The Football Task Force pleas for change, reports Matthew Brown

It is easy to be cynical about the Football Task Force. Whatever it comes up with, we know this government of cosy partnerships is hardly going to shake the corporate hand one minute then beat it on the knuckles the next, just because it does nasty things to football fans and their clubs.

But think back ten years, even five. What chance then of a government-appointed body seeing football as worthy of consideration. At least now fans are seen as the ‘stakeholders’ of the game, providing one of its legitimate voices. Take the report on racism that the Task Force released at the end of March. It is more than the charter of well-intentioned but meaningless pronouncements you might expect. Far from confining itself to the effects of high profile racist incidents, à la Collymore-Harkness, it calls for action at all levels – from the FA, from the PFA, from clubs, from local authorities, and from government.

Among its 28 recommendations the report calls for racist abuse on the field to be made a red card offence, for anti-racism pledges to be inserted in players’ and managers’ contracts, for the law to be changed so that racist abuse by individual spectators at matches will be a criminal offence (at the moment it only applies to crowd chanting), for stewards to be trained to deal with racism at games, for clubs to adopt and carry out equal opportunities policies and for the FA Council to be “more representative” of society and the game as a whole. It also calls for clubs to “market the game to a wider audience”, especially among ethnic minority communities.

Perhaps most importantly it demands that local authorities and County FAs take measures to stamp out racism in local leagues, including banning teams from using council-owned facilities if they are found guilty of involvement in racist incidents.

Some Task Force members have clearly been affected, even shocked, by what they’ve heard on their travels. “There was the most incredible ignorance of race issues at County FA level,” one member, Chris Heinz of the Local Government Association, told an audience of black fans who met in the House of Commons a few weeks ago. “The sum total of the knowledge of racism among local officials, even in areas with high ethnic minority populations, was that they had black teams in their leagues who complained too much about biased refereeing.”

“One official actually said ‘I’ve got more important things to attend to’,” David Mellor reported. If the Task Force measures are put into action, attending to racism should be higher up the priority lists of such people now. Should be, because whatever the Task Force recommends, the power to force the local leagues to do the things it suggests is not in its hands: it’s up to the government, or the FA, or the clubs, or whoever the buck gets passed to. When Mellor was asked how the measures could be enforced he tellingly replied: “We are not looking at compulsion at this point, it’s about raising people’s consciousness.” Similarly, Graham Kelly floundered in vague inanities when asked whether professional clubs would be set targets for attracting black and Asian fans. “No, that would be much too specific and practical,” was his answer.

Moreover, in some ways racism is the easy topic for the Task Force (the mountains of positive press coverage the report received is testament to that). After all no one is going to be openly anti-anti-racist. But imagine the resistance from clubs and governing bodies if the Task Force sees its way to recommending lower ticket prices, or an end to TV-inflicted kick off times. What’s more, judging by the half dozen public meetings held in various cities around the country so far, some fans’ main concern is terracing. And that, as Sports Minister Tony Banks continually reminds us, is not part of the Task Force’s remit. “No way. This government will never do it,” he says, fuelling the growing suspicion that this government’s interest in the future of football is focused exclusively on 2006.

There is still cause for seeing the Task Force as a rather elaborate Labour Party focus group – we know it’s going on somewhere but no one quite knows what it is doing or whether it will make a difference. But surely it is still better for supporters to take up the invitation to express their views than to stand on the sidelines moaning. The time to complain will come if it doesn’t deliver.

From WSC 135 May 1998. What was happening this month

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