PtG Article 16.06.2011

Supporters Direct’s loss of funding turns political

An attempt by Premier League representatives to cut three quarters of the funding for Supporters Direct (SD) after a row over inappropriate remarks by the chief executive of the fan-ownership group is developing into a major UK political issue.

The row cost SD CEO Dave Boyle his job, but the subsequent decision to withdraw funding of £1.2 million for the next three years from the organisation, which has helped saved more than 50 football and rugby league clubs since being formed in 2000, has prompted offers of help to SD from all three main political parties.

An Early Day Motion was tabled in the House of Parliament on June 13. Representatives of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) have spoken directly to the Premier League over the issue and a spokesman for DCMS minister Hugh Robertson said: “We obviously want to see Supporters Direct have a role to continue their good work.”

Shadow culture, media and sport secretary Ivan Lewis said: “Supporters Direct provides a vital voice for football fans across the country; that voice is needed more than ever before as debates rage about the conduct of FIFA and domestic football governance.”

“The Premier League should now reinstate the level of funding they had planned to make available prior to the dispute over the behaviour of the then chief executive. Any other differences between the Premier League and Supporters Direct should be resolved through constructive dialogue free from the threat of funding cuts.”

The row comes at a difficult time for the Premier League as a report from a cross-party group of parliamentarians is due out later this month into the governance of football in the UK.

One of the main questions the committee had to answer was ‘What are the main pros and cons of the supporter-trust share-holding model?’ and the Premier League’s decision threatens the core of the whole movement.

Tweets and troubles

Supporters Direct is the main umbrella group promoting the fan ownership model in the UK and has helped form 180 supporter trusts in the last 11 years. The organisation was endangered after Boyle, a long-standing Premier League critic, made offensive remarks on social media microsite Twitter on the day that AFC Wimbledon, the club owned by a fan co-operative, won promotion to the Football League.

Boyle was heavily involved in the formation of AFC Wimbledon in 2002 after the Football Association (FA) approved a relocation of the original Wimbledon club to Milton Keynes by businessman Pete Winkelman. Boyle’s posts on Twitter included ‘The bible can **** off, this is the greatest story ever told’ and were followed by off offensive remarks made about Winkelman and Raj Parker, a lawyer that sat on the FA panel that approved the relocation of the original Wimbledon club.

Of SD’s annual £850,000 funding, £620,000 in the last year came from the Premier League and Boyle’s ill-judged remarks were made as the organisation was in the final throes of negotiating a new deal.

The money is usually allocated to SD as a grant from the Football Stadia Improvement Fund (FSIF) that is bankrolled by the Premier League, whose Director of public policy Bill Bush chairs the three-man FSIF panel that rules on grant applications. Boyle’s remarks were brought to the attention of Bush, who contacted SD chairman Pauline Green asking what she intended to do.

Bush was informed that a contrite Boyle had written a letter of apology to SD, which Green had accepted. This was not deemed sufficient and the FSIF issued a statement, insisting that Boyle’s behaviour was unacceptable.

The statement added that the: “reaction of the SD Board when alerted to the matter was not acceptable to the FSIF and the standards it would expect from any organisation in receipt of FSIF funding.”

The last FSIF grant provided £1.77 million over three years to SD but elapsed in 2009/10. With negotiations on-going, the Premier League made its latest contribution for the current year directly to SD.

Although SD also gets funds from the FA, the Scottish Parliament and UEFA, central running costs including 10 staff and an advice line for fans of ailing clubs, mean the loss of the grant from the Premier League, which did not respond to PTG’s request for a comment, would severely incapacitate the organisation.

Premier League comments

Other than issuing a statement confirming Boyle’s departure, SD has declined to comment but Hugh Robertson’s office has confirmed that the fan organisation’s acting chief executive, Brian Burgess, has written asking for a meeting with the minister.

A Facebook page has also been set up to try and save SD and accumulated thousands of ‘friends’ within days. The response from fans on the Internet was so virulent that the Premier League’s head of communication Dan Johnson contributed to the comments section of a feature on the row in The Guardian newspaper on June 14, 2011.

“I thought long and hard before entering this debate/vipers' nest given that I … am indeed the public face of the Premier League,” posted Johnson.

“However, such is the strength of feeling combined with some missing facts that I feel compelled to do so. Many of you have posed the question why SD is funded by the Premier League - the simple answer is no one else wanted to. Not even the last Labour government whose policy commitments gave birth to the organisation. I don't seem to remember any plaudits - certainly not commensurate with this opprobrium - heaped on the Premier League for being a far-sighted and progressive organisation in funding a body with the remit and aims of SD" he wrote.

“Clearly I can't go into too much detail about the on-going SD issues as they are live and under consideration. However, the actions to date have been conducted at arms-length from the Premier League, its chief executive [Richard Scudamore] and its director of public policy [Bush] through the appropriate governance channels. It wasn't a decision taken lightly. No one takes pleasure in an individual losing his job and others feeling threatened and the work SD has undertaken over the years has been commendable. No one at the Premier League or in the broader football authorities is anti the trust movement.”

House of Parliaments' Early Day Motion

About the report on UK Football governance

FSIF's statement regarding Supporters Direct

Article and comments from the Guardian