Saturday, November 30, 2013

Portsmouth Football Club - Whither Our ‘Community’ Club?

Roger Welch , a member of the Portsmouth Supporters Trust, returns to Inside Left to examine what Guy Whittingham's recent departure from Portsmouth Football Club tells us about how the fan owned club is run.

Five years ago on the day this piece was written (November 28 2013), until Filippo Inzaghi scored an injury time equaliser, Pompey were a Premiership club, holders of the FA cup and two minutes away from an historic 2-1 victory over AC Milan in the UEFA cup. Today, Pompey is a so-called community owned club in League 2 with a relegation battle beckoning to stay in the Football League.

In my previous blog for Inside Left I wrote in support of the battle by the Portsmouth Supporters Trust to force Balram Chanrai to sell the club to it. I also wrote in this blog that, should the Trust succeed, there were questions marks over the extent to which Pompey truly would be a club owned and run by the fans. The fact that the bid to buy the club along with Fratton Park did succeed is undoubtedly significant progress, and should ensure that never again will Pompey be involved in the murky financial world and dealings that forced the club to go twice into administration in the Gaydamak, Storrie and Chanrai years. Some of the goings on in this period have been exposed in articles by The Guardian’s sports writer, David Conn. (See, for example, Pompey back on brink as extent of club’s mishandling is laid bare.)

Since the Trust have taken over the club there have been two events (see below) that, for me, have shown that, whilst as the boards around Fratton Park proclaim, the ground and the club are now owned by fans the club is not owned and run by the fans as a collective whole. Rather the club is owned and run by a small group of wealthy businessmen, although all of these people are genuine fans. The extent to which Trust members (themselves a small minority of Pompey fans as a whole) have any say at all is restricted to one occasion a year – this being the AGM of the Trust at which members can move and vote on resolutions and elect the members of the Trust board. This board then decides which of its members will go on to the Club’s board, and the remaining directors are the non-elected and self-styled Presidents of the club who had the personal wealth to put up the bulk of the funds to enable the Trust to buy the club. The Trust has a 51% shareholding in the club, but the chances are that the members of the Trust board who also sit as Directors on the club’s board will continue to be friends of the Presidents and therefore the club will continue to be run by a small self-perpetuating clique.

Formally speaking, of course, it is possible to not to re-elect the same members of the Trust’s board and for this board to vote people on to the club’s board who will act as a counter-weight to the Presidents. However, as many readers of Inside Left will know from their own experiences as trade unionists and/or past or present members of far left groups (though there are exceptions such as the Anti Capitalist Initiative, the International Socialist Network and Socialist Resistance), the dynamics of power relations are such that it is difficult to near impossible to dislodge existing leaderships who have control of the resources and networks to remain in power. This is particularly so where dissenting individuals do not have the same logistical mechanisms, as possessed by leaderships, to identify and collaborate with co-thinkers with view to challenging the former. This is even more so where key democratic decisions can only be taken once a year - be it at an annual conference or, in the case of the Pompey Supporters Trust, at an AGM.

The two events which have caused me to voice my concerns were firstly the Club’s decision to sign up to the Tory’s slave labour scheme by employing unpaid young people on benefits to make improvements to the stadium, and secondly and more recently the decision to sack Guy Whittingham as team manager. I was, of course, politically opposed to the exploitation of young workers who would have lost their benefits if they had not agreed to do this work, but I recognise this may have been a minority view amongst Pompey fans. Similarly, I was probably part of a minority of fans who opposed Whittingham’s sacking, although I suspect that there were a fair number of fans who thought his time had come but nevertheless were dismayed at the abrupt and brutal manner of his sacking. In archetypical footballing fashion Whittingham had publicly received the chairman’s dreaded vote of confidence only to find himself out of his job days later. In this case Whittingham was so confident that his job remained secure that, immediately prior to being sacked, he had given his weekly press conference at which he stated he was certain he retained the full backing of the board (for the full story see Neil Allen, Bell Tolled for Whittingham as Pompey get Ruthless, The News, 28/11/2013.

However, a major component part of any true democratic process is that there are effective mechanisms whereby minorities can seek to become majorities and change policies and practices accordingly. In the case of the Supporters Trust there is not even an online discussion board or email discussion list through which individual members can state their views and seek to identify like-minded people. As I have said above, Pompey is not so much a club owned and run by the fans but by a small and wealthy elite. In saying this I must emphasise I do not impute any bad practice or bad faith on the part of this group in taking the initiative to set up the Trust and fight the lengthy and costly court battles to defeat Chanrai. But I think many of us were caught up in the emotional rhetoric of establishing the largest community owned club in the country and believed we would have more say in how the club is run than has actually proved to be the case. Moreover, I must say that for myself, as a lawyer, I should have known better than to have failed to read the small print, where everything was made clear, and probably in any case would have donated my £1000 to help save the club as I could afford to do so.

