Not least because the club is said to owe HMRC more than £25m in unpaid taxes, should the Government intervene to ensure Derby County doesn’t go bust as part of its levelling-up strategy?
This was a key question we asked in a pair of focus groups of Derby fans for The Times, which the newspaper ran between Christmas and New Year. (You can read Henry Zeffman’s piece here.)
This is arguably an academic question: the club’s administrators are confident of a quick sale and say they will announce a preferred bidder shortly; there is also no suggestion a “bail-out” is being pushed (although the administrators are in talks with HMRC).
However, academic or not, it’s a question at the heart of the levelling-up debate: should football be part of the Government’s strategy, as it seeks to foster civic pride?
The city of Derby is firmly in levelling-up territory. While the wider Derby area has some big, innovative employers – Rolls-Royce, Bombardier, Toyota, and indeed the growing and increasingly-respected university – the city centre is a mess, and there are dozens of towns just outside the city struggling badly. Both Derby city constituencies are marginal, with Derby North going Conservative in 2019.
Derby fans were in emphatic agreement the city needs levelling-up. Above all, they lamented the decline of the city centre and the loss of independent shops from the city’s older streets. Others talked about how the city’s heritage had largely been underplayed by the council (with notable exceptions, like the Cathedral Quarter and the Museum of Making). The concept of “wounded civic pride” was pervasive.
Fans were adamant the club was integral to Derby’s identity and they couldn’t think of any other institution that had anything like the same impact on civic pride. They said city life would be devastated without the club. Furthermore, they talked persuasively about the massive number of businesses supported on match day: pubs, takeaways, restaurants and all the rest.
You might ask: they would say this wouldn’t they? Possibly. But Derby is a one-club, football city, where it’s reasonable to see the fans as representative of a big chunk of city opinion.
Fans were enthused about the prospect of Government intervention, but not in the way you might expect. Again, the question isn’t being posed in the stark way we asked it, but when we asked whether the Government should effectively write-off the debt owed to HMRC, most said no.
To them, this would be unfair: absolutely, because the club got itself into a financial mess in the first place; and relatively, because other clubs couldn’t and shouldn’t expect the same treatment. (One of our groups leaned Labour, while the other leaned Conservative – and it was the Conservative-leaning group that was most sceptical of direct Government help.)
Instead, they were open to more fundamental intervention: fans wanted the Government to effectively reset the professional game to ensure that Derby’s recent experience couldn’t be repeated in the city or elsewhere. Derby fans said they’d been through a series of terrible times in the last few decades and wanted a line drawn under it all. Our Derby fans were therefore very enthused about Tracey Crouch’s proposal in her review – backed in principle by Government – of an independent regulator to oversee the game and to ensure clubs were all run in a financially sustainable way.
There’s an important research caveat here: almost no one was aware of the review or its proposals, and therefore we were essentially testing gut reaction to a concept; nonetheless, enthusiasm was very clear.
The primary lesson from our Derby groups were therefore that fans see a fundamental role for government in protecting and promoting football – particularly outside the Premier League – and football therefore should be part of the levelling-up agenda.
This is a fundamental lesson the Government appears to have learned already. Their support for grassroots football by funding “community pitches” and their support for Bury FC’s stadium redevelopment are just the most recent examples of their interest in fostering the game. But if our groups are representative of wider opinion across the fanbase, they should be even more confident about their role.
Many in the game are hostile to the introduction of an independent regulator. Personally, I’m sceptical: there’s always a danger with regulators like these that mission creep takes them into areas they’re not needed or wanted. That said, there’s no denying the seemingly endless stream of clubs getting into existential financial trouble makes the case for an independent regulator a persuasive one, which our Derby fans liked strongly in principle. It looks likely the Government will press ahead.
Aside from an independent regulator, there are other ways national and local Government might help, as I’ve suggested here before: for example, being positive towards ground redevelopments and relocations to enable clubs to stay close to their original homes; liberalising regulations on entertainment facilities within grounds; and directing levelling-up grants to non-league clubs who want to expand sporting and leisure facilities to better serve the local community.
Whether this something the Government should be involved in or not, I also think there’s a role for the professional clubs in more directly supporting, and working with, community-minded, non-league clubs in their area.
Politicians talking about football can be cringeworthy. But football is truly a national game now and it unites people regardless of their background. As such, it’s legitimate for Government to take an active interest. And it’s sensible for football to be part of their levelling-up agenda.