There is a law regarding Treasure Trove in this country, which says that certain items of unearthed treasure are of such immense historical, scientific or cultural importance to the nation that they must be saved from being lost, transferred, broken up or sold overseas. The law says all such Treasure comes under the protection of the Crown to be saved for the nation.
No matter that you found it on your property, that it was unearthed by archaeological excavation or by enthusiastic treasure hunter, an individual cannot profit from ownership of such treasure to the detriment of the nation. Football clubs are of no less value to this country – being just as much part of Britain’s cultural heritage as the bones of Richard III or the gold and silver of the Staffordshire Hoard. Why can’t they also be protected by law from being lost to the nation, sold to overseas investors or traded for profit, and then abandoned when the money runs out?
When the skeleton of what we now know to be King Richard III was disinterred in Leicester in 2012, or when the vast hoard of gold and precious metal dating from 600 AD was discovered in Staffordshire in 2009, there was no unseemly dash to assert ownership or to profit from the finds. Yes, there were – and are – ongoing tussles over the most appropriate parish for Richard III’s bones to have their final rest and yes, the finders of treasure trove should be suitably recompensed for their efforts or plain good fortune. But because we are a cultured people, we have recognised for many centuries that valuable items of antiquity – whether lost, buried or hidden with the intention of later recovery – belong to all of us and should be protected by the state for the enjoyment of all the generations.
If you will bear with the history lesson a little longer, the English law of Treasure Trove dates from as far back as the 11th century and it has naturally evolved over time. So, whilst it may have been easy for Edward the Confessor and his ilk to claim title to all buried gold, silver, bullion or plate with the force of an army behind him, in later, gentler times it has often been necessary to amend or re-interpret the common law so that loopholes cannot be exploited to unjustly enrich finders or to allow national treasures to be sold abroad – or only saved for the nation by the payment of a high price.
And this is where the parallel between Treasure Trove and the nation’s Football Clubs becomes quite interesting. In 1996 the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (you see where I am going with this) was forced to step in to enact the most recent change in the law – The Treasure Act 1996 – when two particularly valuable finds (the Sutton Hoo ship burial and a hoard of thousands of Roman coins found in Lincolnshire) did not precisely meet the definition of Treasure Trove and so ownership could not be claimed by the Crown, and there was a huge risk they would be sold abroad. Effectively the Secretary of State said “To hell with that, if the law needs to change to protect what is of value to the nation, then the law will change.” And so the law changed to encompass all such finds and the Sutton Hoo treasure was saved, although sadly it was too late to save the Lincolnshire coins.
There is no reason on earth why the same end cannot be achieved for an equally valuable part of our historical and cultural heritage, Football Clubs. That is not to say that someone who invests in a football club should not be entitled to make a profit on their investment, or indeed accept full liability when it turns a loss; of course they must, that is the nature of the free market. But there must be a clear distinction made between ownership of a Football Club and ownership of the shares in a corporate entity.
When an individual, family, consortium, investment fund or foreign prince acquires the assets and liabilities of an English Football Club, what they acquire in fact and in law is the corporate entity behind the club – whether that is Chelsea Village Plc or Hull City AFC Ltd. But ownership of its shares should not confer “ownership” of the Club.
A football club belongs to its community, its town, its fans. It belongs to its hundred years of history, its players, its moments of triumph and disaster, its goals, promotions, relegations, its chants and songs. It belongs to the very ground it was built on. It belongs to the nation’s cultural heritage, every bit as much as Treasure Trove. No investor – however generous, however well-intentioned – should be at liberty to make changes to a Football Club’s location, name, club colours or emblems, or any other paraphernalia which are the essence of the Club, anymore than they should decide that the club will henceforth only play 7-a-side games on a Thursday afternoon or, at a whim, decide that they have had enough of the ephemeral joys of ownership and take their investment away, perhaps selling to the highest bidder, perhaps bankrupting the Club at its heart.
And the government can change the law, just as it did to protect buried treasure: We can have a Protection of Football Clubs Act, which would not only protect the history and nature and status of all of this country’s historic Football Clubs, but also require Clubs to subscribe to a universal trust fund or bond arrangement, a sinking fund for when a Club finds itself in difficulty. And the trustees of such fund would retain – along with the FA and Premier League – an audit responsibility to ensure compliance with the law, which should also reduce the chances of any Club going too far down the road to annihilation to be saved.
Let there be no more Wimbledon’s, Accrington Stanley’s, or Halifax Towns, no more Portsmouth’s or Leeds United’s, no more failed “fit and proper” regimes, no more investors claiming “I own this Club and can do what I like with it”. Sir, you do not own the Club, anymore than the Chancellor of the Exchequer owns the contents of the Treasury.
I have a two hundred year old ash tree in my garden. I enjoy its shade and its beauty, I spend a month every autumn raking up its leaves. Every three years I have to apply for planning permission and engage a tree surgeon to give it a health check and prune its branches. I would not dream of claiming to “own” that tree. It belongs to the community and I am simply its guardian. If the law of this noble country goes to such lengths to protect and preserve a tree, surely it is not too difficult to ask it to do the same for its Football heritage?