The government will today set out its plans to deliver a major reform of men’s football in England.
In doing so, they will deliver on the manifesto commitment to fans to ensure a sustainable future for the national game.
The announcement comes two days after the news that an in-depth review of women’s football in UK will be launched this summer.
Key points summarised
- Central to the plans will be the establishment of a strong, independent regulator established with statutory backing to deliver financial sustainability throughout the national game
- Strengthened owners and directors test, including an ‘integrity test’ to improve corporate governance and protect clubs and their fans from unscrupulous owners
- Government commits to giving fans a voice in the running of their clubs with white paper to be published in the summer
- Plans follow fan-led review of football governance, led by Tracey Crouch MP
The government will endorse the 10 key strategic recommendations set out in its fan-led review of football governance, published by Tracey Crouch MP in November 2021, which will improve financial sustainability and corporate governance across our national game, and place fans squarely at the heart of decision-making.
An independent regulator will be backed by primary legislation to provide it with the statutory powers to license and sanction clubs as part of its remit to tackle the most pressing issues throughout the football pyramid.
It comes as an independent study commissioned by the government to be published today will highlight the widespread culture of clubs operating unsustainable financial practices, placing the pursuit of success over sound financial management. This includes an overreliance on owner funding which can leave clubs dangerously exposed if owners decide to pull the plug on cash injections.
The Government will also confirm its support for the following recommendations:
- A greater role for fans in the day to day running of clubs: the Government will now look at mechanisms including the option of a ‘shadow board’ in order to give fans a greater voice in the running of their clubs with further detail to be set out in the summer.
- Fan engagement on club heritage issues should receive greater regulatory oversight: the Government will set out plans to ensure fans have a bigger say on changes to their club stadia, logo, name and kit via a ‘golden share’, in order to protect clubs and the central role they play as vital community assets.
- Stronger action to improve equality and diversity in club boardrooms throughout the football pyramid: the Government will set out further details on how this will be addressed and how that will be linked to the role of the regulator.
Premier League and Championship clubs are now regularly exceeding UEFA’s guidance on spending no more than 70 per cent of club revenue on wages, leading to weak finances and balance sheets across the industry that would be unacceptable in any other field.
The regulator will also be given the power to exercise financial oversight of clubs, including information gathering, investigation and enforcement powers. The review recommended looking at financial distribution, including solidarity payments. It is the government’s view that this should be solved by the football authorities in the first instance. Further details on the government’s preferred option, including on regulatory ‘backstop’ powers will be set out in the white paper.
The new independent regulator will also be tasked with applying an enhanced owners’ and directors’ test, both ahead of an acquisition of a club but also on an ongoing basis. This will include a new ‘integrity test’ for all owners and executives, and enhanced due diligence – including sources of funding – upon an acquisition. This will be to ensure that skilled, experienced owners and executives are in place to run these vital community assets. It will replace the current tests administered by the Premier League, English Football League and the FA.
Today’s announcement follows the government delivering on its manifesto commitment to launch the fan-led review of football governance in April 2021, to explore ways of improving the governance, ownership and financial sustainability of clubs in the football pyramid. It was launched following a series of crises, starting with the collapse of Bury FC in 2019, followed by Bolton Wanderers, Derby County, Macclesfield Town and Wigan Athletic, culminating in the widely discredited plans to form a European Super League.
The review was based on engagement with supporters’ trusts, fan groups, women’s football representatives, football authorities, club owners, players representatives, and underrepresented interest groups, alongside over 20,000 fans responding to an online survey. The final report, supported by an expert advisory panel from the world of football, was submitted to the government in November 2021, with 47 recommendations put forward in total, including 10 key strategic recommendations.
It concluded that football requires a strong, independent regulator to secure the future of our national game, and found a significant part of the reason for the perilous state of football was due to reckless financial decision-making often being prioritised by unsuitable owners and directors in the pursuit of glory, putting the future of clubs – and their status as community assets – at risk.
A white paper setting out full details on these measures and an indicative timetable for legislation is expected to be published this summer.
Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston said: “It’s just over a year since the failed European Super League bid but it is clear that radical change is needed to protect the future of our national game.
“We will work at pace to establish a strong, independent regulator. However the football authorities can take action now to tackle issues currently facing the game such as the issue of fair distribution of finances throughout the football pyramid and giving fans a greater say in the running of their clubs.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “Football brings friends, families, and communities together, which is why we are taking forward the fan-led plans to secure the future of our national game – from the £230m investment to level up grassroots pitches to strengthening the voice of fans in the running of their clubs.
“Whether you’re cheering on at home or away, this government will ensure fans are once again at the heart of the game.”
Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries said: “Football is nothing without its fans and for too long the football authorities have collectively been unable to tackle some of the biggest issues in the game.
“The government took decisive action to conduct the fan-led review and today we have endorsed every one of its 10 strategic recommendations and the approach set out by Tracey Crouch.
“We are now committed to fundamental reform, putting football on a more sustainable financial path, strengthening corporate governance of clubs and increasing the influence fans have in the running of the national game.”
Reaction: Football governance in this country ‘a joke’
However, Labour’s Shadow Culture Secretary Lucy Powell MP criticised the government’s delay, saying: “While Labour fully support football reform and a new statutory regulator, there’s no dressing up that this announcement will come as a massive disappointment to fans across the country. After a government review and many previous promises to legislate, today’s announcement of a further consultation later this year, and a delay to legislation until at least 2024 is a kick in the teeth to proud footballing communities across England.
“Football clubs are at the heart of communities. We need to urgently bring in new laws to stop any more clubs going bust, or being used as a play thing for the wealthy.
