Football – A Political Agenda

As we draw closer to a General Election I was reminded about a head line that once appear in the nations favourite (?) newspaper way back in 1992; ‘it’s the Sun that won it’ the self obsessed daily once famously proclaimed!

Maybe this time however, the headline will be ‘it’s MUST that won it’?

As we nudge ever closer to a General Election the political cat fighting has began. In last week’s budget we were given an outline of cost savings and tax hikes that would help pull the country out of recession and reduce the deficit. Pretty uninspiring stuff from a man with funny eyebrows!

But then all of a sudden, after someone had bothered to read the red book, it emerged that there was a special clause in there aimed at protecting foreign footballers from the 50% tax on income should they reach the Champions League final at Wembley in May 2011. This was apparently at the request of Gerry Sutcliffe, the Sports Minister to help protect sport in the UK. Apparently, Madrid won the right to host this year’s final because of the low tax on earnings in Spain.

But that’s not the end of the story.

Oh how we laughed when Gordon Brown was refused a spot on Match of the Day by the BBC! Well in a shrewd piece of political chess, the Labour Government has obviously targeted football fans as a key demographic for its election campaign. Gordon Brown hanging out with the lads…well spotted the BBC.

Instead of boring us to death with the usual health care proposals, education, education, education promises and keeping very quiet about defence spending, they are taking advantage of a subject that really does matter – Football!

We all know of the very well publicised disputes over football club ownership. The Supporters are rising up and shouting extra loud at the way in which football is being run and in particular how their clubs are being run (into the ground in extreme cases!). The depth of the feeling amongst fans runs as deep as the financial troubles of Portsmouth.

And now Labour has seized the initiative, and put fans ownership of football clubs at the top of the political agenda. A political manifesto that includes proposals to give fans trusts the ‘right-to-buy’ up to a 25% stake in their club should it become available was greeted with as much joy as it was skepticism.

Are they going to tear up corporate law just so a bunch of disgruntled Gillingham fans think they can run the club better than the current owners?

For too long we’ve been casting covetous eyes at Barcelona. Held up as the idealistic model of club ownership that can one day be repeated across the footballing empire.

Barcelona, we love you!!!

But is it right that football should become a political agenda or even and election winner? I have my reservations, but at least it makes any election campaign worth following for a while.

Super League/Sour Grapes?

So, the much debated Super League eight have been officially announced. We thought we’d spout a little about it….

In case you were on the pop and felt fuzzy headed this morning or have had a hectic day at school/college/work and have missed it, here is the list of the ‘chosen ones’:

  • Arsenal Ladies FC
  • Birmingham City Ladies FC
  • Bristol Academy Women’s FC
  • Chelsea Ladies FC
  • Doncaster Rovers Belles
  • Everton
  • Lincoln Ladies FC
  • Liverpool Ladies FC

Congratulations to the successful clubs. Also, big props to the teams of people who worked so hard on their bids and have been rewarded with invitations to apply for licenses, to be a part of the Super League in its inaugural season, in 2011. Commiserations also to the many other people who, undoubtedly, also worked extremely hard to put together bids for their clubs but who missed out.

Since the time/date for submission of bids (5pm, 18th Dec), there has been limited official information released. There has, however, been a lot talk and speculation, as well as chinese whispers and chat within the game about who would be in and who deserved it and why. Once teams were informed their bid had been unsuccessful, some chose to go public with the fact that they had ‘failed’, while others kept their disappointment quiet. There has been – because officials and players chat to each other – awareness for some weeks, via a process of simple elimination, of the basic make-up of the eight (and a possible standby club).

A few weeks back, before the release of cold, hard facts, we were led to believe that Doncaster Rovers Belles may not have made the cut. This would have been terribly wrong. It’s fair enough that the league’s initial requirements for entrance are based more on ‘off-the-field’ criteria than on-field sucess/achievements but the ommission of the Belles – a club with valuable history and tradition within the women’s game in England -  could have rendered it a little too soulless to bear.

There is a danger of getting overly sentimental, however. This is a new start and a new opening for the women’s game. The underlying urgency for implementing such a league is the real possibility that the success of England’s women in sports such as cricket, rugby and the competitiveness of the Netball Super League, for example, could see football lose its dominance as the premier team sport, for women and girls, in the country. It could perhaps see them lose out to major commercial investment too.

