Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Rosser: My Lords, at the risk of causing a walkout from your Lordships' House, I shall make a few comments on the state of association football and in particular the position of smaller Football League clubs and those in the non-league game. "Non-league" in England is the term usually applied to those clubs below the Premiership and the 72 clubs in the Football League. My comments relate primarily to those many hundreds of non-league clubs that compete at a level that enables them to charge for admission to games.

I have no interest to declare in the normally accepted sense used in your Lordships' House, but I do have a keen interest in watching live football, and in particular the non-league game. I cannot though match the involvement and interest of my noble friend Lord Pendry, who has had a stand named after him at Stalybridge Celtic's football ground. I can claim though, on two occasions when seeking directions to a ground, to being asked if I was the referee. I am not sure what that says about me. I am even less sure what it says about referees.

The major Premiership football clubs in this country have become major commercial enterprises behaving like major commercial enterprises. However, for smaller Football League clubs and, in particular, non-league
25 Nov 2004 : Column 234
clubs, the position is very different. Except for a very limited number with full-time playing, management and coaching staff, non-league clubs are dependent on the support of committed volunteers in the administration and organisation of clubs, the raising of money and the running of junior teams. Many of the volunteers put some of their own money into their clubs to ensure their continued existence or future development.

Some money is available to non-league clubs for specific projects, such as improving ground facilities for players and spectators, from bodies such as the Football Foundation. But regular sources of income to clubs might come from sponsorship, clubhouse bar and function hire receipts, ground and programme advertising, draw tickets, and gate receipts from home matches. In a successful year there might be some prize money for progressing in national cup competitions. If a non-league club is really fortunate it may secure money from the transfer of a player still under contract to another club in a higher league. The total income though from all those sources is likely to be relatively small. Very few non-league clubs have average attendance figures in excess of 1,000 spectators and most play in front of fewer than 300.

However, such clubs are very much a part of their communities, whether those communities are an area in a large conurbation, a small or medium-sized town or city, or a large village. Local newspapers carry reports on their games along with the latest news about them. Many clubs also run a number of junior teams for youngsters of different ages, and some now run women's teams. Without them there would probably be little or no regular organised sporting activities for many young people during the football season.

The costs of running such clubs though are not inconsiderable, even with numbers of committed volunteers. The expenditure incurred on running and maintaining the ground and pitch, travel to matches, purchasing equipment and gear and paying part-time senior team players and managers all adds up. Many clubs are dependent on a chairman or key directors providing financial support. While such individuals have clearly been a great help, and will continue to be a great help, to many non-league clubs—as well as to well-known major clubs, such as Chelsea—there is a potential downside if a club's survival is dependent on the financial support from one individual continuing. Sometimes the potential downside has turned into reality.

At the end of last season, one of the biggest non-league clubs, Telford United, went out of existence because the business interests of the owner on whom the club had become dependent got into financial difficulties, and the money to run and finance the club dried up. Thanks to the efforts of committed supporters a new club, AFC Telford, has risen from the ashes and has started life playing in a league three tiers lower down in the structure than the now defunct Telford United.

A further club, Hornchurch, in Essex, has just run into financial difficulties, again because the individual who had recently taken over the club, and provided money to pay very large salaries by non-league standards to attract higher quality players, found his business interests
25 Nov 2004 : Column 235
crumbling around him. The result has been that expenditure, including the wage bill, has had to be suddenly reduced part of the way through the football season. Players have left for other clubs, and the hopes of supporters and committed activists at the club for future success and development, which were raised so dramatically by the new owner, have been dashed just as suddenly.

Another club, this time in south-west London, was also taken over by a new owner whose money some felt might save the club from folding. However, the ground has now been sold and the club is now a tenant in what was formerly its own home, while it is claimed that the new owner made a considerable sum of money on the sale. Once again it is the supporters of the club who have felt frustrated, powerless and ignored.

A long-established Football League club, Wrexham, is also currently in a situation where its future existence is in doubt due to significant outstanding debts, amid allegations that the controlling owner has no real interest in football and sees the sale of the ground in a prime site as the source of a sizeable capital sum.

The news, though, is not all bad. Other clubs are run by the supporters themselves. One such club is AFC Wimbledon which was created and established some three years ago by disillusioned and angry supporters of Wimbledon Football League Club when they found out that their club was literally being taken away from them by the owner through being moved, with the agreement of the national football authorities, from south London to Milton Keynes. AFC Wimbledon, owned and run by its supporters, is one of the best-supported non-league clubs in the country with attendances for home matches of around 2,500 to 3,000 despite the fact that it is currently three leagues below the top level of non-league football, albeit working its way up fast.

Supporters Direct is a government initiative, funded by public money, to help people who wish to play a responsible part in the life of the football club they support. It exists to promote and support the concept of democratic supporter ownership and representation through mutual "not for profit" structures, and to promote football clubs as civic and community institutions. Supporters Direct works to bring about the formation of supporters' trusts on football club boards and the ownership of shares in clubs by supporters' trusts, and the pooling of individually held shares in a club under the influence of the trust.

There are more than 100 supporters' trusts across England, Wales and Scotland. Some 59 hold equity within their football clubs, and 38 football clubs have supporter representation within the boards of their clubs. There is supporter ownership or control at two Football League clubs and supporters' ownership at six non-league clubs. Supporters' trusts have been crucial in saving some 13 clubs, either by providing significant funds towards the reconstruction of the business, or by organising supporters and awakening interest in the club from the local community, which has encouraged local businesses and individuals to come forward.
25 Nov 2004 : Column 236

The message, I believe, is clear. Football clubs are part of their community and should be making an important contribution to the life of their community, and both clubs and communities should seek to foster and develop their relationship. Clubs are at their strongest and most stable when the direct involvement of committed supporters in the running of the club is real and meaningful.

The financial support of individuals, either direct or through a company, where they are committed to the club, is welcome, indeed in many cases essential; but in some instances such support, where it has involved a controlling interest, has proved, like fire, to be a bad master. Football clubs are not toys or status symbols for the well off to be picked up and discarded as the fancy takes, or as financial failure dictates. Neither are they, as has happened in more than the odd case, sources of quick gains through the sale of the ground for development to the financial advantage of a new or relatively new owner rather than the club itself.

I hope that the Government will strengthen their encouragement of democratic ownership and control of football clubs by those with the interests of the club at heart, and real and meaningful involvement in the running of clubs by supporters. I hope they will also encourage the relevant national football authorities in this country, in particular the Football Association, to look at introducing arrangements that will ensure that a club has the financial resources to enable it to complete a season and not be vulnerable to financial problems faced by, or other decisions made by, a controlling owner or company during the course of a season.

The relevant football authorities should also be encouraged by government to develop codes of good practice and governance for the running of all clubs and to require evidence of the good intentions and commitment of new owners to the continuation and development of a club. Such measures would at least make some of the recent difficulties which have been encountered, and seem to be on the increase, less likely, and would also give those who actively support a club and recognise its value to the community greater confidence and a greater influence as well as a better chance of ensuring their club's survival if its future is suddenly placed in doubt.

This is an issue of concern to many who love the game of football. I hope that the Government will use their influence to ensure that appropriate actions are taken by the relevant bodies. As a former manager of Liverpool, Bill Shankly, once apparently said,

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page