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Professional Football (Regulation)

February 10, 2010

Professional Football (Regulation)

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con) I am a lifelong supporter of Bury football club, which beat Macclesfield Town only last night to record a sixth consecutive victory. I was not going to bring up that sore subject. I congratulate Tony Lloyd on securing this extremely timely debateThis very day, the futures of Portsmouth, Cardiff City and Southend United are being debated in the courts. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the state of our national game and its governance and regulation. I have a keen interest as a lifelong fan and follower of football, and as a member of the all-party football group, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I represented the Conservatives on our reports on the game’s governance in 2003 and on the finances in 2008-09.

I have long argued that the sport is too loosely regulated, perhaps in the self-interest of the top premiership clubs that have a global reach. One difficulty with trying to empower the Football Association is that the premier league will not have it.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, many people claim that politicians should not interfere in the running of our national game. However, in my view, it is perfectly legitimate for us to debate the issue. Tens of millions of pounds of public money have been spent over the past 25 years on repairing football stadiums since the Taylor report. Football plays an important and significant role in the local economies of numerous towns up and down the country. Furthermore, it is an integral part of British culture and remains a highly successful export.

Live coverage of English football, predominantly of premiership games, goes out literally worldwide, attracting a regular audience of nearly 600 million people. When I was in Dhaka in Bangladesh recently, I turned on the television at 11 o’clock the night before I came back and on ESPN were live Arsenal and Manchester United games.

Bob Spink (Castle Point, Independent) On a positive note, will the hon. Gentleman join me in congratulating the Football League on its partnership with Help for Heroes? It has fundraised for returning heroes and provided free and discounted football tickets for our armed forces.

Mark Field (Cities of London & Westminster, Conservative) I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I saw that work when I watched my local club at Aldershot, where perhaps it is understandable to see Help for Heroes, and Dagenham and Redbridge in recent months. I vouch for that being a tremendous initiative.

Those who do not subscribe to the obsession that we football fans share will perhaps fail to understand the passion and growing concern that many of us have about the game and its future. There are serious questions to be asked about the morality and values underpinning the game, particularly in the premier league. The people’s game has undergone a dramatic transformation over the past 18 years since the formation of the premier league and there is an unprecedented and probably unbridgeable gulf between the top clubs and the run-of-the-mill premiership teams, let alone clubs playing outside the top flight. I fear that is partly due to the lack of competition that has been referred to. It is the direct result of lax governance and an absence of effective regulation. There are no wage, squad size or registration restrictions-a state of affairs unknown in other sports around the world, from Aussie rules football to US baseball, as the hon. Gentleman said.

Before discussing the potential reforms that could improve the situation, we must take a step back and consider how we got to this point. A key contributor to the radical change in English football is the huge revenue incomes of premier league clubs, in comparison with their Football League counterparts. To indicate the scale of that revenue, premiership clubs receive £2.8 billion, split between 20 teams over a three-year contract. In stark contrast, the Football League’s latest contract is worth £88 million annually, divided between 72 clubs.

Crystal Palace, here in London, are the latest club to enter administration. They join a host of clubs that have experienced that traumatic fate in recent years, including Leeds, Southampton, Rotherham United, AFC Bournemouth and Luton, which is no longer in the league. Premier league clubs have hitherto only flirted with that prospect and we all await the fate of Portsmouth today. The sole difference is that the premiership clubs, by virtue of the vast sums of TV money, tend to have a greater ability to attract some form of bail-out.

One of the few pieces of regulation that premier league clubs adopted from the Football League is the fit and proper persons test. However, that is more honoured in the breach and is in urgent need of attention. Half of premiership clubs are foreign owned, often involving dubious investment made by cagey consortiums. It seems that the need for immediate cash-flow relief renders the test optional rather than compulsory.

Even at home, it is noticeable how much money talks. Last month, David Gold and David Sullivan completed their takeover of West Ham United. Twenty years ago, a similar approach by the same duo was rejected out of hand because they were regarded as below the salt, their money having been made in soft porn publishing. Today, they are rightly perceived as transparent and legitimate investors in football and as preferable to the many foreign and shady owners.

