In a recent interview with Jonathan Liew of the Independent, Jurgen Klopp discussed his political beliefs, ‘…how politics is described now, I am for sure on the left side of middle’. He also set out a vision of football as a unifying force socially: ‘What I like in football is that you can bring together so many people – not only in the stadium – for 95 minutes with exactly the same emotion, with the same focus, with the [same] energy’. On this, it was recently suggested by Stephen Bush that Labour might use football to break into the areas where the party experiences ‘cultural halitosis’. The key plank of this line of thinking rests on the idea – much talked about in the light of Manchester City winning the FA Cup and Premier League with the most expensive squad ever assembled – that the amount of money in the modern game has taken the joy out of it, pricing out fans. A critique of the influence of money in football could then be extended by Labour into a broader critique of capitalism, looking at the influence of money in other areas, like politics.
Football has proven to be an excellent locus for organisation before – in my personal experience growing up around football in Liverpool, lads I knew as a teenager seemed to have become devout socialists around the same time that they’d got into local lower-league teams like City of Liverpool FC. Fan groups like Spirit of Shankly did an incredible job of standing up to Liverpool FC’s toxic former owners, and Fans Supporting Foodbanks now contribute almost half of the food to local foodbanks, playing a huge role in supporting the neediest in the city, regardless of club colours.
However, any relationship between Labour and fans would need to be transactional. It will not be enough for Labour to simply turn up and tell football fans that the issue of them not being able to afford a season ticket is, ‘if you think about it, a bit like the issue of corporate lobbyists.’ An offer that appeals to fans of the beautiful game also needs to be made. Happily, Labour has a small raft of policies on football. If fully implemented, these could go some way to fixing the modern game, and beginning the process of building trust, perhaps shaking off some of the plaque causing our ‘cultural halitosis’.
The promise to ‘fix the broken ticketing market – by enforcing anti-bot legislation and implementing the recommendations of the Waterson review to ensure fair opportunities for fans to buy tickets’ is the weakest policy put forward by Labour; it is fairly milquetoast, given that it simply builds on already existing best practice suggestions and the upholding of legislation currently on the books. Beyond this, it’s probably the least likely to actually be effectively implemented. Though it would be good to see a crackdown on touts, it’s a long-standing cottage industry that I cannot see going away any time soon; there will always be a vast demand for tickets and limited supply. (In my own case, I’d have probably considered signing away my first-born son – who will, of course, be named Divock – if it meant I got to watch Liverpool in Madrid.)
As with broad swathes of the current thinking from Labour, it is at its strongest when it is most radical and far-reaching. Labour’s plan for ‘Fans on Boards’ would provide precisely the sort of fan representation many supporters’ groups have been clamouring for, and by making the position a requirement rather than a best practice suggestion, Labour could prove to be genuinely transformative to the game. This would supposedly operate ‘by legislating for accredited supporters trusts to be able to appoint and remove at least two club directors and to purchase shares when clubs change hands.’ Though the average fan might instinctively think of the ‘German model’ (where fans must own 50%-plus-one of the shares of the football club), given the current structure of the Premier League and its constituent clubs, this is more likely to manifest itself as supporter’s trusts working alongside private investors. These trusts would charge reasonable fees (let’s say fifty quid) for membership, and these members could vote on trustees to represent them. Rules could be put into place which meant that these fans could have input in the direction of the club, and crucially veto takeovers, which might have prevented things like the deeply unpopular Kroenke takeover of Arsenal.
In the here and now, Rosena Allin-Khan’s call for safe standing is precisely the sort of good-will policy that Labour should be going for. The movement of the issue away from central Government will allow for decisions on safe-standing to be devolved to clubs, fans and safety authorities. “It’s time for change. Labour’s decision is the result of in-depth consultation with football clubs, fans and safety authorities,” she said. “It’s time to back safe-standing. We want to give the power to fans, clubs and local safety authorities, to allow for a small area inside a stadium to be designated for safe-standing. Clubs, fans and local authorities know their stadium far better than anybody in Whitehall – the decision should rest with them.” This sort of trust given to fans, particularly after years of official hostility from the Government, costs almost nothing and means that fans will get to work with their clubs in order to come to arrangements that suit everyone.
