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Steve Parish explains concerns with government's recent football proposals

Features

Writing for the Sunday Times, Chairman Steve Parish recently expressed his criticism of the government’s Fan-Led Review of Football Governance. Here, his column is republished in full, with kind permission from the Sunday Times.

You can read this article via the Times' site by clicking here.

On Thursday I attended a Palace For Life event with Patrick Vieira, celebrating our club’s Foundation, whose remarkable work makes a tangible difference to the community and young people in south London.

It was less than 24 hours after publication of a fan-led review into football, chaired by Tracey Crouch MP. Throughout our event, I tried to reconcile what I’ve seen and lived every day for 11 years as Crystal Palace Chairman with Tracey’s opening salvo that the English game “lurches from crisis to crisis”.

By Tracey’s admission, “there is so much to celebrate about English football. The Premier League is the leading football league in the world… the Championship is by far the biggest ‘second division’ in football… the work of clubs in their communities has always been incredible…” and yet within a few paragraphs her report begins outlining the game as facing some Armageddon.

It cites three rather disparate calamities – the demise of Bury, failed European Super League breakaway, and COVID pandemic – as basis to argue the government must urgently implement some 47 drastic and irrevocable changes.

There are elements we agree on: heritage, stadiums need protecting, and we need some financial controls. The latter is especially true in the EFL, where real-time reporting of finances might stop clubs falling off the same cliff as Derby County.

Tracey has consulted a lot of people and put in a lot of work in but just because people have been consulted it doesn’t mean the output reflects a consensus.

The Premier League, FA, PFA and EFL don’t believe football needs a government regulator, yet Tracey proposes one and powerful, popularist voices like Gary Neville endorse that view. Gary is a great guy, fantastic broadcaster and his role in dismantling the Super League was commendable — but I find it hard to fathom his logic that we need to hand the running of football to a government he regularly berates.

Taking each crisis in turn, let’s start with Bury. Football clubs are among the most resilient businesses ever created. Bury (who I firmly believe will re-emerge in some guise) are one of a tiny number of professional clubs that have ceased to operate in the past 100 years.

No other industry can claim such longevity of its companies and it’s a myth that only the Premier League can make money. The Championship has the sixth highest revenue of any league in Europe. League One revenues are broadly similar to the Scottish Premiership.

COVID? The pandemic decimated the revenues of competitions around the world but the Premier League emerged almost unscathed, with no government support, and increased its contributions to the lower leagues to ensure no club went out of business.

As for the Super League — which didn’t actually happen — the report lacks an understanding of the landscape of global football. It says fans should be able to block any competition not sanctioned by Fifa or Uefa and yet anyone, in any league around Europe, will tell you Uefa and Fifa are the biggest threat to national leagues.

The Super League didn’t fail because Uefa don’t want one (in fact the reforms that Uefa proposed looked pretty similar). The Super League was conceived because its member clubs did not want to share the media money the Champions League generates with Uefa.

While we can agree that crests, stadiums and so on should not change without fan consent, I’m sceptical about shadow boards. Who sits on them? How are they elected? In my experience, you will never find anyone who reflects the whole fanbase. Instead of shadow boards, I would suggest we make heritage matters subject to a vote of all Season Ticket holders and Members.

Perhaps the most complex issue is the owners’ and directors’ test. Current criteria is similar to when buying into other businesses – is your money legit? Are you a criminal? Have you made a plea bargain to avoid jail?

If you pass those tests but the Premier League rejected you, it would be take taken to court and lose. That was the case with Newcastle United and the government — including Tracey — knows full well they would have allowed it. To do otherwise would have been incongruous in light of the trade and other relations the UK has with Saudi Arabia.

The review proposes a ramped-up integrity test, including “the consideration of the integrity and reputation of any close family member or business associate of the proposed owner”. Wow, that’s some power – “you can’t buy something because I don’t like your friends”. Sounds more like something from North Korea than a free-market western economy.

Rather than nebulous tests that will make it not easier but harder for football to find buyers and investors, the key to sustainability is sensible controls on spending – and yet the review looked at models of financial regulation in sports around the world and concluded none offered a solution.

This just isn’t logical. The whole of US sport is financially regulated via salary caps to ensure almost no one loses money, nearly every team rises in value and there are always buyers and investors. In Spain, football clubs owed huge sums up to 2013 until cost controls were introduced and now it’s almost impossible to lose money.

Applying principles like those, rather than chasing off investors, is the way forward. Football has thrived in England not least because of investment from overseas and our model is so effective that other countries are moving towards it. The Netherlands has and Germany is rumoured to be removing their “50+1” ownership rule. Yet this review wants us to turn away from all these policies just as everyone is trying to copy us.

Its proposals include making new owners place potentially three years of a club’s running costs, in cash in a bank account – few are going to invest on that basis. A simple salary cap linked to turnover, on the other hand, would solve sustainability issues in one fell swoop.

What about redistribution of income to lower leagues? I believe there are ways we can generate huge sums to reinvest in the English game but the report’s proposal of a levy on transfers of 10% is not the solution. We already pay out 4% to the FA and 5% in solidarity money on European transfers.

We’re in a global market for talent and a further 10% levy would make English clubs extremely uncompetitive. It would also affect the smaller Premier League clubs much more than the rich ones. Members of the EFL would do well to remember they are mostly trying to replace us in the Premier League: surely they don’t want it to become impossible to have even a chance of staying in it when they get there?

Here’s a sum to think about. Two billion pounds. That is roughly the net balance of payments deficit to overseas clubs, in each three-year cycle, paid by Premier League clubs. In other words, roughly 22 per cent of all Premier League media income is effectively gifted to mainly European clubs simply because we have a less effective, sensible and understandable work permit system compared to places like Germany, France, Belgium and Italy.

We have made those countries almost “approved suppliers of talent” to our leagues. German clubs can buy Alphonso Davies and Christian Pulisic when young and inexpensive, then sell them onto us at hugely inflated prices. Our policy is so flawed the Germans can even buy our own talent, like Jadon Sancho, for almost nothing and sell them back to us at enormous profit.

If the government really wants to help football, it could fix this issue in an afternoon and use the money this would effectively generate to help the wider game. Hell, we might even turn the £2 billion deficit into a surplus and tax clubs on transfer income and profit instead of transfer spend. Imagine how much that could help clubs and communities up and down the country while making our game even more global and successful.