Home » English football’s regulator: what will it do and why is independence needed? | Paul MacInnes

English football’s regulator: what will it do and why is independence needed? | Paul MacInnes

What is the regulator there to do?

In short: keep football clubs solvent. The Independent Football Regulator (IFR) will have the ability to check that clubs have enough money to operate sustainably and take action if this is found not to be the case. It will try to work with clubs to fix problems, and with leagues too, but ultimately will have the power to deliver serious sanctions should it need to and will have the force of the law behind it.

What about dodgy owners?

That’s the second responsibility of the regulator: to assess the suitability of owners and directors at football clubs. With the ability to access HMRC data and consult with the National Crime Agency, the government promises a regulator can perform greater due diligence on potential investors than ever before. It can also force an owner to give up their stake if they are found to be (very) unsuitable. In assessing new owners, meanwhile, the regulator must also have “regard to the foreign and trade policy objectives of His Majesty’s Government”.

Why is the IFR necessary?

The idea of a regulator for English football goes back some time but became viable after the recent financial chaos in the game. At the top, clubs chased new money from a spin-off Super League. At the bottom, Macclesfield and Bury went out of business, and others – such as Southend and Reading – have been or are still at risk. Football’s argument that it could take care of its own business no longer rang true to politicians or to many within the sport.

When will it be in place?

No one knows for sure, but you can plot a course that may have a regulator up and working by the summer of 2025. This depends on the Football Governance Bill being passed quickly by parliament (it should, it has cross-party support), the organisation enjoying a smooth birth (key members of staff are being recruited) and a report assessing the state of the game being completed. From there the IFR could begin the process of awarding initial three-year provisional licences that would mean clubs had seen their finances assessed and agreed a plan to make their business sustainable (in some cases, clubs will already be sustainable, in many others they will not).

The Premier League has not issued a public statement welcoming the regulator. Photograph: Lee Smith/Action Images/Reuters

Yes and no. A long-running argument over how much money the Premier League should give to the English Football League to ease financial problems at lower-league clubs blew up last week as the Premier League walked away from a deal. Once the IFR is established it would have the power to impose a deal should one continue to prove elusive. But the “new deal” is also linked to a number of other issues in the game, such as how many matches should be played and the amount of money clubs should be allowed to spend on players; factors that the government says would not be in the regulators’ remit.

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Why is the Premier League so frustrated?

The Football Association and EFL both issued public statements welcoming the arrival of the regulator. The Premier League did not. Instead it said it remained “concerned about any unintended consequences of legislation that could weaken the competitiveness and appeal of English football”. For 30 years the Premier League has called the shots in English football and so it may not be surprising that it sounds peeved at the arrival of a new body that will tell its clubs what to do. The clubs, meanwhile, are upset at the prospect of having to pick up the lion’s share of the bill for running the regulator. But it’s also true that the Premier League is an English success story, while in this debate it’s often been painted as a villain. That might chafe, too.

And, last of all, what about the fans?

Supporters’ groups were the first to make the argument that football was not an effective self-regulator and the arrival of the IFR is vindication of their campaigning. One final responsibility of the regulator is to ensure that clubs engage regularly with their fans and listen to them, even if they do not act on their wishes. Clubs must also get fans’ approval before changing aspects of a club’s “heritage” such as the colour of the shirt or the club crest. But proper fan representation at board level, as in Germany for example, is not on the agenda.