Watching Boylergate unfold still from the slight detachment of the Tirol is a singularly unedifying experience.
I should first make clear that I count Dave as one of my friends, and that I am also friends with a number of Supporters Direct employees whose jobs are now at risk. I am not however a pre-move Wimbledon fan or an AFC Wimbledon fan. I strongly disliked what happened, but I tend to see Sam Hammam and the local Council as the villans of the piece rather than Pete Winkleman. I wish that the MK Dons would drop the ‘Dons’ part of their name, in the hope that all concerned would finally move on and adopt a more realpolitik approach. That said, I find it fairly low down on the list of things that seriously bother me – it’s down there with Spennymoor Town, Livingston and Clyde (and maybe Kettering Town next), rather than up there with FIFA and corruption, for example.
The crisis, for that is what it is from a Supporters Direct perspective, seems to have issues at several different levels, the first and most immediate of which is the issue of what Dave Boyle tweeted (no click-through as Dave has deleted the particular comments which have had such drastic implications).
What he tweeted, he wrote in his personal capacity (it clearly states on his Twitter account “Comments reflect my views alone etc.“), but, of course, we can’t in practice ever disassociate ourselves from our employer that neatly (although I would argue the case for academic freedom if that employer happened to be a university!). Dave seems to have recognised this, and resigned as CEO of Supporters Direct. Why, it’s reasonable to ask, was that not an end to the matter?
Well, as Glen Moore reported it (1) in The Independent:
“When his tweets came to the notice of the FSIF they wrote to Dame Pauline Green, chair of SD, asking for her comments. She replied that Boyle had apologised and promised there would be no repeat. The trustees of the FSIF, who include the Football Association and the Government as well as the Premier League, took the view that someone in his position, even if tweeting in a personal capacity, could not make such statements in a public forum and merely be given a rap on the knuckles.
This line was taken in the context of a crackdown on abusive behaviour in the game, including the FA’s Respect campaign and the recent suspension imposed on Wayne Rooney for swearing into a TV camera after scoring against West Ham. The FSIF board subsequently released a statement saying they “no longer had confidence in Supporters Direct’s leadership and judgement”. Funding previously offered to the tune of £1.5m over three years, was withdrawn.“
An interesting question, which I have not seen an answer to, is why this anonymous person brought the tweets to the attention of the FSIF rather than complain directly to Supporters Direct.
The FSIF (the Football Stadia Improvement Fund) (2) is itself part of the Football Foundation which is funded as described. The Fund’s role is to provide “grant aid to clubs in the Football League, the Conference and the National League System, down to step 7 and below, that want to improve their facilities for players, officials and spectators.“ The mission of the Football Foundation itself is “to improve facilities, create opportunities and build communities throughout England” (3). It strikes me that the Trustees of the FSIF were not acting on behalf of the FSIF but rather in the interests of their parent bodies, and I’m unclear as to how the pulling of funding for Supporters Direct, and thus seriously threatening its existence, is in any way creating opportunities and building communities.
What comes across is the convoluted way that football is governed in the UK – by a farrago of committees where ‘conflict of interests’ is a phrase rarely heard.
Which takes us to the ultimate issue – how is Supporters Direct funded? The case that we actually need such a body is more than adequately expressed in the wealth of evidence submitted to the House of Commons Select Committee on Football Governance (3). With the clear exception of the Premier League, all in the football garden is not seen as rosy, and a very strong case indeed for the Supporters Trust movement is made.
The FSIF have made clear that “funding would still be available to individual trusts and they should apply directly on a case-by-case basis“, but this conveniently ignores the fact that a primary purpose of Supporters Direct is to help in establishing Supporters Trusts, and that, but for the work of Supporters Direct, many of the Trusts who can still apply for funding would not exist.
If there is a lesson in the whole sorry saga, it is that Supporters Direct needs to be funded not directly through a multi-stakeholder stadia improvement fund (???), or indeed the Premier League. The Premier League funding Supporters Direct is at least partly like having the Countryside Alliance finance the League Against Cruel Sports in that their objectives are antithetical, and linking them in this way just sets up the likelihood of the car crash we find with Boylergate.
For this reason I am not entirely sympathetic to the Early Day Motion calling ultimately for the resumption of funding of Supporters Direct by the Premier League (4). In the context of a House of Commons investigation into football governance, it would surely make more sense to move to a more stable funding basis for Supporters Direct, where the ‘hand on the tap’ is the FA, or better still the DCMS.