“Bury has already collapsed. Derby County is on the brink and has now been relegated. Oldham is out of the football league for the first time in its history. Every club that goes under in the minimum two years delay to football regulation will rest on the government’s shoulders.”
DCMS Committee Chair Julian Knight MP said: “The commitment to introduce an independent regulator is a welcome step, but the Government must now get on with setting it up for the sake of the health of our national game. Developments such as the proposal of the preposterous European Super League and the struggles for survival faced by clubs in our communities, have exposed football governance in this country for the joke that it is.
“With no firm timescale to tackle the deep-rooted problems afflicting the game and no move to establish the regulator in shadow form ahead of legislation, it feels like the government has parked the bus, when they should be going flat out on the attack to deliver in the best interests of fans.”
“Some clubs have spent beyond their means” – FA welcomes ‘new independent regulation’
After the FA was contacted for comment, a spokesperson said: “English football is the envy of the world, but with success, comes challenges. While many clubs are at the centre of their community and are prospering, some have spent beyond their means in order to chase success.
“We agree that stronger financial regulation and cost controls are needed in the English game to ensure that fans and sustainability always comes first. New independent regulation is needed and we will continue to work with the government to ensure that we are protecting the future of clubs whilst also supporting the global appeal of English football.”
‘Football needs to support players after careers end’ – PFA wants welfare improved
The Professional Footballers’ Association welcomed the government’s decision to back the review’s call for improved player welfare.
“We are clear that the duty of care towards players should not end when they have played their last game, whether that is a young player released from a club’s academy or a senior player at the end of a long professional career,” a union statement read.
“Support needs to be consistently and adequately funded, and we look forward to playing a major part in establishing a system that achieves this.”
The PFA statement felt the review had “fans at its heart” and said it was critical that players remained at the centre of conversations on key issues in the game such as the calendar and fixture congestion.
Crouch: An enormous step forward, but delays could be ‘catastrophic’
Tracey Crouch says the government’s endorsement of the fan-led review she chaired is “an enormous step forward” for major reform in football but says the unspecified timeframe for implementing change is “worrying” for clubs and fans alike.
Crouch gave the government’s initial response a cautious welcome and said in a statement issued to the PA news agency: “I am grateful to the government for publishing its response to the fan-led review of football governance.
“I am exceptionally pleased it has accepted or supported all the strategic recommendations of the review, including committing to legislation for a statutory independent regulator which will regulate financial resilience as well as ownership of clubs.
“This is an enormous step forward in providing much-needed reform for football. I am also very pleased by the commitment to a review of women’s football, as well as to the long-overdue review of the outdated legislation relating to football supporters and the sale of alcohol.
“While fans will be reassured by the commitment to an independent regulator and its powers, they will remain nervous that this commitment will be delayed or watered down by the vested and conflicted interests in the game which have resisted the much-needed reform for so long.
“Fans fully recognise the complexities of the recommended reforms, but the unspecified time frame for implementation due to a white paper at some point in the summer is worrying.
“Further delays could be catastrophic for clubs, communities, and fans seeking a more secure and certain regulatory environment.”
She added: “It is noticeable and disappointing that there has been no progress on discussions between the football authorities on the redistribution of finances, and I share the view of government that this needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.”
Safe standing, sale and consumption of alcohol also to be reviewed
The government will also work with relevant football bodies and the police to consider the safety and economic case for piloting the sale and consumption of alcohol in sight of the pitch at matches in the men’s lower leagues, as per the recommendation within the fan-led review.
The latest action builds upon the government’s strong record of placing fans at the heart of the sport and backing the game from the bottom of the pyramid upwards. In January 2022, it launched an ‘early adopters’ programme to pilot the rollout of licensed ‘safe standing’ during the remainder of the 2021/22 season, meeting another of its 2019 manifesto commitments.
Interim evidence published last week by the Sports Grounds Safety Authority indicated that licensed safe standing is having a positive impact on spectator safety and is improving the matchday experience for fans as a result of the pilot.
Under the government’s commitment to ensure it has the robust evidence in place to assure the safety of fans and the backing of supporters’ groups, a final report will be provided to Ministers at the conclusion of the pilot programme. This will help to further inform their decisions about the potential wider roll-out of licensed standing for Premier League and Championship clubs that wish to introduce it and have met strict conditions.
The government is putting the grassroots game at the very centre of its plans to level up access to sport for all. In March 2022 it announced the first tranche of recipients as part of a £230m package to build or upgrade up to 8,000 grassroots football and multi-sport pitches across the UK by 2025.
When will reforms be rubber-stamped?
Sky Sports News’ Senior Reporter Geraint Hughes:
“Tracey Crouch has made 10 key strategic recommendations, and all of those have now been backed by the government. So as far as she’s concerned on that, it’s a massive thumbs up, but what she’s concerned about is a time frame of when this is going to happen.
“No date is being given to me from any of my contacts. However, we are hearing the phrase ‘this summer’. What does that mean in reality? Parliament goes into recess in mid-July so I think the hope is that this can be written up as a white paper before then and then will be put to Parliament before mid-June when they break for the summer recess.
“There is still quite a lot of work to be done with a few other things that are still being discussed and finalised.
“The government clearly wants to have some good news at the moment; this has not been rushed through, but there certainly was a little bit of surprise that it came through late on Sunday night. The government is obviously looking for some positive news.
“In terms of a time frame, it all depends on how busy parliament will be in the weeks and months to come. There are issues going on within Westminster, within the government and within Number 10, which, if they escalate, may take precedent and push this back.
“When this comes to the debate and the vote for legislation to get over the line, though, there’s not going to be many dissenting voices; certainly not enough votes to stop this from going through and becoming law.”