There’s also a temptation to flag up the potential pitfalls and concentrate on the negatives, before the league even has a chance to introduce its plans, name or identity. It’s easier to ‘knock something’, especially if you don’t know much about it or feel involved in it. This is a key point. Many apparently already in the ‘naysayers’ camp are there most likely because they feel there has been a lack of transparency concerning the Super League. For there to be widespread ‘buy-in’, even in these early days, the fan-base and women’s football family need there to be a clear sense of ‘inclusiveness’ to prevent a ‘them and us’ situation. Having said that, our online poll on the fgmag.com site a year or so showed a pleasingly positive response from readers about summer footie in an elite league and no-one knew much at all, at that stage.

To recap, we acknowledge it’s early days and that clubs are there on the merit of their plans; we are aware that we need to get behind this initiative for the good of the game; that it’s easy to be negative; and, I’m prepared to accept that my outlook is more than partly tempered by the fact that I live nowhere near any of the ‘chosen’ clubs (hence the ‘Sour Grapes’ in the title – I meant it tongue in cheek).

However, here comes the ‘but’ that you’ve been probably been waiting for.

A glance at the map, indicates a major flaw (though once the decision was made to allow clubs to bid, rather than impose regional franchises, then this was always, unavoidably,  going to be a sore point). Whereas it will be great for players within the hinterland of a Super League club, many of the country’s Centres of Excellence, to a certain extent, will be dislocated from the player pathway, due to geography. Players who attend these centres, and their parents, may turn their sporting talents elsewhere. It won’t be the national death knell of the women’s game, but it could determine hotbeds for the game and cut off other areas, almost over night, just as the player pathway was hitting its stride, across the nation.

The role of the current Premier League is yet to be decided (it should be closer to being decided after a meeting this weekend) but could prove crucial in allaying such concerns.

There are also enough pig-headed people (and I can relate to this because I fight against it and I know it’s immature but at least I’m being honest) that make up the ‘target market’, who will look at the club names and decide against supporting their ‘local’ clubs because of their allegiances in the men’s game. Will dads who love the Villa, scurry along with the kids to see Blues play? When it could have been a side for all of the West Midlands to roar on? It won’t make or break anything (and it hopefully won’t matter a jot in a few years) but it’s a missed opportunity. Of course, there are plenty of people whose reactions will be positive, for the same reason – it’s the double edge sword of aligning with the men’s game – although that’s without considering the whims and insecurities of men’s club’s ownership and direction.*

In response to (now ‘Ex) FA Chief Exec Ian Watmore’s comments (and it’s great that he is behind this league. EDIT: Oh! Make that ‘was’. I hope it wasn’t something I said! Only kidding.)…

“…it’s vital we have a competitive, well structured and commercially sustainable league at the top of the women’s game.”

  • Ironically, due to the lure of the WPS in the U.S., is the current FAWPL not now more competitive than it has been in over a decade? Will there be measures in place to ensure competitiveness in the new leagues?
  • Aside from a few struggling clubs on the slide and promising ambitious clubs on the rise, is the women’s football pyramid not starting to establish itself and is the FAWPL not extremely well-structured?
  • Will a league, in which its clubs are expected to pay £20-32,000 to up to 4 ‘marquee’ players, plus pay other playing staff, be more commercially sustainable than the current league would be, with the fraction of the Super League investment?

This is an additional and related (and maybe controversial) question, up for debate, are there actually that many players of sufficient quality still in England  – given the current financial climate and overall ‘wealth’ or lack thereof in the women’s game -  to deserve this level of payment? Aside from the central contracts, that is, which were a great step forward.

These were just a few thoughts, off the top of our dizzy heads, and we haven’t even touched on the ‘summer’ bit yet! Now we’ve got those off our chest (they must have fallen off the top of our heads and onto our chests?!) we can get back to trying to be reasonable and look forward to finding out more about the league in the coming months…

We’re sure you have many more thoughts and much more sensible, intelligent ones at that….so fire away…

*We know the women’s clubs are to ‘stand alone’ from the men’s clubs but in most cases it’s surely not a massive assumption to make, that the main financial contributions will come from the men’s club or companies associated with it.

visit www.shekicks.net for more about the Women’s game

The search for the Holy Grail!

