Michael Dugher MP

Working hard for Barnsley East

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West Stand Bogs: 'Putting fans back at the heart of football'

The following article appeared in issue 6 of the Barnsley FC Fanzine – West Stand Bogs:


The other week I switched on the telly to watch some football on the box. It was Cardiff City v Nottingham Forest. And although I’ve been a Forest fan for more than twenty years, being a huge admirer of Brian Clough (who did more than most to support the miners during the Strike) and having lived and worked in Nottingham many moons ago, I was aware that most of my mates who are Barnsley fans would have enjoyed seeing Forest get beat!
But what struck me was that Forest, who normally play in red, were having to wear their white away kit for the trip to South Wales because Cardiff – the ‘Bluebirds’ – were playing in red. Yet when I looked at the Cardiff fans in the stadium – that was well short of capacity, by the way – most were wearing older blue replica shirts.

Cardiff’s infamous overseas owner Vincent Tan, who has become a sort of panto villain in football, scrapped Cardiff’s traditional blue kit and bluebird emblem, despite a staggering 85 per cent of fans wanting the decision reversed. It would seem that all the money in the world is no cure of Mr Tan’s unpleasant arrogance and crass stupidity. Can you imagine what Barnsley supporters would think if the Club changed the colours to a nice shade of Tory blue?!

Equally, Newcastle United fans were rightly outraged when their owner, Mike Ashley, briefly renamed St. James’ Park the ‘Sports Direct Arena’ without any fan consultation. Similarly, Hull City fans are locked in an ongoing battle with the club’s owner over a proposed name change to ‘Hull Tigers’.

Now I may a Forest fan, who naturally has a huge soft spot for Barnsley and I try to get to games at Oakwell to cheer on the club whenever I can, but I feel a strong sense of solidarity with the supporters of Cardiff City, Newcastle and Hull.

Football has undoubtedly lost it’s way and there are too many clubs that seem completely remote from their supporters. That sense that some clubs are out of touch from ordinary longstanding (and often long-suffering) fans does not just extend to club colours or the names of stadia.

The BBC’s recent ‘Price of Football’ survey showed how average prices have risen at almost twice the rate of the cost of living since 2011. The worst offender is Arsenal, who have the most expensive match-day ticket in the Premier League at £97 – and that’s down £29 on last season! The Gunners charge up to £2,013 for a season ticket but the club are at pains to point out that this includes seven credits for cup competitions. For over two grand a year, I’d want Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to personally serve me my Bovril at half time.

Now the price of season tickets vary, even in the top flight, with Manchester City charging £299 – that’s cheaper than 15 Championship Clubs, ten clubs in League One, four in League Two and even one in the Conference. However, Barcelona only charge their fans £103 for their lowest-priced season ticket.

And it isn’t just the cost of season tickets.  The average premier league ticket costs £28.80 – that’s the equivalent of almost four and a half hours work for any fan who earns the minimum wage, and that’s before any additional costs like transport are factored in, never mind the cost of a replica shirt or a programme on match days.

I recently had nothing but respect for Liverpool fans who protested against increasing ticket prices imposed by their American owners at Anfield in October. Banners held up in the Kop read ‘supporters not customers’. And how right they are too.

Yet, as fans continue to be fleeced, rewards for many of the game’s owners, managers and players have never been better. In February, Wayne Rooney signed a new contract that sees him earn up to £300,000 a week. Clubs recently pocketed a massive £3.1 billion from the sale of television rights. But, who is representing the interests of the club and those supporters who pay to walk through the turnstiles week in, week out?

Now there are huge disparities in terms of how fans are treated.  I’ve always been impressed by Barnsley FC’s community work with their Community Sports and Education Trust. Barnsley’s impressive chief executive, Ben Mansford, makes a big effort to get round the fans and listen to what they have to say.  And equally, it is difficult to see what state Barnsley would be in without the continued and major financial support of the Club’s owner Patrick Cryne. Owners can be fans too.

But for too many clubs, fans have little power and next to no say or voice in how their clubs are run. Owners come and go, but the fans stick with their club through thick and thin (or in many cases, through thin and thinner).

It’s clear we’ve reached a tipping point in the way football is run.  That is why Labour has unveiled plans to give football fans a voice in every boardroom and the chance to buy a significant slice of the shares when the ownership of their club changes.

The proposals were drawn up by Clive Efford, Labour’s Shadow Sports Minister. Clive is a really top bloke and he can’t help being a Millwall fan. In consultation with 95 football supporters’ organisations, our plans would require supporters to come together to form a single accredited trust, like the Barnsley FC Supporters Trust. In return, they will obtain the right to appoint and remove up to a quarter and not less than two of a football club’s board and purchase up to 10 per cent of the shares when a club changes ownership, if they so wish.

This would ensure those running clubs share information, power and responsibility with supporters. It would give trusts, like the excellent Barnsley FC Supporters Trust, who work tirelessly to improve and strengthen the link between fans and the club, a real voice and stake in their clubs. They could hold the owners to account on all issues on and off the field including ticket prices, shirt sponsorship, ground naming rights, and changing the colour of the strip or the name.

Labour doesn’t have all the answers and, yes, we should have done a lot more when we were in power to address the problems with governance in the game. But our recent announcement is a step in the right direction and a welcome move to put fans back at the heart of their football clubs.

We will now consult further on the detail of these proposals with supporters and we want to hear your views. If you go on my website, there is a link to a survey we’re doing so make sure you have your say.

Anyway, next time I’m at Oakwell, you might see me having a pint before or after the game in the Old No 7 in town. If you do, let me know what you think of Labour’s plans for football and what more we could be doing. Oh and if you do come up and talk to me, try not to give me too much stick for being a Forest fan.

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