I was brought up a Sunderland fan. I was never given a choice in this and it remains the biggest burden my dad has ever put on me. In my first season of following the club we were relegated from the Premier League with a record low number of points for the league. Three seasons later we went on to break our own record. Today Sunderland is in a much worse state, sitting mid-table in the third tier and just knocked out of the FA Cup by Gillingham. F*****g Gillingham!!!
Things could have been a lot worse though. A few seasons ago, Sunderland had debts piling up and found themselves on the edge of bankruptcy. Fans were crying out for new owners and we eventually got them; and while they remain questionable characters, the short to medium-term existence of my club is assured. We were at the mercy of a select few individuals and we got lucky.
This is not the case for fans of Bury FC. There have been untold number of accounts from people who feel the loss of Bury very deeply. About how this founding member of the Football League has been stolen and wrecked by cowboy-owner after cowboy-owner. Heartbreakingly, a major unifying force in a community crying out for it has been lost. A football team is not just a sports club; it is not just a business. It is one of those things that knits people who happen to live in the same area together into a single identity. At its best, it is a force for solidarity and hope where people may not otherwise find it in their daily lives.
That is why Labour’s policies to give football back to the working people who built it are so important. Labour wants supporters to have a say in the boardrooms, with the power to appoint and dismiss at least two board members. They want supporters’ clubs to have the right to purchase shares in their club when it changes hands and they want the Premier League to invest 5% of their TV money into grassroots football. These much-needed changes will reinvigorate the sport’s working-class supporters that have increasingly felt marginalised in the unfettered capitalism of English football’s boom or bust model.
Take Arsenal for instance – the club that Corbyn himself supports and who have a proud tradition of representing some of the more impoverished areas of North London. The cheapest season ticket a fan can buy will set you back £891. That’s more than most of their fans could hope to afford and has led many simply to walk away and either watch at home or find a club where they can afford to get through the gates. Every year, clubs want to increase the sacrifice required for fans to keep going. That money is a holiday, or a better car, and thousands gladly pay it.
These unrelenting price hikes have been met with some great campaigns by fans. The ‘Twenty’s Plenty’ campaign has led to a £30 cap on away tickets. While falling short of the aims of the campaign’s organisers, this is a step in the right direction. We have also seen fan-led movements at Liverpool, Blackpool and Charlton to name a few, which have attempted to reassert fan power to varying degrees of success. It is time that this power was enshrined in the rules of the sport.
Giving these fans a say in the boardroom will have a massive impact. It will provide proper scrutiny of the shady collection of rogue bosses, oil tycoons and royal families that currently have carte blanche over these historic institutions by people who really care. It is no surprise to find that Mike Ashley holds working people in contempt as an employer and as the owner of Newcastle. It is no surprise that the Chief Exec of my own club, a man who said Margaret Thatcher would be his dream dinner party guest, referred to fans who can’t go to the games as ‘parasites’. If these people continue to be allowed to impose their will unabated, things are only going to get worse for fans. Talk is already ongoing about a ‘European Super League’ where clubs are treated more as American-style franchises, ripping them out of the heart of the community and confirming them as purely corporate entities.
All of this is sacrificed on the altar of TV money. The current Premier League TV deal is worth £4.5 billion and is the main source of income for top flight clubs. Labour is proposing that 5% of this (£235 million under the present deal) should be spent on grassroots football. This is not a major loss to the Premier League; but will have a transformative effect on local communities.
Facilities for local football are in dire straits. According to latest figures from the FA in 2017, one in six matches are cancelled each season because of pitch quality, while only one in three pitches are deemed “adequate”. Investment in 3G pitches can revolutionise football at this level. Ensuring that the next generation can hone their skills on decent quality surfaces and that adults have regular access to a hobby that will not only benefit their body, but also have a significant positive effect on mental wellbeing. Any government that is serious about combatting these twin health crises must harness the potential of the country’s most popular sport.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Labour will ensure that Clubs pay their staff a real living wage. If teams are to be brought back to their communities, they must treat their employees with the dignity of a wage they can afford. Corbyn himself supported efforts for this policy to be implemented at Arsenal and pushing this out across the country will not only help those it will directly affect, it will give people a sense of pride in the club as an institution.
Football is always a reflection of society at large, and much like the country, football has been held in the interests of capital for too long. Inequality is rife, and we are seeing an undermining of the values of community and people power that were once integral. Labour’s programme for the national game will see power going back to the fans, it will end the destruction of clubs by asset strippers and chancers and it will improve the health and mental wellbeing of many. These are radical proposals but ask any fan who has followed their team week-in week-out and they will tell you, they are badly needed.
I am incredibly lucky to have Sunderland ruin my Saturday every week.