Typically, Britain’s football fans have enjoyed an uneasy relationship with Conservative governments. Throughout the 1980s, the country’s oldest political party was overtly hostile toward those that watched the national game, but Italia ’90, Murdoch ’92 and Blair ’97 changed all that. Even current Prime Minister David Cameron — who foolishly told Parliament in 2001 that he wasn’t a football fan — now professes to support Aston Villa, sort of, though there’s something magnificently Toryish about the fact that he does so because his uncle, Second Baronet Sir William Stratford Dugdale, CBE MC DL, was Chairman at Villa Park from 1975 to 1982.
Mayor of London and semi-professional banter merchant Boris Johnson, meanwhile, once headbutted a German in the groin during a charity game:
Still, it’s not all aggressive anti-Europeanism and hamfisted attempts to connect to ordinary voters. A key plank of Cameron and the Conservatives’ 2010 election strategy — wait, please, come back! — was the concept of the Big Society, a peculiar coagulation of policies that was at best a faintly utopian vision of a country where community togetherness and voluntary organisations could provide public services at a local level, and at worst a deeply cynical attempt to hide a savage program of spending cuts behind a cupcake. It was a confusing idea that may well have put off prospective voters and was quickly abandoned, with only a few of the related policies ever making their way through Parliament and onto the statute books. One that did, though, was the Localism Act 2011, and football fans have begun to take advantage.
In case you’ve misplaced your copy of A plain English guide to the Localism Act, here’s the relevant point:
The Localism Act requires local authorities to maintain a list of assets of community value which have been nominated by the local community. When listed assets come up for sale or change of ownership, the Act then gives community groups the time to develop a bid and raise the money to bid to buy the asset when it comes on the open market. This will help local communities keep much-loved sites in public use and part of public life.
Which means, in short, that any group of interested people can approach their local authority and make the case that a building, or piece of land, is an asset of community value. If the council agree, then it goes on the list, and if or when the current owner decides to sell then the group in question must (a) be informed of the intention to sell, and (b) be given the chance to raise a bid and purchase it for themselves.
Enter Supporters Direct, and enter the supporters. The first successful application of this principle to football came from OxVox, the Oxford United Supporters Trust. On 13 May this year, Oxford City Council approved their application to have the Kassam Stadium, home of the League Two club, declared an asset of community value; since then, the stadiums of teams from every level of the pyramid — from Champion Hill, home of Isthmian Premier high-flyers Dulwich Hamlet, to Old Trafford, home of Premier League mid-table stalwarts Manchester United — have been similarly listed.
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By their very nature — sitting, as they do, on fairly sizeable spaces of land — football grounds are one of the few assets of a football club with any value outside the game. As such, there is a constant concern — particularly among fans of more financially-precarious clubs, which at some point or another is most of them — that the development opportunities inherent in that land might, in the fullness of time, come to be very attractive to owners, current or prospective. That way lies homelessness and misery. Or, alternatively, that the ground and the club might be severed from one another. That way lies complexity, confusion, and more misery, as any Coventry, Wimbledon, or Brighton fan can attest.
In a statement following the decision, Mark Sennett, Chair of OxVox, said: “This is a significant moment for the supporters of Oxford United, and we’re delighted with the Council’s decision. This means United supporters will now never wake up one morning to read in the paper that the Stadium has been sold, with no recourse. The stadium is of huge local importance to the people of Oxfordshire, and the Club’s role is a source of huge community benefit and pride. Because of this listing, supporters and the Oxfordshire community will be able to play more of a role in its destiny.”
Perhaps the most interesting wrinkle of the whole process is that the owner of the stadium doesn’t have to be involved. Indeed, Firoz Kassam’s attempt to prevent the listing of the stadium that bears his name has recently failed, while the Glazer family initially sought to oppose the listing of Old Trafford. Their stated reasoning for the objection was that they believed the council had made a “wholly inaccurate interpretation of the law”; when it came to withdrawing that opposition, a spokesman said that, upon review, they “do not believe the decision to name Old Trafford an Asset of Community Value has any meaningful impact on the club.”
That’s the [value-to-be-determined-by-a-competitive-tendering-process] question: what good does this do? As OxVox point out, it means that the fans will never wake up to find that the ground — their ground, in a very real if not strictly legal sense — is now somebody else’s. But while the period of time to concoct a bid is guaranteed, there is little certainty about what would follow, and no indication as to whether the seller would even have to consider the bid from the fans’ trusts. And this being new legislation, there’s very little precedent about to guide us.
(There’s also the tantalising question of what, exactly, a supporters’ trust would do if it found itself suddenly in possession of a football ground. Rent it back to the club for peppercorn? Gift it back in perpetuity? Peg the rent to ticket prices, in the hope that the club will lower one to lower the other?)
But even with this uncertainty, and even without any guarantee that this will nudge England further toward the ultimate dream of full fan ownership and the World Cup victories that would surely follow, there is cause for optimism. At the very least, this is further evidence that fans are now explicitly part of the conversation. Formal recognition of the way football clubs fit into their communities, and the way fans fit into their clubs, is long overdue. And whether it works or not, we can all enjoy the mild and delicate irony that David Cameron’s sunken flagship may, in the sinking, have provided football fans with a mechanism that, if effective, might end up sheltering local communities from predatory capitalism. That’s not, typically, how Conservative governments are meant to work.
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