The decision by Boris Johnson to ‘call in’ the AFC Wimbledon stadium application is further proof that, at national level, football fans just can’t get their voices heard.
Carl Court (Getty Images)
How do you get politicians interested in football? There’s two main ways: give them a photo opportunity or give them something to condemn. A World Cup bid, with a chance to get a snap with David Beckham, or a public order issue on which they can launch a crackdown.
If that doesn’t work, if you can’t massage their ego or give them an chance to look tough, then you are left hoping for one of those vanishingly rare moments when you can save them from a huge political embarrassment. The well-connected West Ham lucked into one such occasion, being gifted a lavish stadium (with on-going publicly funded maintenance support) as a thank you from the government for sparing them having to admit that London 2012 produced no meaningful sporting legacy.
But what if you aren’t owned by a billionaire? Or if your vice-chair isn’t a government peer? What, in fact, if you are small, fan-owned community club looking to return to your spiritual home by building a modest stadium on a run-down patch of south west London?
Well, that’s when things can become tricky. AFC Wimbledon found this out yesterday when, despite a planning process of many years and a unanimous vote before Christmas by Merton Borough Council, the club found its application ‘called in’ by the Mayor of London.
The move, which means the decision by Merton is set aside and the application reheard by the Mayor, came despite the Mayor’s own planners supporting the scheme. In the final paragraph of their report, literally the last word on the subject, they wrote:
“Further information has been provided and conditions and planning obligations have been secured where appropriate which address the outstanding issues that were raised at Stage 1. On this basis, there are no sound reasons for the Mayor to intervene in this particular case.”
Not only does the decision seem like an unusual and arbitrary exercise of political power, it’s also an unexpected one. The club and Merton appear to have been blindsided by it, having believed they were likely to have their decision rubberstamped.
This, after all, is a Mayor so keen on construction that he’s made a habit of backing huge commercial projects, like the controversial Earl’s Court redevelopment, and has pushed the Garden Bridge, a costly, publicly-financed-but-privately-owned vanity project for which there is no strategic justification.
The suspicion is, with the site near the border of the Tory stronghold borough of Wandsworth, that the Mayor didn’t want to hurt the Conservative vote in the local and mayoral elections in May.
By a handy coincidence, calling the application in means it’s unlikely to be considered until after May. In other words, the Mayor feels so strongly about the application that he wants to have it reviewed – at considerable cost to the taxpayer – by some as-yet-unknown person who isn’t him.
We have, then, a politician both advocating for Brexit as a way of restoring democracy and devolving power while setting aside, for party political gain, the unanimous verdict of locally elected representatives.
For anyone interested in government, this is a disillusioning sight. Politics is not like football. If you win ugly politically, you undermine the whole game.
A voice in parliament
This decision is, I think, just one example of how the voices of millions of football fans appear to count for little at national level.
Year after year we have sports ministers talking a good game about football’s problems, but always coming back to the same resting place: that they will encourage football’s authorities to address the issues.
And this despite the FA being demonstrably unfit for purpose. Despite football fans and viewers being gouged by extortionate ticket and TV prices. Despite historic clubs being bought up by billionaires made wealthy by legalised theft from their own people. Despite club after club going bankrupt or being maladministered. Despite grassroots football struggling and the national team ever shorter of talented players. Despite ample evidence that football is an under-regulated market doing great harm to its customers.
None of this will impel the government to act. Because football fans aren’t wealthy enough, powerful enough or organised enough to get even a fair hearing.
Earlier this month Clive Efford, the MP for Eltham, brought a Private Member’s Bill before parliament promoting supporter representation. His speech, and indeed the whole debate, was quite brief, so I recommend reading the full transcript. It only takes five minutes.
In essence, the bill wanted to allow fans to buy a certain percentage of shares in a club if it changed hands and to set aside a certain number of seats on the board for elected fan representatives. The point of the bill wasn’t to transform football by establishing unreasonable thresholds for fan ownership and representation, but rather simply to establish the right of football fans to be involved in their clubs’ ownership and running.
Given football is England’s national sport and that it impacts every MPs’ constituency, you might hope your elected representatives would make ten minutes to drop in and have a say on the subject. Only kidding, you didn’t think for a minute there would be many MPs there. And there weren’t.
To a largely empty debating chamber, Efford, one of the few MPs who seems to genuinely love and understand football, made a fine speech, which including these remarks:
“It is the fans who anchor the clubs in that tradition. It is the fans from those communities who have sustained those clubs over many years. It is the fans who are passionate about their clubs who fill the stadiums week in, week out and create the atmosphere that makes the package—for the premier league, in particular—so attractive to sell around the world. Owners who turn their backs on that tradition will do so to the detriment of their football clubs. That is why it is so important that today we are recognising the importance of the role of fans in sustaining football clubs, maintaining these traditional links, and making sure that they are not lost as clubs begin to become more profit-making and more attractive to people who are not steeped in the traditions and the history of the clubs that they are attempting to buy, or do buy.
“Fans are increasingly looked on as customers and as no different from someone who shops at a supermarket. If customers get a better deal down the road, they simply change supermarkets. No passion or allegiance is involved; they do not wrap a supermarket scarf around their neck when they shop. The link between a fan and a football club, however, lasts a lifetime.”
