Alex Massie

Football vs Conservatism. Pools Panel Verdict? Home Win.

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Emotional involvement is a grand thing. Except when it clouds the mind. Such, anyway, would seem to be the case with Tim Montgomerie's call for government intervention in the vexed [sic] issue of who owns football clubs. Now, like Tim (who, unlike me, is a Manchester United fan) I've little against supporters-groups owning football clubs. But...

At the moment the Culture, Media and Sport team seem content to let the footballing authorities find a solution to the football debt problem. These are the same authorities who, amongst other things, stupidly signed a contract extension for Fabio Capello before the World Cup. Jeremy Hunt isn't quite standing before an empty goal but not far off. If he becomes the champion of football supporters and is seen to be at the forefront of their demands for change in the way their teams are run, there could be big electoral dividends for the Tories in the North West.

do something

Of course the government should be letting the "footballing authorities find a solution to the football debt problem." It's a matter for football, not legislation at Westminster. (Time which, frankly, can be spent on any number of more worthwhile causes.) At least Tim stops short of advocating central-government bail-outs* for badly run football clubs and for that, I guess, we should be thankful.

I'm quite aware that football clubs are not (perceived as) "ordinary businesses" but that hardly means Westminster is duty-bound to make it easier for Manchester United or Liverpool to avoid bankruptcy. Other clubs have been ruined by hucksters and charlatans before and football has survived. It would do so even if the Glazers lead Manchester United over the abyss. (Leeds United fans may agree.) In any case, both Liverpool and Manchester United could easily improve their financial position by selling assets. But fans, understandably from their perspective, want all the benefits that have flown from the EPL's international expansion and none of the drawbacks.

The Bundesliga - which requires that members own 51% of the club - is often cited as an example that English football should emulate. But unless I'm mistaken these rules are drawn up by German football, not by the Bundestag.

Moreover, it's not as if the supporters are powerless. The so-called Red Knights who have an interest in buying Manchester United want to have it both ways. That is, they want Manchester United to be treated as a business when it suits them (ie, they won't "over-pay" for the club) and not when it doesn't (ie, the Glazers should listen to the community and sell for less than they think they can or should get for the club.) Tim cites a speech given at the Lib Dem conference by Paul Marshall, a Red Knight and hedge-fund chappie who claimed that:

Football clubs became corporate entities because that was the deal struck with prospective owners in return for their investment. But they are not like other corporate entities.

Their central purpose is not profit maximisation but community, identity and entertainment. The right form of ownership is one which reflects and enhances the purposes – and that means that it has to involve the supporters.

Do the fans want it? You bet. In a recent survey by Co-operatives UK, 83% of Man Utd fans and 72% of Liverpool fans said their clubs would be in better hands if owned co-operatively. 56% of fans nationwide believe their clubs would be in better hands if owned co-operatively by fans.

(According to the survey, Man Utd supporters would be prepared to invest an average of £600 each to buy the club – this implies up to £2.34billion [from the UK fanbase alone]).

If UK-based Manchester United fans can raise nearly £2.5bn to buy the club then let them do so and make the Glazers an offer they can't refuse. That's how it works. The Glazers may well be terrible people and awful owners but they are entitled to set the price for their club and have every right to refuse to be bullied into selling it for less than they feel it is worth.

There is a comparison that may be drawn with the Scottish parliament's Land Reform legislation. That too was - at least for those who benefited from it - very popular. But since it involved the requisitioning of private property at, usually, below market-rates it was a grotesque bill.

Now Tim Montgomerie doesn't go nearly that far when it comes to football clubs but in broad terms his suspicion that the government could "quite properly" say that the ownership of football clubs is a matter for football, not government is entirely correct and his desire that Westminster do something is somewhat, to put it mildly, misguided. Not least because when central government decides it should referee the ownership of a football club there is nothing that it won't consider within its purview.

If football wants to be run badly that's a matter for football, not anyone else.

PS: This was also a bad notion when Labour proposed it.

*I can just imagine the calls for state-aid if Celtic or, more probably, Rangers were to be bankrupted! Oh happy day!

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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