Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the Backbench Business Debate on FA Governance Reform. I had intended to, and post below the speech I intended to give in the chamber.
I rise in this debate not as a football fan but as a representative of a community where the changing fortunes of our local football club have had a marked effect on the town and its inhabitants.
As we consider reform of football governance I believe it is important to consider the role of clubs in communities. A football club is not like any other business. As council leader in Blackburn with Darwen before I entered Parliament, I dealt with many groups who felt strongly about the changing circumstances of Blackburn Rovers, the only professional club in Blackburn.
Blackburn Rovers are not, unfortunately, a top flight team any longer. Rovers fans have sadly become used to Ewood Park playing host to second tier games and a second tier team.
Since 2010, Blackburn Rovers have been under the ownership of Venky’s. It has, unfortunately, been a period of turmoil. The club has been relegated from the Premier League. Attendances have dropped from the low to mid 20,000s before the takeover to under 15,000. Key players have been sold and inferior replacements brought in.
A fall of almost 10,000 people in matchday attendance doesn’t just mean a sparser stadium, less ticket sales and poorer TV pictures. It harms businesses that rely on matchday trade.
A generation of children will not have the essential experience of going to a packed stadium to watch their team. I worry about the effects of the current situation not just on the town currently, but what the breaking of that link means for the future of football supporters in the town.
The effect of Venky’s ownership has been labelled corporate vandalism. One of the founding members of the Football League has been reduced to a shadow. A proud regional club has been humbled. Lifelong supporters have been driven to despair, torn between boycotting games and continuing to attend as they have done for decades.
If we are to consider the role of the FA in this, it must be mentioned that the owners have not broken FA rules. They were passed as fit and proper, as have other negligent owners.
Clubs in the constituencies of other honourable and right honourable members may well have experienced similar turmoil. It isn’t a losing run or a refusal to buy success that angers fans. It is the slow motion disaster that has sadly affected so many fans of different and varied clubs.
The FA and the authorities must ensure that football clubs, community assets, are protected from negligent ownership. Fans must have an opportunity to meaningfully engage with the club at all levels.
Two groups of Blackburn Rovers supporters have been active in protesting against the ownership situation, the Action Group and the Rovers Trust.
I am convinced that meaningful engagement with supporters groups is the best way to produce a healthy atmosphere around the community a club serves. However, there must be safeguards in football governance regulations to protect football clubs from the corporate vandalism that Blackburn Rovers fans have experienced.
Those who own football clubs must be persuaded that engagement with supporter’s groups and building long term links with the community is their duty as custodians of community institutions.
As I said at the beginning of this contribution, I am not a football fan by habit. I represent a constituency that is passionate about Blackburn Rovers and have received emails from many Rovers fans calling on me to attend this debate and to air their concerns. When a football club is run poorly and alienates their fanbase, the entire community suffers. Football governance and the welfare of our football clubs ultimately goes beyond the pitch and into our communities.