Unnecessary force

The launch of the Football Task Force

So, there is going to be a Football Taskforce designed, according to the Sports Minister, to “right wrongs and get a fair deal for fans who are the lifeblood of the game”. Issues to be confronted will include increasing ticket prices, racism and relationships between clubs and their local ethnic communities and the difficulties of balancing the interests of supporters and shareholders when clubs float on the stock market.

All well and good, were football fans members of a mysterious sect about whom next to nothing was known. But the reverse is true. Everyone, it seems, has opinions about football these days, not least politicians. Tony Banks himself never misses an opportunity to go banging on about his love for Chelsea. You’d think, then, that if Tony was up to speed he’d already know what the most pressing concerns of fans were without having to set up a talking shop to confirm it. The Taskforce panel is to include the PFA’s Gordon Taylor, and representatives from the Football Supporters Association and the Commission for Racial Equality alongside the usual suspects from the League and the FA, but surely the government should be taking advice from such groups anyway?

That the Taskforce will be able to recommend changes in certain areas but will not have any power to introduce legislation does rather suggest that its role will be cosmetic, offering little more than soundbite criticisms of the Bad Things in football and yet more photo opportunities for the Sports Minister, as if he needed them. It might even suffer a fate akin to that of the Premiership’s infamous, not to say mythic, bungs inquiry, still said to be awaiting detailed field reports from Lord Lucan.

There are several areas in which government action would surely be welcomed by most supporters, such as a revision of the ticket touting legislation so that it’s not an offence to sell on a spare at face value (in line with an FSA proposal ignored by the last government). Clubs could be recognized as civic assets so that a local council would be required to help find a new site for a stadium if they reject what the Department of the Environment considers to be a reasonable proposal by the club. And while it might not be possible to force a freeze on ticket prices, clubs that have accepted money from the state, through the lottery or Football Trust, could be required to raise prices in such areas on the basis of an inflation-linked formula. It might not be legal to impose this retrospectively, but could certainly be implemented in relation to future grants.

But there seems little reason to entertain high hopes. A government so paranoid about upsetting the powerful that is not prepared to heed polls showing that a majority of the electorate would support tax increases to fund welfare spending, is scarcely likely to consider legislation that would upset the self-made millionaires in the directors boxes (mostly still old Tory rather than New Labour).

The appointment of David Mellor to head the task force is a bit of a puzzle, too. No one could accuse Mellor of being anything less than devoted to his favourite hobby, which he pursues with obsessive zeal come rain or shine. That hobby, however, is the promotion of David Mellor, a cause to which football currently contributes in generous measure. That he could be perceived to be the ideal person to present as a fans’ representative might suggest to some that football supporters are held in as much contempt by this government as they were by Mellor’s party when they were in power.

How, after all, did Mellor achieve his status as the football fan’s champion? Casting about for some means of keeping himself in the limelight when his political career was on the skids, he barged his way on to a radio programme made famous by a much more talented broadcaster, which he proceeded to change irrevocably for the worse. 6.06 set out to give air time to people who don’t normally get the chance to sound off. Mellor conversely is never happier than when taking calls, all in the interests of ‘balance’, of course, from club chairmen who already get innumerable opportunities to air their views every week in club programmes, local press, and on TV and radio. That he is clearly more comfortable chatting with club owners than with supporters is underlined by the peculiar mock Cockney accent, last heard in Ealing comedy films of the 1950s, he affects when taking calls from ‘ordinary’ people.

The taskforce’s role, according to Tony Banks will be to “kick down the doors of the Football Association and say this is what the fans think”. That would be a sight to see, not least because there is reason to suppose that the head of the panel, the multi-faceted former MP for Putney, will have shoulder thrust squarely against the door on the other side. A readers’ survey conducted for the 100th issue of WSC concluded that the best possible use David Mellor could be put to would be as a draft excluder. If the “voice of the fans” is to be listened to, why not begin there?

From WSC 127 September 1997. What was happening this month