Jeremy Corbyn has attracted a lot of grief for the above tweet, almost entirely from people who are far nearer my point of view on politics than Corbyn’s, which is a shame. I suspect that some of the criticism is directed towards the messenger rather than the message, because in this instance there is a some merit in what he is saying.
Granted that Corbyn doesn’t exactly put forward a coherent strategy for democratising football. He rarely puts forward a coherent strategy for anything. That’s not a reason for dismissing his comments out of hand.
The entire ownership model of the clubs and the Premier League itself is not tailored towards the fans. It is a private business, a monopoly, created in order to make money and lots of it. To that extent, it has worked. Supporters are treated more like customers, not least because that’s exactly what many of them actually are. Supporters have literally no say in how their clubs are run. They are needed, more to create an atmosphere in stadiums than for the gate money, but if one fan throws in the towel, there are probably several hundred who will slip into her or his season ticket buying shoes.
Now you might stay that no one actually cares about who owns the clubs and you’d be right. My very limited experience of trying to encourage supporter ownership and participation at a lower league club was met with waves of apathy and it failed disastrously. It turned out that most people just wanted to watch the game and cheer on their team. More generally, if the owners happened to be dodgy carpetbagging ‘foreigners’, as long as they delivered a successful and winning team, it didn’t matter. It was a painful lesson to learn.
Corbyn talks about taking the game away “from the billionaires”, but then what? Does he envisage nationalising football or just the elite levels? I can’t imagine how else he might seize control of clubs like Manchesters City and United, or Liverpool or whoever. It seems a long shot that the owners would happily step aside an hand over all those billions to an elderly politician. More than that, who would take over?
Are Manchester United fans going to be handed the keys to Old Trafford, elect their own MD and board of directors? It’s not as if they’d be taking over a club in the old sense of the word. They are multi-billion pound businesses, with tentacles that stretch across the world. Are there really enough volunteers with time on their hands to run the Premier League?
It could be that old Jezza was merely tossing out a populist message to the people in Newcastle where he was delivering one of his tiresome rants to people who already agree with him. The Toon’s owner Mike Ashley is despised by many supporters because he doesn’t spend enough money to buy players. What if Ashley stood aside in favour of a committee of local fans, meeting every Wednesday in the local Wetherspoons, to run the club? I’m not entirely convinced they’d be in a position to sanction the tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions that might be needed in order to make the team more completive. Still, in Jezza we trust, eh?
Corbyn needs to read Can We Have Our Football Back? by John Nicholson. Nicholson is a man with a plan and it’s one that could actually succeed in the short, medium and long terms. And it’s much more detailed than “let’s take the beautiful game away from the billionaires and hand it to the fans instead.”
It’s one thing to come up with a soundbite in order to garner a round of applause. It’s quite another to put a plan in place that might actually work.
Corbyn’s message may be little more than public meeting rhetoric but it does draw attention to the disgraceful way in which top flight football is governed and run. For that, we need to cut him some slack and hope that if he progresses the argument beyond a mere slogan he talks with people who have solid ideas on how to give us back our football.