the regulator would insulate clubs against the impact of financial ‘shocks’, including a ‘geopolitical shift’ — a clear reference to Chelsea’s ownership crisis in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which led to sanctions against former owner Roman Abramovich.

But would a regulator really have prevented Abramovich from buying Chelsea in 2003? The oligarch could prove the source of his wealth, even if we now know it was obtained through questionable means, and would have been able to present the regulator with robust financial plans. The regulator would have had powers to scrutinise the “integrity” of Abramovich but in 2003 Britain shared a close relationship with Russia.

There is nothing the regulator will likely be able do to stop wealthy individuals from UK-friendly nations from buying our clubs, even if their motives are opaque.

Manchester United could soon be owned by Qataris (while a different Qatari consortium is interested in buying a minority stake in Tottenham, and who knows where that could lead?) and if their bid succeeds, they would join Newcastle’s Saudi Arabia-backed owners and Manchester City’s Abu Dhabi custodians in the Premier League.

The White Paper emphasises the need to protect the “cultural heritage” of our clubs, so is it right that an increasingly number of our national institutions are allowed to be owned by foreign states, as vehicles of soft power and sportswashing?

Why did MP Tracey Crouch’s fan-led review not tackle the issue of state ownership? And are City and Newcastle (and potentially United) really insulated from “geo-political shocks”, given they are effectively pawns in Gulf politics? These are among the big questions which today’s White Paper does not address.

Closer to home, a regulator would have been unlikely to stop the succession of questionable owners at beleaguered Charlton — twice cited in the White Paper as an example of a club at war with its own fans — but it would have prevented Roland Dutchatelet still owning The Valley, despite selling the club to Thomas Sandgaard in 2020.

The situation continues to be the source of huge problems for the Addicks.

Among the other issues which will be outside the remit of the regulator are player welfare, agent regulation and the issue equality, diversity and inclusion in football. These are all areas where the game needs further progress but has so far failed to remedy.

As the Premier League and government have acknowledged, Thursday’s announcement is a historic chance to reshape the game. Given the scale of the issues facing English football, the danger is that it may come to look like a soft touch and an opportunity missed.