How could a genuine community club be run? Well, ideally, Trust members would directly elect the whole of the club board and any member could seek nomination to become a club director. I suspect this is constitutionally and legally impossible under the current set up as this would involve liquidating the current company that owns Pompey and replacing it with a new company with a new constitution. However, it would be practically possible to amend the Trust’s constitution to provide for direct election of Trust members to the club’s board. It would certainly be possible to set up an online discussion board etc. Moreover, membership of the Trust could now be made open to any individual Pompey fan prepared to pay a small annual affiliation fee and who would then have equal voting rights with original Trust members. Footballing decisions concerned with running the team have to be left to the manager and his or her coaching staff, and clearly it is only specific representatives of the club who can draw up and sign employment contracts, sponsorship deals and the like. However, key decisions, such as the identity of club sponsors and the termination of a manager’s contract, should be subject to ratification by the Trust’s members, and if necessary this could be done relatively quickly by using online technologies. Fans should also be in a position where they can veto the appointment of a specific manager such as the fascist Di Canio. There should be regular meetings of Trust members where opinions can be voiced and exchanged. The ultimate democratic mechanism would be providing for the immediate recall of board members, individually or collectively, through enabling Trust members to propose and vote on motions of no confidence.

Under things as they stand could such developments happen at Pompey? Almost certainly not! However, I do believe that a football club could effectively and efficiently operate in this way and that such a club would genuinely be a community club owned and run by its fans.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Books For A Season Of Rain And Grey Skies

Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football reviews an autumn of sports books.

It was three decades ago, in 1983, that Garry Whannel wrote the pioneering book Blowing the Whistle: The Politics of Sport. The book was part of a series ‘Arguments for Socialism’, created by The Socialist Society, an alliance of Left-wing thinkers, writers and campaigners, and published by Pluto Press. Despite the dreadful defeats at the hands of Thatcherism, and the jingoistic aftermath of the Falklands War the Left felt livelier, more open-minded and with a greater sense of ambition and purposefulness than it sometimes does today. Garry’s book, reminding the Left that sport and leisure matters was part of this liveliness. He summed up what was then a prevailing attitude both on the Left and the Right and remains largely the same 30 years on today in the book’s neatest of phrases. “ Sport is marked down as a natural, taken-for-granted activity. You don’t need to talk or write about it. You just do it.” The book was a few years ago republished in an updated and revised form Culture, Politics and Sport and remains one of the defining texts for any serious understanding of sport.

One of the huge changes since Garry Whannel wrote those words is the breadth and number of sports books published. David Epstein’s The Sports Gene: What Makes The Perfect Athlete is the kind of book, immersed as it is in the nurture vs nature debate, that connects sport, knowingly or unknowingly, to much broader issues and reveals it as anything but ‘Just Done’. Incisive, a book that examines the varied conditions that creates sport’s winners . A very different approach to the same subject was offered by Christopher McDougall in his classic book Born to Run. This is sport as anthropology, examining the phenomenal endurance running of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico then translating this into a manifesto for the simple appeal of running, including in its purest form, barefoot.

The ‘bare essentials’ is hardly how the modern sport of cycling is best described. With the genius behind the two-wheeled success of Team GB and Team Sky Dave Brailsford describing his philosophy as the ‘aggregation of marginal gains’ the attention paid to the smallest engineering, physiological and psychological detail is obvious. It is an evolution that is retold quite thrillingly in Edward Pickering’s book The Race Against Time. This is the story of the 1990s rivalry of Chris Boardman vs Graeme Obree and their battle for the one hour track cycling record. Boardman remains well-known today thanks to his TV work as a pundit, Obree meanwhile has become a virtual recluse, a superbly gifted athlete who doubles up as an inventor. It’s a great story, which in many ways created the base for the later success of Hoy, Pendleton, Wiggins, Cavendish, Froome and Trott. The story behind the most successful sport in British sporting history, track and road cycling, is revealed in an honest and well-written account provided by Team GB Elite Coach and Team Sky Performance Manager Rod Ellingworth in his book. One of the most refreshing aspects of cycling as a sport is the key protagonists’ willingness to engage openly with their public. Cycling ’s openness may be in part due to the legacy of the criminal cover-ups that we now know dominated the Armstrong era but whatever the reason it is a sport now keen readers can acquire a fill and proper insight into, Rod Ellingworth’s book is testament to that. The same can be said for two autobiographies from cyclists who straddle cycling ‘Before and after Wiggo ’. For years Sean Yates was by far and away the most successful British rider in the Tour de France since Tommy Simpson. Then came Cavendish, Froome and most of all Wiggins. After retiring from racing Sean Yates was to become Team Sky’s Race Director and a figure central to Wiggins’ 2012 Tour victory. His book It’s All About The Bike is a great and once again revealing book. Easy Rider by former racer Rob Hayles covers a slightly later period. As the success of track cycling began to take off after British success at the Athens 2004 Olympics, eventually to be translated into success on the road too. Rob Hayles was one of the pioneers of that breakthrough and provides a fascinating account of the reasons why British cycling became, and remains, such a success story.

