The fans of Bury football club, one that has played in the football league for the last 125 years and won the FA Cup twice, have seen their team expelled to the outer reaches of non-league football.
The fate of Bolton Wanderers, a team that until seven years ago enjoyed an unbroken run of 11 seasons in the Premier League, had also been hanging in the balance for many weeks. There are other clubs too with proud histories whose positions are only a little less precarious.
Once again, the football authorities, and the English Football League (EFL) in particular, seem powerless to stop bad owners running great clubs into the ground.
The safeguard against this, the much-talked-of ‘owners and directors test’ is barely worth the paper it is written on. It is no more than the basic qualification for anyone to be listed as a company director in the UK. It is only enforced at the point new owners seeks to take over a club, and the Football League has no real resources to do detailed background checks into them.
We need a proper regulatory structure for English football where action can be taken against owners that are being irresponsible and reckless with the finances of their clubs, or even unduly profiting from their ownership of them. As in other industries, like broadcasting, where an independent regulator has the power to remove a license from an irresponsible owner, football clubs should have a similar body that can intervene to safeguard their long-term interests.
The role of the EFL in the cases of Bury and Bolton has not been to guarantee the future of the clubs, but to protect the integrity of its competition. This means that an intervention only comes when the club is already standing on the edge of the abyss, not at a point where there was time for a proper turnaround plan to be put in place.
Given that the EFL is controlled by the Chairs of its 72 member clubs this is not entirely surprising. It would not welcome independent scrutiny or intervention from a regulator, as one day that might apply to it as well.
The Football Association should take on responsibility for this oversight of clubs, but it currently does not have the power, and it is unlikely that the Leagues will willingly grant it to them. Therefore, unless we are prepared to see more failures like Bury, with the terrible impact on the community it serves, we must consider whether the time has now come for parliament to create legal powers for an independent regulator to intervene when clubs run into trouble.
I would certainly support such a measure, and it is an issue that the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee will discuss when parliament returns next week.
Article originally published here on telegraph.co.uk on 28 August 2019