Christian Matheson – 2019 Speech on Football Regulation

Below is the text of the speech made by Christian Matheson, the Labour MP for the City of Chester, in the House of Commons on 26 June 2019.

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish an independent regulator of football clubs; and for connected purposes.

On 9 March this year, supporters of Blackpool football club went to watch a home match for the first time after a four-year boycott of home fixtures. The reason for their protest was the mismanagement, as they saw it, of the club by its owners, Owen and Karl Oyston. It was more than simply mismanagement, though: the fans believed that the Oystons had been bleeding the club dry, not just failing to invest but taking large sums of money out. Indeed, a High Court judgment found that the Oystons had “illegitimately stripped” £26.77 million from the club.

Previously, as Nick Harris reported in the Daily Mail, Mr Oyston senior was the highest paid person in English football in the 2010-11 season, when Blackpool were in the premier league, receiving an eye-watering £11 million, with only Wayne Rooney reportedly coming close to similar remuneration, yet there was nothing the supporters could do within the existing structures of the game to force a change of ownership and stop their club being ransacked. Unable to prevent the mismanagement by the Oystons, the supporters had to take things into their own hands, and eventually launched a boycott of home games to deny Blackpool’s owners their money. The supporters received support from fans of other clubs and from the national supporters’ organisations, but little support from the football authorities. To get to the point at which the club is now being sold, it has taken four years of their not doing the one thing that binds them together and defines them: watching the football team they love.

If this was a one-off, I would feel sorry for Blackpool fans, pleased that they have almost won their campaign, and move on, but it is not a one-off. Coventry City fans are in an even worse situation. Who can forget the 1987 cup final, with players such as Micky Gynn, Brian Kilcline, Keith Houchen and Steve Ogrizovic, and manager John Sillett dancing on the Wembley turf with the FA cup? This once proud club is being driven into the ground by its owners, Sisu, which is an investment firm based offshore—its ultimate owners are not clear. Coventry City have had to find a ground-sharing option some 18 miles from Coventry, at Birmingham City, as the legal wrangle continues between Sisu, Wasps rugby union football club and Coventry City Council. Sisu is answerable to no one; indeed, according to the Coventry Telegraph, it made no public statement between 2016 and March this year.

Further up the M6, Bolton Wanderers, another of the great names in English football, is now in administration, and is so badly managed that staff have not been paid and other clubs are assisting with payroll and even providing food banks to support employees. I recall going to the old Burnden Park in 1994 to watch Everton play against Bolton in the FA cup, and meeting the ​great Nat Lofthouse. How can the club of the Lion of Vienna now be resorting to food banks as it is run into the ground?

This is not a recent phenomenon. In 1997, the owner of Brighton & Hove Albion closed the old Goldstone Ground, without making any alternative provision, so that he could sell off the site and make millions from property development. My own hometown club, formerly Chester City football club, was driven into the ground by a succession of owners who used it either as a tax-dodging scheme or in one case—it has been alleged—as a front for laundering ill-gotten gains from criminal activity. The club dissolved and was reborn as a fan-owned club, which has been challenging at times, but those challenges have never included deliberately running the club down and syphoning off cash.

The concern for supporters is that they are only ever one bad owner away from these types of problems, and that they have nowhere to turn for help. The FA and the leagues have an owners and directors test, but this might be relevant only in the case of, for example, previous criminal convictions. A group like Sisu can turn up at Coventry and bleed the club dry, with no intention of investing in its future, and the FA can do nothing.

I have given just a few examples of clubs with question marks over the way they are being or have been run. We can currently add to that list Notts County, Gateshead and Bury—last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Frith) petitioned the High Court on behalf of supporters in his constituency—and in the recent past Portsmouth, Hartlepool, Charlton Athletic and more. There are too many to be isolated cases, which suggests there is a broader problem that needs to be addressed.

