James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.
As recently as the 90s, people from Stoke could spot each other on holiday abroad because in restaurants they’d be the odd ones turning their dinner plates over to see if they were made in their hometown.
No longer and never again. Now they only spot each other if their kids are wearing Stoke City shirts on the beach or if they’re too enthusiastically singing Delilah on the karaoke machine.
Football is the the defining external characteristic of the town. Take Stoke City away and there’d be little left to unite people in the city. And what’s true of Stoke is true of a vast number of other small cities and towns: Wolverhampton, Rotherham, Portsmouth, Sunderland, Middlesbrough, Darlington, Preston. The list goes on and on – and not just in the Football League, but way, way down into the pyramid of non-league clubs.
True, not everyone likes football in these places and even the biggest games attract a relatively small percentage of local residents. Football is our national game but it’s not universally loved.
But the question is this: which other institutions can challenge the football clubs for the role they play in their local communities? Not just in giving people pride in their own towns, but practical support too in the form of effective community outreach? A hundred years ago, maybe the churches did this; fifty years ago, maybe it was the big employers (to be fair, Stoke residents talk with reverence about Denise Coates’ contribution to the city) but most of these are long gone.
And with high streets in decline, big markets a distant memory, and annual festivals and events dwindling, the role these clubs play as institutions is even more stark.
With these clubs’ roles in mind, I think it is reasonable for the Government to take a more active role in protecting and promoting British football – and why they were right to offer to help shoot down plans for a European Super League and in turn right to commission a review on the future of football, led by Tracey Crouch. I can see why libertarians – who I normally align with – think football is a private business of no interest to politicians. But if politicians consider it reasonable to talk about the future of the high street and town centres, there’s no reason why they can’t talk about the future of football clubs.
An important aside: it is also true that many of the small cities and towns I refer to above now have Conservative political representation – or where it’s possible they will have in the future. While there’s no question voters in these towns primarily voted Conservative to “get Brexit done”, they also put trust in the Conservatives to make their towns better. Football could and should be an integral part of “levelling-up” agenda.
Politicians engaging in conversations about football can be cringe-worthy. Older readers will remember with horror the Fast Show’s Roger Nouveau, who I have made a passing reference to here in the past. While Crouch is a proper fan who will handle the review with sensitivity, on reading the Government’s Terms of Reference for its review I worry there might be some classic Nouveau moments in store. As it stands, the Government sees its role as potentially commenting on things like changes to club badges or how clubs engage with fans in a structured way. Played badly, these could feature on YouTube clips for a generation.
Do politicians really have anything to say about whether badges should be designed differently? Surely not.
But potential Nouveau-isms aside, I’m more worried about the fact the review isn’t sufficiently framed as a levelling-up review. Nominally, it’s a review on the future of football governance; but the Terms of Reference make clear it’s more than this, as the reference to commenting on things like badges shows. And if it’s going to be more than this, then they should broaden this out so it takes a proper look at the role of clubs in local communities – and, crucially, how Government can help them enhance their role.
Again, it makes sense for politicians to talk about issues such as financial sustainability, they should unquestionably have a view on how clubs can better support local people practically. The Government’s review should be a companion piece to their various levelling up reviews and funds. It should ultimately sit within Neil O’Brien’s (growing) orbit.
What would this help from Government involve? Different clubs’ needs will vary massively, depending on their own size and wealth – and indeed on the size of the wealth of the towns and cities in which they sit.
Broadly speaking, the bigger Championship clubs have well-funded and well-structured community trusts, and outreach is widespread and effective. Smaller clubs’ outreach and effectiveness differ wildly. Some of the bigger clubs might just need things like planning permission to extend their training facilities to offer more opportunities for local kids to play, regardless of their ability. Smaller, less wealthy clubs might need basic funding to provide, say, support for their mental health outreach to young men.
Non-league clubs might need more fundamental funding for an all-weather pitch and floodlights so they can expand the number of kids’ teams they can run. Non-league clubs might also need lighter regulations to allow them to create social clubs that basically act as cheap pubs (this is a growing phenomenon).
Help will vary, but the point is this: from the biggest Championship clubs, down to the smallest non-league clubs at the bottom of the pyramid, football clubs are quietly delivering sporting opportunities, charitable services and raw passion and pride to local people. There is a massive network of clubs and fans already in place.
Rather than trying to create new institutions and dozens of new schemes and funds, the Government should put these clubs at the heart of its levelling up agenda – and the football review should be the place to begin this in earnest. The Terms of Reference should be amended to allow them to do this.