Socialist sportswriter Gareth Edwards makes an interesting case in a three-part online essay for taking the playful appeal of sport seriously. To that end many of these books are about only one, distinctly minority, aspect of sport, competition at an elite level. Most of us who ‘do’ sport just do it for leisure, recreation and pleasure. Some compete, most don’t, and it is competitive sport that has suffered the most severe decline in levels of participation. The Rules : The Way of the Cycling Disciple is in this regard a very different kind of sports book. It’s about the likes of us who are never going to win a race let alone enter a national, European or World Championship for glory .We just get on our bikes to stretch ourselves in the cause of some kind of enjoyment. That’s not to say such sport doesn’t have its own culture and this book seeks to catalogue precisely this, with a touch of ultra-narcissism on occasion. But perhaps we need to broaden our definition of sport, or at least physical activities much broader, to include the recreational. It would be hard to justify ‘walking’ as any kind of sport, but it is the most common form of physical activity most of us take pat in, sometimes with a dog, a relationship wonderfully chronicled in Harry Pearson’s book Hound Dog Days.

Once the football season starts, and nowadays it never seems to end, most other sports, never mind any coverage of recreational, and non-competitive sports are pushed off the back pages to the exclusion of coverage of almost anything apart from football. Two recent biographies, Dennis Bergkamp’s Stillness and Speed and Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s I Am Zlatan get to grips with football’s undoubted appeal to the fans. Both are a pleasant respite from the ghost-written dross served up by most players, and managers, including Ferguson’s non-revelatory latest. Perhaps because in both cases these are foreign players, writing for a non-English audience, with well-chosen co-writers, in Bergkamp’s case the superlative David Winner. And the result are books that begin to explore in a serious way football’s enduringly hegemonic appeal, now on a global scale. Mike Carson’s The Manager is a different kind of endeavour, putting fans’, and the media’s, obsession with football’s managers in a broader context of the cult of managerialism, framed primarily by business culture. Insightful and thought-provoking, a great read for the next time a club’s manager is sacked. Lose to a rival, and any manager is going to be under pressure. In world football few rivalries provoke such interest and passion as Real vs Barca. Sid Lowe’s Fear and Loathing in La Liga is unsurprisingly very good, Sid Lowe is the always well-informed Spanish football correspondent of the Guardian. Combining the historical, cultural, political, because as Garry Whannel had patiently explained 30 years ago sport is shaped by all three and there’s not a better example of this truism than Barca vs Real, which Sid Lowe explains with an eye for detail and pacey writing to create a really good read. Spain are of course the reigning European and World Champions, England meanwhile have managed to squeeze past Montenegro, Poland and the Ukraine to at least qualify for World Cup 2014 but with no one, including the team captain, expecting them to get anywhere close to winning the tournament. What’s new? No semi-final appearance by England since Euro ‘96, one single semi-final appearance at a tournament outside of England, at Italia ‘90. So in a sense why are so many of us surprised when England’s prospects remain so dire? A combination of the ‘66 legacy, the burden of Imperial history, two World Wars oh and inventing the game, plus the self-appointed Greatest League in the World. For a coach-centred grassroots analysis of what is wrong with a football culture incapable of producing enough technically gifted players to muster a decent national team there’s no better book than Matthew Whitehouse’s outstanding The Way Forward: Solutions to England’s Football Failings.

Nine years after Garry Whannel’s socialist analysis of sport was published Nick Hornby wrote the best-selling Fever Pitch. The rest is, publishing, history. The bookshop shelves are heaving with an ever-expanding range of sports titles, many of them treat sport in that ‘just done it’ unproblematic way that Garry critiqued. In his own way Nick Hornby taught us something different, the meaning of sport in general, football in particular, the way that it connects with us emotionally, as individuals, impacting on our relationships, and group loyalties. Hornby wrote in that most feminine of styles the confessional and his writing touched his audience, mainly male, in a previously unheard of way because of it. Two decades on much of today's sportswriting has reverted to type, but there remain precious exceptions.

My book of the sporting quarter stands out precisely because it is is exceptional. Author Michael Calvin’s previous book on Millwall, Family: Life, Death and Football already stood serious comparison with Fever Pitch as an all-time sportswriting classic. With his new book The Nowhere Men Calvin has produced an even better book. The extraordinary, and untold, tale of football’s Scouts, how talent is discovered, often missed, recruited by the clubs, looked after, not always very well, and ends up the other end as a Premier League superstar. Sportswriting at its very best: investigative, compelling and revealing.

No links in this review are to Amazon. If you can avoid purchasing from the tax-dodgers please do so. 

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football