When I served on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, I raised this issue with Greg Clarke, the chairman of the FA and a decent man who I believe genuinely wants to do his best for football. I asked him whether there was nothing the FA could do about unscrupulous owners; Mr Clarke replied that it can look into the backgrounds of potential owners—he was referring to the owners and directors test—but cannot do anything about a person who is simply bad at running a football club. The FA has devolved such matters to the leagues, but the leagues are membership organisations, and any rules or regulations have to be voted in by their own members—those very same club owners. The worst sanction is a points deduction for going into administration, but that is hardly relevant in the cases I have described.

Football needs independent regulation—that is, regulation independent of the owners, who have a vested interest. The making of rules or regulations about football clubs, and decisions on their application, should not be the task of the professional football clubs or the people who own and manage them. That regulation could and should be done by the Football Association, in the interests of the game as a whole. A regulatory body under the auspices of the FA, adequately funded and suitably staffed, with effective regulations and the power to enforce them, could restore faith in the running of the game.

Of course, there are ways in which the owners and directors test can be improved, but it will never be foolproof. Not all bad owners start out bad. A regulator ​should be there to educate, advise and support. Punishment and sanctions should be the last resort. The good owners should have nothing to fear; they should benefit from reflective improvements throughout the game. This Bill would bring into being an independent regulator with the powers to undertake independent and forensic audits of clubs’ directors and financial activities, where sufficient concern has been expressed about the management of the club, to report to the FA with recommendations for action, to address any deliberate financial mismanagement, or, of course, to decide that there is no case for further action.

There would be limits. I remember, for example, going to The Valley in November 1998 to watch Everton play Charlton. As I arrived there, I was horrified to learn that the then Everton chairman, Peter Johnson, had just sold our totemic striker Duncan Ferguson to Newcastle, behind the back of the manager. I wanted Johnson out, but a bad decision such as that would not necessarily require independent scrutiny. I am concerned about consistent behaviour to run a club into the ground. Similarly, I recall one previous owner of Chester City, an American, who sacked the manager and started to pick the team himself. That is bad management, as referred to by Greg Clarke, but it is not destructive management, using the club for nefarious means, and is unlikely on its own to fall under the scope of the regulator described in the Bill.

Ideally, it would be the Football Association that would undertake these activities, but in the absence of action an independent regulator is needed so that the scandals of Brighton, Blackpool, Coventry and Chester City are a thing of the past and supporters have somewhere to turn to in their desperation. Perhaps now the Football Association will take the opportunity to consider bringing forward proposals of its own to address this problem. I urge it to consider the suggestions of the Football Supporters’ Association, which I have consulted closely in preparing the Bill.

Although the directors of a football club may be the legal owners, they are surely only the custodians on behalf of the whole family of supporters of each club. If they are unable to act in the best interests of the club ​and the team, and are seen to be acting in their own interests to the detriment of the club, that cannot be allowed.

If I do not like Tesco, I can go to Sainsbury’s. If I am still unhappy, I can go to Asda, Waitrose, Aldi or Lidl, but we cannot do that with a football team. Football supporters have a profound sense of loyalty, identity and belonging to a club, which cannot be transferred at the first sign of trouble. In my case, I am the fourth generation of my family to support Everton, I was born into that tradition—you cannot manufacture it. Most supporters would say exactly the same of their club.

Football is a great unifier, bringing the nation together—this applies equally to each of our four home nations—in great moments of unity, as well as being something that we can talk about to complete strangers and bond over in the pub or by the coffee machine. That is why, when we have so many other critical issues to consider in this House, this Bill is important. Football matters to so many people. At a time when our country is so divided, football, in common with all sports but perhaps more than any other sport, can bring our country together again. When fans such as those of Blackpool, Coventry or Bolton Wanderers are treated as abysmally as they have been, while their owners bleed the clubs dry, there has to be a mechanism for giving them an outlet to redress their grievances, because at the moment they have nowhere to go. I would prefer the Football Association to do this, and hope that it will do so, but if it cannot we must support the supporters with a tough and independent regulator. The Bill does that. I commend it to the House.