Posted by John Beech on October 23, 2009
Hard times at Bournemouth have prompted Eddie Mitchell to suggest drastic intervention: “The club is at the heart of the town and should have money invested in it by the government. It’s up to the government to restructure the game and I see it all over the country. It was the same with Dorchester in the Blue Square South. These football grounds are smack in the middle of towns and a lot of them are falling apart. If only the government could see a way to invest into the hubs of communities, it would help keep youngsters off the streets and give them somewhere to go to enjoy themselves.” (1) I assume that he is not calling for Westminster to cough up for Bournemouth alone, and is making a case for clubs in general. In just a couple of sentences he’s managed to pack in some serious issues that need unpicking.
First of all, are the concerns of Bournemouth (or Accrington Stanley or whichever club for that matter) really something that warrants government intervention? Surely these are local issues for local people (no, I’m not writing from Royston Vasey!). Each case is highly individual and surely needs consideration by local councils rather than at the government level. In any case, the local council will have a much clearer understanding of not only what might need to be done, but also what the causes of the predicament are, and what the broader community benefits might or might not be.
Which raises a second point – why should the state intervene to bail out cases of poor management of a private company? In Mitchell’s case, he inherited many of the problems at the club, but he entered football management at the ownership level as recently as 2007 and is already weaving his magic at his second club. He has explained how he came into football as “I’m not a passionate football fan – my son plays and that’s what drew me into football” (2). His son has of course ‘kept off the streets’ and played at Dorchester, which Mitchell previously owned, and more recently on loan at Bournemouth (see 3).
If there is a case for intervention with state money (and I’m not personally convinced there is), it has to be made in the community context, with the club at the heart of the town indeed. This is a nonsense when a club is owned by a property developer. It only makes sense if a club is owned by the local council, which I would not advocate, or by a Supporters Trust, which I would.
Emotive though Mitchell’s arguments are, they are perhaps being made by the wrong person if they are to be taken seriously.
The hard truth is that many clubs in financial trouble are often in that situation because of bad management by ‘benefactors’ (often serially) who are not, in any non-legal use of the words, fit and proper persons to own and run a football club. Too often the ‘benefactor’ fails to realise the demands of running a money pit.
If, and it’s a big ‘if’ that would require much wider debate, state involvement and money are to be considered, we need to recognise that a) football is not the only sport, b) it is not universally popular (even if it should be!) and c) fan democracy should be the only basis for any club-specific subsidy from the public purse.