Ethics work

Former police commissioner Sir John Smith was asked by the FA to look into football's values after the colourful financial events of recent years.  Martin Le Jeune, who assisted with the report, explains why we should take it seriously

Betting, bungs, bribes… there have been times in the past few months when football’s financial dealings might as well have come straight out of a business studies course taught by Del Boy Trotter and Arthur Daley.

The tabloids have generated enough synthetic indignation about the unusual cash-flows in professional transfers to roof the Millennium Dome. The broadsheets have philosophised about the effect of big TV money on the simple peasants of planet football. But there are plenty of apologists, supporters among them, who dismiss evidence of wrongdoing with a shrug.

Should supporters care if the star Scandinavian striker bought by your club cost £1.5 million, but considerably less than a million reached FC Unknown of Uppsala? It’s a nice little earner for the player, his dad, the go-between, the agents and the managers, and no-one gets hurt. Surely it’s the classic victimless crime.

Wrong on all counts. Tolerating a culture of financial laxity is profoundly damaging to football. The interests of supporters and honest clubs, their managers and players are all affected. If in doubt, ask a Brighton fan.

This has been grasped, to its credit, by the Football Association. The Grobbelaar/Segers/Fashanu trials did not prove any illegality, but they did indicate some worryingly permissive attitudes to managers and players betting on games over which they had a direct influence.

The FA’s response was to ask a retired senior police officer, Sir John Smith, to investigate and to propose remedial action. His report contains some fairly blunt reminders about the conflict of interest involved in winning a game and winning a packet at the local bookies, and will lead to a tightening up of the rules. The betting inquiry led to a much wider investigation of football’s financial rules, just published (Football: Its Values, Finances and Reputation). Its conclusions are relevant to any committed supporter.

The report questions whether football has done enough to protect its reputation. Treating football purely as a business will not do: its hold on the public makes it much more than that. It follows that football needs policing. It needs it, in the first place, for purely footballing reasons. Every time a club breaks FA rules to make improper payments it is obtaining an unfair advantage over the other clubs in its league, quite possibly directly expressed in points at the end of the season. Being relegated for playing second-rate football is bad enough; going down because you have been honest and a rival has not, defrauds the fans.

As for victimless crime, it is worth remembering the next time a manager or agent trousers a few thousand pounds in the course of a transfer, that part of that money came through the turnstiles. Supporters should not be used to fund nest-eggs for people who are well paid as it is.

There is only one authority in football with the scope to act as overall regulator, and that is the FA. Until now, the prospect has been unpalatable. The cost, the possibility of endless litigation, the lack of expertise, have all discouraged the FA from playing watchdog. But attitudes are changing. The Smith Report proposes the setting-up of a compliance unit with the powers to investigate allegations of misbehaviour and take effective action against miscreants. It will be small – perhaps half a dozen people – with the legal, financial and investigatory expertise to catch out those intent on breaking the rules.

One suspects that part of the reason for the FA’s conversion to the idea of regulation is the unwelcome prospect of government intervention. The Labour party’s pre-election document on the future of football carries an implied threat that if the game does not clean itself up, then the government might, although David Mellor’s low-profile task force is the only concrete result so far. As far as the FA is concerned, any further intervention is best avoided by demonstrating that self-regulation can work.

Smith’s report goes well beyond simple financial matters, although it does acknowledge that football can learn one or two things from business. If commercial companies can have values statements and codes, then why not football, which means far more to far more people than any company you can think of? There is no point banging on about “the spirit of the game” unless you can define what this mysterious concept means.

The proposed code of conduct (see box) is an attempt to do just that. It is unlikely to make anyone gasp in surprise and the references to the importance of community feelings and supporter consultation are expressed in very general terms. The code is not going to be an enforceable document, but nor is it just a collection of platitudes. It represents a commitment on the part of the FA and clubs, and it gives fans a lever to bring in the game’s authorities the next time a club seems about to be sacrificed on the altar of short-term profit.

The process of finalising the code is likely to be as significant as its precise content. Smith wants the FA to carry out a consultation exercise throughout the game to establish whether the draft reflects the underlying values of the game – asking for the views of clubs, players, officials and, of course, supporters.

This might be a surprise to those who believe that football authorities are incapable of hearing anything except the rattle of cash registers, but if the FA accept Smith’s suggestion, anyone with an opinion on the way the game is going (presumably everyone who reads WSC, for a start) should sharpen their pencils. If fans don’t speak up when they have the chance, then why should football listen?

From WSC 133 March 1998. What was happening this month