The Red Knights!

You have to admire the ‘Red Knights’. Their charge to the rescue of the damsel in distress has been of epic proportions, so too the publicity it has generated.

We all know the story by now. The Glazers took over Man Utd in 2005, they saddled the club with more that £700m of debt in the leveraged buy out. Some fans disapproved so much that they split from the club and FC United of Manchester was born. After a series of ticket price rises and the revelations that the club was struggling to service the debt including an emergency £500m bond issue, the fans spoke out once again. Then a group of wealthy Man Utd fans headed by Keith Harris and Jim O’Neill came along and created the Red Knights with a plan to buy the Glazers out for an estimated £1.25bn.

But it all seems a bit Monty Python and the search for the Holy Grail to me!

After being subjected to a torrent of abuse aimed in their general direction, our hapless King, Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table try a number of times to storm a castle occupied by the French. However, their epic attempt comes to an abrupt end when the ‘Trojan Rabbit’ they were supposed to be hiding in is fired back over the castle wall towards them to the collective shouts of “Run away!”

It’s all very amusing and the French have the upper hand.

But how does this relate to the Man Utd story? Well, the Red Knights have a justifiable cause, but what must be remembered is that the Glazers bought a public limited company and apparently they don’t come cheap! This is their castle and they are up for the fight.

Now I’m not suggesting that Keith Harris is as hapless as our King, but the tale of his attempts to storm the Old Trafford board room have to be taken with a pinch of salt.

The whole anti-Glazer jamboree has gathered remarkable momentum with so many groups voicing their discontent to the backdrop of the Green & Gold campaign.

They are all making the right noises, but I just can’t help feeling that it all seems a bit empty and will ultimately fall flat. And if the Knights do gain control of the club will they be any better than the Glazers?

The debt is there now and unless the new owners are going to turn this into equity then it will remain a burden. What is also overlooked is the £500m bond issue will make up part of this bid, the very thing that caused the whole uproar.

I’m not for one minute suggesting that I support the Glazers. My stance on this is that the Premier League and the previous Man Utd board failed in their foresight to protect the club from the leveraging of debt onto the club. The business plan has some serious flaws that make it hard to believe it was agreed, but then on the other hand the club has acquired record sponsorship deals and turnover is at an all time high.

I just can’t help feeling that when the Red Knights finally think they’ve found their Holy Grail, they will be told to “go away we already have one!”

Making use of stadiums

I have a confession to make. I’m not proud of this, but I don’t think it’s my fault (and I’m sure thousands more will back me up, I hope?).

I love nothing more that matchdays. The excitement of the whole day is all consuming. What will the team be? Will we win? blah, blah, blah!

At mid-day, I head into town to meet the others in a local pub then stay there until about 20mins before kick-off. We then walk up to the ground (with the thousands of others) and take our seats approximately 1 minute before kick-off.

Then at half time I might go down to see if there is any chance of getting a drink or snack, no is the answer unless I go down 10 mins before the half time whistle to queue up. Then at the end of the game I’m out of there and off back to the pub to reflect on the game.

So this is my confession, I do not spend anytime at the ground, or indeed any money other than the purchase of my ticket.

And why is this? Well this is just my opinion, but there is nothing worth going to ground earlier for.

The food and drink is (very) over priced (don’t get me started on half time catering facilities, or lack of them). There’s not enough room to stand in comfort with your over priced drinks and food. I don’t smoke but some do, this means they do not want to get there too early. And generally, apart from watching the players warm-up (whilst I sit and freeze to death) there is very little to make me want to get there any earlier and give them some of the cash I spend at the pub in town.

Match day revenues are now only a small proportion of a clubs turnover, but I’m sure more could be done to reduce the impact of this potentially lost revenue. And, unless I pay more money for hospitality and VIP areas then I’m unlikely to want to come to the ground any earlier and spend my hard earned cash.

So what can must clubs do to encourage me to make more use of their facilities?