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
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.