Mike Hancock (Portsmouth South, Liberal Democrat) They are fans.

Mark Field (Cities of London & Westminster, Conservative) Indeed, they are fans. Even Manchester United and Liverpool are saddled with the burden of foreign leveraged buy-outs. How can we improve the state of the game? Football agents have been under intense scrutiny in recent years. Sadly, it has become fashionable for the media, clubs and football authorities to heap all the blame on agents. Although they are easy scapegoats and, as we are told frequently, leeches on the great game, the facts are less simple. Clubs, managers and owners have often colluded in the worst practices, furtively using agents to tap up players who are not on the move, with the agents feeding soccer journalists self-fulfilling stories about player unhappiness or club desire.

The core of the problem is the eternal conflict of interests in all agency relationships, which is made worse by the grubby antics of all too many football clubs. Essentially, agents are not instructed on many of the transactions in which they involve themselves. They claim, and are given, fees by players and by clubs, both at the buying and selling ends of the deal. Some have wider consultancy arrangements whereby clubs pay for their services, which can involve sabotaging transactions and tipping off journalists with misinformation.

It is time for a proper code for agents in the game. There must be clear, punitive sanctions, especially against clubs and their employees. Any fee for agency services should be paid by only one party to a transfer deal. It is all too easy to blame agents for what has happened in the game. There are also a number of underlying problems. Financial irregularities have become all too frequent in recent times and have gained high-profile exposure. Football is languishing in the lurid world of celebrity, increasingly appearing on tabloid front, rather than back pages.

I have painted a somewhat grim picture thus far, but there is some positive news. It relates to the Football League, which continues to lead the way in good governance of the national game. Over the past few years, the Football League has rolled out a number of measures to try to stabilise the financial health and future existence of its 72 clubs. We should highlight those measures and promote them to our top flight clubs.

In April 2003, the Football League clubs introduced a sporting sanction of 10 points for any club entering administration so that financial irresponsibility and unsustainable growth off the field is met with a real punishment on the pitch. The risk of losing points or a place in a certain league promotes responsible management and is surely factored into risk taking in the Football League, if not in the premiership.

John Leech (Manchester, Withington, Liberal Democrat) I agree that losing 10 points is a bad sanction that encourages club owners not to go down that financial route. Unfortunately, it is the fans who lose out as a result of their club losing 10, 20 or 30 points.

Mark Field (Cities of London & Westminster, Conservative) It is the fans who lose out. To be brutally honest, when the Glazers first appeared on the scene in 2005, most Manchester United fans were entirely happy because they saw the huge amount of money coming into the club as a counterbalance to the influence of Roman Abramovich at Chelsea.

John Leech (Manchester, Withington, Liberal Democrat) rose-

Mark Field (Cities of London & Westminster, Conservative) If the hon. Gentleman will excuse me, other hon. Members want to speak and I want to say just a couple more things. Another positive step forward is the divisional pay clause in players’ contracts, which states what each player will earn regardless of relegation or promotion. As Mr. Pelling said, league two clubs have the obligation that only 60 per cent. of football revenue can be paid in wages. That is a sensible way forward.

My worry is that the game cannot remain split into the haves and have-nots. The community game mentioned by the hon. Member for Manchester, Central-it is very much a passion for him-has existed for the past 100 years, but is in great danger of drifting irreversibly towards a franchise structure that is more akin to that in American football, where only a small number of franchise clubs in just 10 or 12 of the biggest cities can play a part. We have already seen the first step in that direction, with the birth of the Milton Keynes Dons in 2004, which saw a south London club, Wimbledon, bought, relocated-notionally, at least-from south-west London to Buckinghamshire and given a new identity.

This is a timely and important debate. I hope that Members will gather that I have a lot of passion for football, as many other Members do, and I look forward to hearing their contributions.