Shaun Harvey has put it on record that the League is prepared to discuss a more interventionist approach at The EFL in an interview with the London Evening Standard, saying, ‘We want to see good owners of football clubs running stable clubs where fans are able to enjoy the football. We are never going to achieve that across 72 clubs at the same time. What we have got to is get the majority to that position.’
The League has been beset by problems at Leyton Orient, Blackpool, Blackburn, Charlton and Coventry of late – though most of the problems aren’t recent: Blackburn, Blackpool and Coventry were cases I was advising on as far back as about 2012/2013.
There are of course plenty of people who will respond cynically to Harvey’s words, spoken as they are when the season is now over, and the most problematic problem child – Bechetti – is about to rock up at the door of the National League (interestingly, who are actually subject to the kind of licensing system advocated over a number of years by reform group Supporters Direct).
However, the importance of his words shouldn’t be underestimated, as the League itself, despite currently being powerless to act on the specifics of these cases because of the way it’s set up, recognises that they aren’t just unhelpful on some kind of quasi-branding level, but in terms of that all important word: integrity.
All competitions need it. It might be better termed ‘Trust’, and the EFL in particular has to have it. It’s the very reason that Lord Mawhinney embarked on the major reforms he did from 2004. He knew that without a shift towards more formal rules on spending, ownership and debt – in the light of the collapse of ITV Digital – that the League was only headed one way.
His oversight and leadership reinvigorated a competition that was on its knees, with canny appointments such as Gavin Megaw as a sort of roaming ambassador to clubs, ensuring that they were engaged in the process.
Whether-or-not you liked the rebranding of the League last summer, or you’re one of the many supporters who doesn’t like the Checkatrade Trophy format, the EFL is the junior partner in the league pyramid. It’s a fact that if the EFL doesn’t remain nimble, responsive, sometimes innovative, but crucially, able to anticipate the pivots – the moments where it needs to make a strategic shift, as with Mawhinney – then it risks just being adequate, and it will struggle to make its offering distinct, with all the potential ramifications of that in terms of exposure, sponsorship, broadcasting and other income. You can argue that doesn’t matter, but you’ve got to have an answer as to where the money will come from to operate such a vast competition.
I would argue that reform of the type where owners will be more closely monitored, perhaps signing enforceable ‘behavioural agreements’, with punitive sanctions if they’re broken, might be one such pivot. Whether Harvey is thinking that, such a move could – would, I believe – genuinely help to restore some faith in the system, whether that’s seen as ‘regulation’, or just the rules of a private club of 72 members. The words aren’t that important. The principle is.
The pace of reform is slow in English football, partly because it’s a bit lazy sometimes: it’s the most popular sport in the country, and doesn’t have to work for it. However, if you look at the game from when I fought my first campaign in 2001/2002, to now, it’s almost unrecognisable in regulatory terms. There are pages and pages of rules on spending, tax monitoring, debt and other areas, where once there was, as I recall, one – concerning the payment of monies owed to the League itself. That’s some achievement.
The problem however, when it comes to the current ‘campaign’ on reform, is that a lot of it is shouting into the void: parliamentary debates and motions are useful in publicising the views of people, and tweeting that the EFL is incompetent might get you applause from the echo-chamber, or a few more readers, but it doesn’t equal reform. Reform only comes – came – because those arguing for it organised themselves, showed leadership, and did it from a position of strength and certainty.
Shaun Harvey has just poked the door open a little: it’s up to all of those out there, particularly in my view, Supporters Direct – long-term promoters of club licensing and reform, but also their sister organisation The FSF, to undertake a renewed campaign to bring in more effective checks on owners, and with it cease the kind of avoidable merry-go-round that many of us had thought we’d seen the back of years ago.
You can read Harvey’s interview here: http://www.standard.co.uk/sport/football/football-league-to-consider-new-rules-for-incompetent-owners-after-leyton-orient-crisis-a3533996.html