The review of football governance – a test case for ‘Johnsonism’?

Simon Darby

Director - East of England

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England is gripped with Euro 2020 fever (and rightly so). The PM hasn’t missed an opportunity to be found next to a St. George’s flag whilst Sir Keir has pulled on the Three Lions and made sure to be snapped in the pub.

However, beyond the Euros (and simmering away in the background) is the ongoing review of football governance. Accelerated due to the aborted European Super League (ESL) proposals a couple of months ago, the review places domestic football in the policy and political realm in a way that has rarely been the case in recent times.

With the negativity and anger that the ESL announcement immediately generated, the government has a platform to look at perennially thorny issues surrounding ownership, finances and club security. In appointing Tracey Crouch MP to lead the initial review, it has signalled its intent that this is an issue it is taking seriously. How  policymakers then decide to take this forward could be the clearest indication of what ‘Johnsonism’ is – and what his administration’s appetite for reform really is.

In many respects, football reform fits neatly with the narrative that has been coming out of Number 10. It sits easily with attempts to develop a ‘levelling-up’ agenda; to support left-behind communities; and to focus on a ‘red-wall’ conservativism. More widely, it taps in to perceptions around ‘out-of-touch’ elites that have dominated political discourse in recent years.

From a wider public policy perspective, government stakeholders should not lose sight of the fact that – at its core – the proposed ESL was enormously and fundamentally anti-competitive. It would have secured the future and viability of a few large businesses to the detriment of a wider, nationwide, sector. This should be a gift for a Conservative government – demonstrating how effective reform, better regulation and a more sustainably-managed market can work to the benefit of supporters and communities across the country.

Nor should the focus be too ‘backward-looking’ or an attempt to nostalgically capture the past. In the Premier League, we have one of the truly high-quality and exciting leagues in the world. Peoples’ interest, support and engagement with the game is not always the same as it has been across previous generations. Reform needs to take account of this.

In the scope of the review that the government has asked Crouch to look into, it is certainly asking the right questions. Getting the balance right in terms of proposals and reforms will, of course, be the more difficult part. For those who follow the game avidly, the review is clearly of the utmost importance. But for those also interested in how this administration wants to effect change across individual industries, it will also be worth keeping a close eye on.

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