In 1983, Tottenham Hotspur FC’s then Chairman, Irving Scholar, wrote to the Football Association asking it to disregard FA Rule 34 to allow the Club to set up a holding company, THFC plc. Rule 34 was a long-standing rule which established that football club directors were the custodians of their clubs; in place to look after and support clubs but prohibited from being paid. It also restricted any dividends to shareholders, and protected grounds from asset stripping. It basically made being the director of a football club a form of public service. And it established football clubs as community assets, not standalone businesses.
Scholar was able to push through a move that changed what the Club was in the most fundamental way because he, and a few of his fellow board members, thought it was a good idea. He didn’t have to consult anyone. He wasn’t accountable to anyone. The fans, whose money and loyalty made the Club the unique institution it was, were not asked or considered. They may have agreed. They may not. We will never know.
It’s a fair bet, though, that if any fan organisation had expressed a view, that would have prompted questions. Questions such as “who are you representing?” and “who are you accountable to?” Questions that Irving Scholar and his fellow board members did not have to deal with. And, most tellingly, questions that did not even occur to the people running clubs or the game when this fundamental change was requested.
There are few clearer illustrations of the difference in standards applied to those who own football clubs, and those who support them. It’s something the review of the game that is now looking increasingly certain needs to tackle. Previous reviews have failed to properly address this point. The same mistake cannot be made again.
Some will inevitably question the apparent principle that customers should have a say in how the business is run. The answer lies in a phrase the game itself likes to use to underline its success. Football is a business like no other. This is true because of the unique loyalty of the customer in this business. That loyalty means football clubs operate as micro-monopolies, and fans are key stakeholders. But this set of stakeholders are too often positioned outside the structure of the business, treated instead as the customers of a business operating in an efficient, competitive market.
At the recent meeting between the boards of Tottenham Hotspur Supporters’ Trust and Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, the subject came up in an interesting exchange of views between Club Chairman Daniel Levy and Trust Co-Chair, Martin Cloake. You can read in full here. THST articulated the significant support amongst the fan base for the football pyramid, the principles of meritocracy and against closed competitions. There was a view, one the Trust agreed with, that no individual club board had the sole right to decide which competitions the club was to play in without properly consulting fans.
Daniel Levy questioned whether a consolidated fan view on such complex issues was realistic and was confident he is very aware of the many fan views that exist. He said he is a fan, as are other board members, he has lots of friends who are Tottenham fans and he is aware of all their points of view.
We raised the question in order to find out what our Club’s view was on changes that could fundamentally alter the game. The answer, boiled down, was “You’ll have to trust us to do the right thing”. So, Spurs could decide to enter a league its fans don’t want to be in, and run on rules its fans don’t agree with, without asking for or even considering the views of its fans, and without the people making that decision being accountable for the consequences of that decision.
Of course, if THST was going to take a position on whether or not we agreed with specific club plans to enter, for example, a closed European Super League, we would have to fully consult with our members. As with any issue, if the Trust Board had a preferred position, we would lobby for that, but ultimately the decision would be the one members wanted. Because we are fully accountable to our members. The Club Board, however, would not have to consult anyone, and is accountable to no one.
That is why governance is worth your attention. And why English football needs reform.
10 December 2020