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Football regulator: Independence critical to success

For many years, the football authorities in England and Wales argued that the game did not need a regulator. Football, they said, could look after itself. Clearly, that was not the case. And so now, following the Fan-led Review, the Government has said there is going to be a regulator.

Even the Premier League, which opposed a regulator after every other body had accepted it, now acknowledges the reality that a regulator is coming. But now those who oppose reform have another tactic. They will accept a regulator, but they don’t want it to be independent.

Not only do they not want it to be independent, they are trying to ensure it isn’t by using their financial muscle to persuade clubs in the EFL to oppose it. Or, to put it more directly in the words of one League Two executive quoted anonymously in The Athletic: “The Premier League blackmailing us to water down the regulator is particularly difficult to stomach.”

Rotherham United owner Tony Stewart was prepared to go on the record. He told The League Paper the move was “an insult”.

Let’s be clear. The football regulator has to be independent if it is going to succeed. And it has to be seen to be independent.

We wrote in March this year about how some in football were arguing that a regulator established by the government meant state control of football. And about why that was a misleading and cynical argument. As we argued in that article, any regulator has to be backed by legal powers, otherwise it can’t be independent.

Don’t just take our word for it. We don’t often quote the words of the International Monetary Fund. But we’ll make an exception now. In a publication entitled ‘Should Financial Sector Regulators be Independent?’, it said: “Mounting evidence indicates that independent regulators have increased the efficiency and effectiveness of regulation”.

That was way back in 2004, but it does show the business case for independent regulation is nothing new. More recently, in 2012, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development said that “there is a need for the regulator to be seen as independent from politicians, government and regulated entities, to maintain public confidence in the objectivity and impartiality of decisions and effective operation for trust in the market”.

It was writing about regulators in general, but the principle can be applied to the new football regulator – effective regulation has to be independent. In fact, the only way to stop the ‘state control’ that some were so worried about is to ensure the regulator is independent.

But there’s a good chance some readers will be thinking, “If regulation is so great, how come we had the financial crash, my gas bill is sky high, and our rivers are full of sewage?” It’s a good question. And one which takes us back to the importance of independence.

There is a widespread view that many regulators are not independent enough from the people they are regulating. Which makes it all the more important for regulators to clearly establish that independence.

But there’s more. Even imperfect regulation involves examining what goes wrong and working out how to make sure mistakes are not repeated. Anyone familiar with football will see the value in that.

The attempt to compromise the independence of the football regulator is a last-ditch attempt to undermine the effectiveness of the new body. That can’t be allowed to happen, especially as attitudes to the idea of regulation in football seem to be changing.

That’s why we were pleased to hear one prominent club chairman use a European platform to speak in favour of a regulator. Speaking about UEFA, he said the European game’s governing body “have allowed themselves to be influenced by a group of clubs that they think will get the biggest media payment,” and went on to call for a regulator who “should have the best interests of the game at heart.”

We were especially pleased to hear those words coming from Steve Parrish, the chairman of Crystal Palace FC. Because he is on record as describing the plans for a regulator in English football as a solution that puts the game “in grave danger of huge, unintended consequences that could make the game a lot worse in the long run,” and “a huge act of self harm”.

It is always good to see someone prepared to change their mind, and we hope others in the Premier League will join Steve in welcoming a truly independent regulator who has the best interests of our game at heart.

Meanwhile he, and the other Premier League club owners, might care to reflect on the fact that their willingness to spend so much money on ensuring a regulator is not independent is perhaps the strongest argument of all for independence.

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