Much has been written in the last week about the proposals for a European Super League, the news of which was breaking 7 days ago. A week really is a long time in politics, and also in the life of what is still referred to as our "national game". The spectacular collapse of the ESL, and the associated anger poured out against the clubs involved, has thrown the economics of football into sharp relief. This included, alas, Arsenal FC, the club I have followed at a distance since inexplicably falling in love with them at 9 years old, the year the Gunners lost the FA Cup final to Ipswich. Every neutral in the country wanted Bobby Robson's Ipswich to win. I decided I favoured Arsenal. They duly lost. I was hooked.
The relationship between a club and its fans is a strange and strong one; part tribal loyalty, part vicarious thrill, part shared pilgrimage; a vehicle for hope, expectation, (usually) disappointment and (occasionally) unbridled joy. But what the last week has shown is that when fans talk about "we" in the context of our football teams (as in "did you see what 'we' did last night? cracking result") then "we" are sadly mistaken. At the moment there is no "we"; there is the club, typically a business cynically run by extremely rich middle aged men who soak wealth out of the supporter base, TV rights and advertising revenue, and there is "us" - the fans who follow the club's fortunes but have small say, little influence and absolutely no choice about how the club is run.
Except it doesn't have to be like that. My home town is Exeter in the west of England, and when Exeter City (my other great footballing affection, where on Saturdays throughout my teens I could be found, generally somewhere near the halfway line) collapsed in 2003 with debts of £4.5m, a controlling interest in the club was acquired by the Supporters Trust that had been established three years before. The long road back to stability began, with the fans through the trust owning a majority of shares. Community ownership has enabled the club to first survive, and then to thrive.
Since the ESL collapse, many have argued for an extension to supporter ownership in football, notably including Andy Burnham and the Football Supporters Association (with whom we work on embedding supporter ownership). It is surely time that we recognise that a football club is not simply a business, but also a community asset - an enterprise which is inextricably linked to a place, a town, a city, a group of people that belong somewhere. There are many examples of clubs in the lower leagues that have built on this role as a local catalyst, a positive influence, a vehicle for local aspiration and development. Local clubs can become a part of a broader movement around community ownership of assets, enabling communities to help themselves.
We have learned this week that those who hold the power in football at the moment may not (surprise, surprise) have our best interests at heart. It is time for a new vision of what a football club might be, for courage and bold thinking, and then for legal change and regulation. There is a movement in society for business to be better. Football should be at the heart of that change.
Remember how, in the face of almost unimaginable wealth and power, in the midst of a pandemic, a broad base of “legacy” football lovers united in resistance. A better game is within our grasp. A better world is possible. We cannot waste this time.