The BBC’s recent documentary series Fever Pitch: The Rise of the Premier League illustrated clearly the seemingly inexorable ratcheting-up of money and corporate power within the division since its foundation, thirty years ago. Episode one told the fairy-tale of Blackburn Rovers’ title-winning 1994-’95 season; a remarkable feat in the face of Alex Ferguson’s growing Manchester United juggernaut. The fact that it was made possible thanks to the resources of owner Jack Walker, a steel magnate with a net worth in the hundreds of millions, might give us reason to pause and reflect on our rose-tinted view of Rovers’ achievement. This was not the story of a merry band of Lancastrian lads grinding their way to victory on a shoe-string; a footballing David to Man Utd’s Goliath. This was the story of a rich man willing to stump up the cash in pursuit of a childhood dream in the highly competitive and moneyed world that was English football in the 1990s.
Much like Leicester City’s shock rise to the title in 2016, Blackburn’s narrow victory over Man U. in ‘95 was less a case of David versus Goliath, than Goliath versus an-even-bigger-Goliath. But, of course, everything is relative, and it’s understandable that even non-fans look back somewhat wistfully on that season (those of us with a Rovers-supporting Dad find it even harder to forget, thanks to not infrequent prompting). Walker was a benign overlord, and no one could doubt he had the club’s best interests at heart; a local man who still spoke with his native Lancastrian lilt, he had genuine tears of joy in his eyes the day Rovers lifted the trophy.
No Blackburn player has come close to lifting that trophy since. The club was relegated from the Premiership in 1999, and Jack Walker died the following year. Ownership of the club then passed into the hands of a family trust, which oversaw a return to the top-flight in 2001. Nine years later though, the club was sold to the Indian poultry conglomerate, Venky’s, for £25 million. When asked about the rationale for their purchase, the company’s chairman was nothing if not frank: ‘I feel that the Venky’s brand will get an immediate recognition if we take over this club, and that is the main reason why we are doing this.’ In 2012 Rovers were once again relegated from the top flight, and five years later sank still further, to League One. At the time of writing they sit ninth in the Championship table.
In 1999, the same year that Blackburn was first relegated from the Premier League, the then Labour Trade Secretary, Stephen Byers, announced a decision that was widely seen as a victory for ordinary football fans against the influence of big business. Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB bid to buy Manchester United for £623 million was rejected, both on competition grounds and after consideration of ‘wider public interest issues’. The decision followed months of campaigning by many Manchester United supporters, largely under the aegis of the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association (IMUSA) and Shareholders United Against Murdoch (SUAM). As it transpired, the victory was to be short-lived, as, in 2005, American tycoon Malcolm Glazer bought a majority stake in the club and took control, saddling the club with his debts.
For some United fans, this was too much to bear, and that same year, a group—including IMUSA chair Andy Walsh—announced their decision to found a new club, F. C. United of Manchester. FCUM (initialism or acronym, according to taste!) is a community benefit society, with obligations to serve local people by providing facilities, activities and training. It is owned by its members and open to all, operating on a One Member One Vote basis. The club has experienced difficulties in its relatively short life, but has risen to play in the Northern Premier League Premier Division, the seventh tier of English football. The club is also committed to its women’s team, which enjoys access to all the club’s facilities.
As inspiring as FCUM’s story is, it is not a model likely to be imitated across the country. Founding a new club requires not just time and effort, but also a willingness to accept the inevitable loss in quality that it entails. The simple fact is, most people want to watch and support the best, and the Premier League, for all its ills, often delivers the best, in terms of ability and entertainment. While FC United’s members never seriously expected their new venture to compete with its ‘parent’ club, it might have been hoped that its creation would spark a wider debate about and—just maybe—changes to the ownership and governance structures of English football. Sadly, this has not been the case.
In fact, the trajectory of the Premier League in the years since shows that things have got worse, culminating this month in the £305 million takeover of Newcastle United by a consortium dominated by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF). A deal had been delayed over a number of issues, including the objection that the Saudi state would effectively have control over the club. The Premier League is now assured that the PIF is a separate entity to the state, despite the fact that its chair is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The deal brings to an end the ownership of Mike Ashely, a man loathed on Tyneside for his abysmal stewardship of the club, which saw it twice relegated from the Premier League in his fourteen years at the helm. Indeed, it was difficult to tell how much the fan celebrations outside St. James’s Park after the deal was announced owed to Ashley’s departure, rather than to explicit support for the new owners.
The new regime at Newcastle raises expectations of investment and silverware, with many fans hoping to imitate Manchester City’s ascendance since the club was taken over by the Abu Dhabi United Group in 2008. But what price footballing glory? In 2016, Mike Ashley was excoriated in a House of Commons Select Committee report for running his Sports Direct chain like a ‘Victorian workhouse’. The PIF’s involvement in the Newcastle takeover raises the moral stakes to a whole new level, given Mohammed bin Salman’s alleged involvement in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, brutality within the Saudi criminal justice system, and the subordinate position of women in Saudi society. Amnesty International have urged the Premier League to change its tests for prospective owners and directors to take into account human rights violations.
Having grown up in the north east as a Newcastle United fan, I understand the depth of support and the excitement at the prospect of future success. But I’ve been dismayed by the relative lack of concern or critique from fellow supporters about the takeover. Dismayed, but not surprised—for two main reasons. First, because the deal does not represent a sudden paradigm-shift in football ownership, but, as outlined above, is a logical (albeit significant) ‘next step’ in its evolution. What would have seemed absurd thirty or forty years ago has now become routine. Second, because although deals of this nature now seem commonplace, they are still fundamentally alien and mysterious. Just as the quantum world baffles the non-physicist, so too the world of the super-rich and powerful—the world of sovereign wealth funds, financial leveraging, and billionaire oligarchs—dazzles us into indifference. It is a world in which the normal rules—financial, legal, moral—seem often not to apply, and which mere mortals cannot hope to change or influence. The 2007-09 financial crisis seemed to teach us that we are at the mercy of the almost supernatural forces of twenty-first century global capitalism. If those same gods deign to blow a fair wind our way once in a while, and whimsically shower our favourite club with gold, what more fitting response than to dance a jig outside its gates to celebrate and give thanks?
But we can do better than this passive, fatalistic reverence. Newcastle United have sometimes been described as sleeping giants, by fans and outside observers alike, given the disparity between the size and passion of the club’s fanbase on the one hand, and its lack of footballing achievement on the other. But what if it’s football fans themselves who are the real sleeping giants? Two years ago, a joint report by Common Wealth and the Centre for Local Economic Strategies made a case for greater fan involvement in the governance and ownership of English football. The report cites the German ‘50+1’ model, which aims to stop a single owner dominating any one institution, and recommends a 1-2 per cent levy on transfer fees to capitalise a solidarity fund which would help fans buy a stake in their clubs. Such ideas point to ways in which football could be done differently, without the need for fans to walk away from established clubs and start again from scratch.
Sir Keir Starmer was somewhat equivocal when asked about the Newcastle takeover, perhaps loath to throw cold water on the aspirations of ordinary football supporters. But reform of the game is a cause Labour should continue to champion, having promised change in its 2017 and 2019 manifestos. In many ways, the Premier League is a distillation of the wider British economy and its attendant ills, and shining a spotlight on and pushing for change in the former might serve as a path to wider economic reform. Making it easier for fans to share in the ownership and governance of their local clubs could be enormously empowering in its own right, but could also help generate the appetite for greater democratic participation in other areas of economic life. As the Murdoch takeover bid and the recent European Super League fiasco show, when fans unite and speak out, they are a force to be reckoned with.
Tom Barker is a contributing editor at Renewal.