In many ways, given the loss of life we have witnessed as a result of Covid-19, you could be forgiven for thinking that football is not exactly a priority right now. As the economy falters and businesses suffer, a 3 o’clock kick off might not be the first thought on everyone’s mind.
However, as communities we need to support each other and for any football supporter their club is at the heart of their community. Whilst that concept may be alien to those who support teams from afar it is familiar to supporters who support their home town club; the club their father supported and their grandfather before him.
There is a huge imbalance in football. Ask any Bury fan if they care two hoots about Liverpool winning the league or whether the Premier League were right to question Saudi billionaires taking over at Newcastle and they’ll probably snort a reluctant retort, baffled yet beaten by the fact that it is an issue when they no longer have a club to watch. Anybody who has watched the Newcastle fans and their members of Parliament prioritising Newcastle having billions poured into them in a vanity project will feel aggrieved at the demise of Coventry, Portsmouth, Bolton and... yes, Sunderland. Somewhere along the line football lost sight of what makes it tick.
As clubs teeter on the brink of oblivion it is time to protect our game. Actually, that is underplaying it. It is time to protect our heritage, our communities and the very thing that connects people from the same towns. That is why the Football Supporters Association have decided now is the time to launch their Sustain The Game campaign. They have five requests and they really do not seem that unreasonable:
Protect our clubs - Football clubs are community assets and an important expression of individual and local identity, they deserve legal protection and urgent support to secure their future.
Transparency - everyone has a right to know who owns their club, and how clubs and the authorities operate. Owners are custodians of clubs on behalf of all of us.
Financial controls - fans want rules with real teeth which are independently enforced, clubs and leagues can’t be left to regulate themselves.
Strengthen the pyramid - football as a whole is wealthy, but we need a smarter and fairer use of the money in the game to encourage sustainability.
Supporter engagement - fans are the lifeblood of the game, they need a voice in their clubs on all issues that affect them and their communities.
There are questions arising from all of this but, as football fans, it is perhaps time to park our self interest and think more about the ethos of our game. When Bury went under I recall fans questioning what would happen to the ashes of relatives scattered on the pitch; what would happen to the groundsman, the programme sellers or the old fella who had turned up to watch them week in week out for the majority of his life. Their chance to connect with fellow supporters in joy or misery was robbed from them and the game as a whole could have done so much more to protect them. In the days of multimillion pound transfers and scandalously high salaries at the top level, people are losing their jobs and their communities. This is the very reason why names from across the spectrum are coming together to demand change.
In League One and League Two there was a vote on a salary cap. From a selfish perspective I thought this was a bad thing. Not so much because a salary cap would hamper us in League One, but the fact that it would further widen the gap between the top two divisions and the rest of football. If a salary cap were to come in then it needs to be across the piece in my opinion. Then I remembered the conversation I had with some old chaps in a pub in Accrington. They were Accrington Stanley fans and had been all their lives. They told me that the club had built their new away end purely for the visit of Sunderland. They knew that we would bring thousands down and the boost to their club’s coffers would be more than welcome. This is the same Accrington who were mocked in a milk advert by young Liverpool fans. The gulf between the riches afforded to Premier League Liverpool and League One Accrington is immeasurable and yet only two divisions separate them. Whilst Liverpool will enter the Premier League season as champions with players who are millionaires, clubs two divisions below them are clinging on to their very existence by their fingernails.
This is the reason I support Sustain the Game. I support the call for the government to intervene to help clubs who are in trouble as a result of this extraordinary period in history. More than that, however, I support the principle that there now needs to be long lasting change made to the way football handles itself. No longer can this be a race to the top at all consequence, the game needs to remember where it came from and for every Champions League team there are hundreds below them who are doing their best to survive in a financial sense while the riches of the game are sucked out by the privileged few.
The FSA have proposed a code of conduct should be issued to club owners, which sets out a number of issues which have caused problems in the past; from name changes, playing colours and badges through to tax commitments. Whether owners will take heed of the code of conduct remains to be seen but this is the start of a movement. At times it takes a small push to start the momentum and the FSA have done just that. Sustain the Game, not just for your club but for football as a whole.