Later, in reassuring the House that he was realistic about supporter involvement, he said:
“My Bill is not about giving the fans a veto over what goes on at their clubs. I am not suggesting for a moment that the involvement of football fans is somehow a panacea for all the problems in football. There have been times when football clubs have gone into receivership even though the fans had all along cheered every decision that put the club into financial jeopardy until the receivers turned up and locked the doors. Fans cannot provide the solution to every problem, but they care passionately about their club and they can be an early warning system to alert authorities to existing problems in our clubs…”
I find it really hard to understand how anyone could object to Efford’s proposals unless they are ideologically opposed to all regulation, unless they are the rich owner of a football club or unless they are currently prospering from football’s status quo.
But even this modest bill, like so many previous requests for government intervention, received an old-fashioned hoof into the stands from the minister David Evennett, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. I reproduce his response in full so you can see the true level of commitment from government to tackling the many problems of football.
“I congratulate my near neighbour, the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), on winning a place on the ballot to present his private Member’s Bill. His speech was informative and interesting. His passion and advocacy for football is to be commended, as is his support for Millwall.
“I would first like to put on record that my family are supporters of Crystal Palace. My son Tom and my grandson George are season ticket holders. We, too, support strongly the new president of FIFA and the commitment he has made to reform the world governing body of football. Those reforms are critical to restoring the trust and credibility of the game. I commend the speeches from the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), who is always entertaining and informative, and my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris). I thank him for his contribution.
“Unfortunately, the Government are not able to support the Bill and are opposing it. We do not believe that legislation is the right way to achieve our aim. The FA is embarking on a review of its governance, and we hope genuine progress will be made, including on giving supporters greater representation on its decision-making boards. In my future discussions with the FA, I shall seek confirmation that this matter is being considered properly, seriously and sensibly. I recommend going forward on that basis.”
Reading this, it can be hard not to feel depressed about football’s future.
The fire still burns
It is not there haven’t been moments of hope. The Liverpool ticket revolt and the capped away prices, for example, were greatly heartening. But, to me, they look like concessions that, while welcome, do nothing to fundamentally alter how football is owned and governed. Brief but glorious minor victories in a war that’s all but lost.
Increasingly I see the Premier League as beyond help, like a problem gambler who, while still making the occasional promise to stop, has largely given up the pretence of caring about the damage their addiction causes. The only thing to do is stand back and let them annihilate themselves.
Despite yesterday’s set back, if there is hope, I think it lies with clubs like AFC Wimbledon. Having lived in Merton for over a decade but not being a fan of the club, I’ve been able to see it close up.
The club’s role in the community is really unlike any I’ve known. Look at the shirts that seven-years-olds are sporting in Wimbledon town centre and chances are they’re Chelsea, Barca or AFC Wimbledon.
Think about that. How can a former non-league club that’s existed for less time than John Terry’s been a regular at Chelsea have won a place in the hearts of local kids?
The answer, I think, is by being a genuine community club; an expression of people’s desire for a locally owned and run team that puts fan involvement and reinvestment in youth ahead of the corrupting influences of modern football.
Go to any park at the weekend, for example, and you’ll see kids getting coached by AFC people. At times, it can seem like the club is a community sports charity with a nice side-line in professional football.
As a result, it’s been able to tap into people’s powerful desire for uncommercialised connection. The local area is strange and fractured. Little gets built here that’s not executive flats. The town centre is currently threatened with demolition to make way for CrossRail 2. And, for all the wealthy residents working in financial services, shops are dying, replaced by bookies and cafes. Independent retailers are all but extinct.
Every negative stereotype of London is here: unhappy looking, unfriendly people jostling each other out of the way in an effort to get to their ever-more demanding jobs a few seconds earlier.
And yet they came together to support AFC Wimbledon. Local residents, business leaders, councillors from all political parties.
I sat through the more than three-hour final council meeting in December and listened to the most unlikely allies forming common cause to support the club’s application. Local residents who’d be affected by the work stood up to rebut concerns about potential flooding or the impact on their neighbourhood. TFL, who’ll have to move crowds of up to 20,000 without additional funds for buses or trains, were behind the application. Even the head teacher of the nearest school, which some objectors claimed would be overstretched by new housing built to finance the scheme, was there. Far from opposing it, she said she fully supported the application because AFC’s community work and school outreach was such a positive influence on her pupils.
I went home that night buoyed by the sheer enthusiasm of people for their club. This is what sport is supposed to be about. This is why it matters so profoundly and can’t be left to the whims of rich theives and deaf politicians.
It was baffling and frustrating, then, to see this outpouring of support and unanimous council approval set aside by the Mayor.
With luck it may still happen. AFC Wimbledon may yet get its stadium. It certainly deserves to.
And what of the rest of football? What will it and its disenfranchised fans get?
Well, Boris Johnson won’t be around forever. And the Premier League in its current form can’t last. Every bubble must eventually burst. Clubs will fail. Billionaires will get bored. Viewers will unsubscribe. Clubs may even flee for a Euro League.
What will last, however, is football clubs which have a deep connection to their fans and their communities.
Politicians may be able to ignore them, and to continue to curry favour with the barbarians who’ve overrun the top of the English game, but while there are still people around to kick a ball and fans to roar them on, football will abide.
If you enjoyed this, please buy my book “The Ugly Game: How Football Lost Its Magic And What It Could Learn From The NFL”. That way I’ll have the money to write more things you might like. Oh, and please spread the word, too. Thanks a lot.