Review calls for independent regulator in English game

Tracey Crouch has issued preliminary recommendations

The threat of a Super League led to the commissioning of a fan-led review of football governance
The threat of a Super League led to the commissioning of a fan-led review of football governance

An independent regulator is required to protect the future of key aspects of the English game, the chair of the independent fan-led review has said.

Former Sports Minister Tracey Crouch has issued a wide range of proposals which would revolutionise the governance of the game in England and give supporters a greater say.

The Government commissioned the review in the wake of the Super League breakaway threat in April.

Following extensive consultation, Crouch set out preliminary recommendations in a letter to Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden on Thursday.

Some of the proposals are designed to ward off similar breakaways in the future, but the letter also looked at measures to tackle financial mismanagement and protect club heritage assets such as the badge and colours by giving fans a ‘golden share’ veto.

Crouch believes an Independent Regulator for English Football (IREF) should have oversight of financial regulation, corporate governance and ownership but that its scope should not cover ‘football issues’ such as the running of leagues and video technology.

Legislation would be required to mandate a regulator and Dowden warned: “I will not hesitate to take bold steps where necessary.”

Other eye-catching proposals are for club representatives to be removed from the EFL and National League boards and for them to be replaced by independent directors, and for “meaningful discussion” between those competitions to consider the top tier of the National League being absorbed into the EFL.

She will also look at ways to mandate fan engagement, so that fans are consulted on key issues.

Crouch will issue her final recommendations in the autumn.

Crouch, the Conservative MP for Chatham and Aylesford, said the review had heard over 100 hours of evidence from fans, leagues, the Football Association 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.”

Her letter talked about the “sobering” state of club finances in the 2018-19 season, prior to the coronavirus pandemic and with revenues arguably at their peak.

“The threat of possible future reductions in income expected as the broadcast market diversifies indicates that, without reform, English football could face an existential crisis in years to come unless pre-emptive action is taken now,” she said.

She anticipated that the remit of the regulator would include requirements around cost controls, real-time financial monitoring and revised, separate tests for would-be owners and directors, plus ongoing assessment of their suitability.

She felt a regulator was necessary because the existing football authorities had “lost the trust and confidence” of fans, and of some clubs.

Crouch said she and the review panel would identify proposals to give fans veto powers over reserved items such as the club badge, colours and competition, which could be held by a “democratic legally constituted fan group”.

That veto – aligned with the regulator operating through a licensing system – are tools which could help prevent future breakaway attempts.

Crouch’s letter also addressed the financial gaps within and between leagues, and called for clubs in League Two to be able to have all-weather pitches which generate vital revenue.

Crouch said she was in no doubt that parachute payments to clubs relegated from the Premier League to the Championship “distort competition” but did accept they had a part to play in helping promoted clubs to be ambitious and provide stability to relegated clubs.

She said she would make a conclusive recommendation on financial flows between divisions in her final report in the autumn.

“I strongly urge the Premier League and the English Football League to reconsider their approaches to finance flows between divisions and within their competitions work together to seek a viable, achievable solution,” Crouch said.

Crouch said there was a “strong case” for reform at the FA, the EFL and the Premier League. She was inclined to recommend that at least 50 per cent of the FA board be composed of independent non-executive directors.

She said she will also look at the possibility of a levy on transfer or agent fees to support the development of the grassroots, amateur and women’s games.

“Money must be found from within the game to nurture our future stars, and to boost our national sport,” said Crouch.

Crouch called for a joined-up approach from the football authorities to improve player welfare, particularly with regard to players released from the academy system.

“I believe this is the opportunity to address some of the very real challenges facing the English game while at the same time building on its many strengths to make it stronger still,” her letter concluded.

“Stronger competition. Stronger protections, regulation and governance. Stronger fan involvement. Stronger controls allied to financial reform.

“A stronger national game for everyone across the men’s pyramid, the women’s game and the grassroots.”

The preliminary recommendations were swiftly welcomed by the Football Supporters’ Association, the Fair Game campaign group and former Manchester United and England defender Gary Neville, who has spoken out about the need for reform in the past.

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