The last couple of years have seen multiple crises at all levels of English football. From the demise of Bury AFC and the Covid-19 pandemic to the rise and fall of the ‘Super League’ and the ongoing moral dilemmas over football ownership.

These crises culminated in a ‘fan-led review’ by MP Tracey Crouch in November of 2021 which produced several recommendations, ‘to ensure the long-term sustainability of football’. Most notably, this included increasing fan input in the form of ‘shadow boards’.

The State of Play

On April 25 of this year, the UK government endorsed the introduction of an independent regulator which, for those whose hope springs eternal, is a welcome step. For the more pessimistic amongst us, little tangible change can be seen at the boardroom level. The closest many premier league clubs have come to fan involvement are the now-infamous ‘socio fan tokens’.

Sadly, football is too often a sport that reeks of hypocrisy. English clubs claim they are for the fans whilst Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund has been handed the keys to Newcastle United. Authorities across the world speak of supporting equality and justice at every possible juncture, yet Pep Guardiola is fined for wearing a yellow ribbon in support of what many see as unjust imprisonments of Catalonian independence activists. It is precisely this pick-and-mix attitude that fuels those who wish to keep politics and football separate.

Progress is as much about changing laws to restrict morally objectionable ownership and improve fan involvement as it is about changing the psyche behind British football. In Germany, for example, football is not seen as a business but a cultural asset that serves local communities. As a natural consequence, German football is explicitly political and cultural shifts in society are played out in the stands — something that carries its own repercussions.

The last ten years have seen a rise of the far-right in Germany, and we have subsequently seen a rise in neo-Nazis infiltrating fan culture. Yet these enactments are not limitations of asserting the relationship between politics and football, but a stark reminder that the two are inseparable. Football presents a unique opportunity for enacting identities and cultures in a group environment. This can primarily be a force for good, but it can equally manifest itself in dangerous forms under certain conditions.

Fan involvement and ownership must come with recognition of the potential benefits and limitations of introducing political influences into football. There are examples of football as a social vehicle for building positive, progressive alliances. We have seen instances of refugees using football to ‘rebuild their lives’. German second-tier side St Pauli are a beacon for left-wing politics in the country and have garnered a global fan base. A marriage between football and politics is inevitable given their tendency to collide. How it plays out is something that is determined by both the culture that influences it and the internal structures of clubs.

Fan Involvement

According to a fan-led review, ‘it makes business sense for clubs to liaise closely with their most important stakeholder and develop plans with their views at the forefront’. Whilst this may be true, it is important to avoid framing fan ownership as solely a business venture for supporters. Increased fan involvement, which would make notions of fan ownership feasible, contributes to democratic structures, community participation as well as openness and education within clubs (St Pauli even boast a ‘kindergarten’ within their stadium). By embracing politics within football alongside increasingly democratic structures, football can become a shining example for institutions that protect their sustainability whilst promoting progressive cultural and social viewpoints.

There are examples within England of attempts to improve football’s democratic structures. Plans are being put into place by Liverpool’s supporter union The Spirit of Shankley, with the support of MP Ian Byrne, to create a Supporters Board at the club and embolden fan power through a trade-union-style approach. These are concepts which, if they come to fruition, should be used as a blueprint for all fan groups across the UK, and beyond.

Besides Liverpool, there are conversations pointing to Germany’s ‘50+1’ fan ownership. Whilst the fan-led review deemed this model unrealistic in English football, it encourages involving fans at the discursive, directorial, and boardroom levels. Elsewhere, Manchester United have included fans in the boardroom and the lower leagues also provide examples of fan ownership.

A Future for the Fans

Let’s be clear, the last few years of English football have produced a relatively bleak picture of its future. Many fans at the top level feel increasingly frustrated and disconnected from their clubs; capital is increasingly concentrating in the hands of a few elites; and, the ‘fit-and-proper-person’ test for club ownership is becoming strikingly similar to Milwall’s stewarding at the Den recently. Yet it would be remiss of me to present the future of British football as an irreversibly sinking ship. There is room for hope, and a vision of the sport that structures itself with and for the fans is the first step in empowering our football clubs.

We must, therefore, welcome and encourage a marriage of football and politics. It is rare for a cultural asset with notable economic and social significance to be almost entirely reliant on ordinary people — the fan bases without which football would be nothing. Supporters need to demand part-ownership of their clubs; a say in what the club does, says and supports; and to seize control of the narrative surrounding the sport.

The fight for social justice cannot be won until it permeates and battles within all sections of our society. Football can, and should, be a vital component of this struggle.

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