It’s not enough to simply look at the established clubs, however. ‘If the pyramid burns, eventually even those at the top will eventually choke’ writes David Squires, football cartoonist at the Guardian. Squires was talking about Bury, Bolton, and how the marketisation of football has led to a gilded Premier League while those in lower leagues struggle on. This is true, but what of the people who lay the foundations for the pyramid? What of non-league, grassroots football?
The real issue Labour need to look at here is funding. ESPN reported that ‘England has just 1,178 coaches at UEFA “A” level, compared with 12,720 in Spain and 5,500 in Germany. At “Pro” Licence level, England has 203 coaches, Spain 2,140 and Germany more than 1,000.’ In short, we’re outnumbered by about 12 to 1 by Spanish coaches and 5 to 1 by German coaches. It’s not like England is bereft of interest in football, or of footballing talent and acumen. The problem here is funding. Germany and Spain have cheaper fees for UEFA A and B badges, often about half of what it costs here – which can be up to £5,820 for an A badge, and £2,450 for a B badge. Even at a basic level, would-be amateur coaches are being asked to put their hands in their pockets: A basic coaches’ badge currently costs £150, and Level 2 is £340. Given that in many cases in youth football the coach is basically someone’s Dad, it has always been a big ask to ask someone to not just turn up for weekly training and matchday, week in and week out, but also to shell out the best part of two to four hundred quid for the privilege.
All this is before you’ve even hired a pitch. The UK’s football facilities need an entire overhaul. When I was about 14, me and my team (this was before I had fully discovered pints and kebabs, mind you) toured Madrid, and were thrilled to end up playing against Fernando Torres’ old youth team. They – as I recall – thrashed us, but what stuck with me were the quality of the pitches many youth teams played on. Proper 4G pitches, and this was before 4G was really a ‘thing’ in the UK. Contrast the level of spending seen in the Continent on youth football with the UK model, where price increases are forcing youth teams to cancel tournaments. With councils squeezed for cash, pitches can be seen as quick investments, land you can get luxury housing or commercial developments onto. Those still going can be under severe demand and prone to price hikes: one grassroots football website, Team Grassroots, reports that in Ormskirk, after facilities bookings were outsourced to School Lettings Solutions, the price increased from the previous year ‘by over 400%. Despite pleas from the club, School Lettings Solutions have refused to reduce the price.
Money is the biggest issue, and as such it’s an issue that only Labour can fix, as it necessarily involves standing up to the forces of capital. The Premier League originally agreed to give 5% of its total income (currently at £8.3bn) to grassroots football, but the percentage it actually gives routinely falls short: in 2017, the figure was just 100 million. (Tracy Crouch, then Sports Minister, more or less asked to be congratulated for ‘securing’ such a sum.) Despite protests, there is limited political call for greater funding for grassroots football. There’s a long-running petition – that you can sign here – to force Parliament to debate the issue, but what is likely needed is a Labour government that makes good on funding promises. However, with councils strapped for cash, this funding might need to be ringfenced, earmarked purely for pitch renovation, and perhaps a grant system to allow the next generation of British managers to start taking their coaching badges without incurring a large financial penalty.
Another potential policy could be to legislate to put the burden onto Premier League clubs. Man City, for all their issues, currently run a scheme of free FA Level 1 coaching for would-be youth coaches in Manchester. Pressuring clubs to roll out this system across the board would create a new class of amateur-level coaches with the qualifications to improve the game for youngsters. Each season, the UK could be split into ‘zones’, and each premier league team assigned a zone and mandated to provide coaching badges. Other funding could be found by forcing academies to pay for youth players. With academies signing players as young as six, often to jettison them back out at some point in the future, many youth teams are seeing their best players poached by clubs with no compensation, weakening the amateur game. Even a system which set a flat and relatively small-fry sum – say £100 – to sign a youth player from an amateur team could go some way to solving this problem, as it would still be considerably more expensive to sign foreign youngsters, and it’s not like Britain has a dearth of youth talent.
If Labour can provide a coherent plan to shift the beautiful game back in favour of fans, and bring the next generation of British footballers through, it might well allow for a broader critique of capitalism. However, even if this critique never materialises, providing real services that can instil pride in communities ravaged by austerity, building social bridges – not to mention reminding voters that some things are public goods and better run collectively – can’t hurt in drumming up support for a new left movement.