Saturday, 8 May 2010

Capitalism in football versus the Spirit of Shankly

On Thursday, the BBC got its hands on a leaked document authored by former Football Association chief executive Ian Watmore. The essence of it was that more football clubs face collapse because of dangerously high wage costs. There has been little debate around this issue, and the effect it is having on the local communities that host the clubs.

There has been coverage of Liverpool FC's debt crisis, but only because it is at this point an unavoidable subject. Fans are worried that the debts will force the sale of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, which is hardly something the football world can ignore.

But the focus is narrow, and talk of a "revolution" in the club doesn't go beyond replacing the owner and perhaps building a new stadium. At least, that is, according to the media. Fans on the ground in Liverpool have other ideas, and they've hit on something which should catch the eye of football (and, indeed, major league sports) fans everywhere.

I'll allow Spirit of Shankly, the Liverpool supporters' union, to set the scene;

The city of Liverpool is world renowned as a centre of football excellence; its history is second to none, a single club split into two in 1892, an event which instigated over a century of banter and endless argument that has divided friends, families and loved ones and has influenced the very social fabric of the city.

On the 118th anniversary of this famous event, the supporters’ groups, Keeping Everton In Our City and the Spirit of Shankly put aside their legendary rivalry and as one, under the banner of “All Together Now”, called for a Football Quarter to be established in the city around Stanley Park. The quarter is designed to uphold their football clubs at the highest level, for the benefit of the all fans, the community and the city. 

The fans collective are not opposed to the involvement of major commercial interests in modern sport. The benefits of such participation in creating and establishing the Premier League competition and attracting the world’s best footballers are incontrovertible. We are however concerned about increasing financial difficulties in football and would welcome moves by UEFA to limit debt in the game through the implementation of financial fair play regulations.

Investment and in the introduction of safe, modern stadia has helped transform the game over the past decades. Liverpool already has consent to build in part of the park and the proposals for the Football Quarter can, if required to do so, accommodate the club’s new stadium. Everton has the opportunity to sympathetically redevelop their stadium, sympathetic to the needs of the club, their supporters and the local environment.

It is our understanding that the vast majority of the fans of both Everton and Liverpool FC would, if given the choice, prefer their clubs to remain in their spiritual homes, famously either side of Stanley Park if they could be expanded and modernised. There is an understanding that stadia designs for each club would necessarily reflect their individual football and financial requirements and we have separate design proposals in hand for each club to consider.

Uncertainty and postponement has fostered a lack of confidence in the surrounding communities of Walton / Kirkdale / Anfield / Breckfield which is reflected in the condition of housing and the general urban environment. Many local businesses and much local employment in the area rely upon the continued existence of the clubs; it is our belief that the development of a Football Quarter can, not only become a resource for sport of national and international significance, but also act as a catalyst for regeneration of these inner-city wards and create much-needed employment opportunities in the public and private sector leading to improved social conditions in adherence to and enhancement of the housing market renewal strategy already in place.

The Football Quarter would create a great draw; a showcase for the hundreds of thousands of additional football visitors to the city. A tourist destination worthy of international status and recognition; providing increased employment and visitor spend towards the city regions target of 14,000 jobs in the tourist sector and £2bn a year visitor spend by 2020.

Stanley Park is an important architectural and historical resource and is to be treated sympathetically. Designed by Edward Kemp and opened in 1870, it is of a class that includes Paxton’s work at Birkenhead Park and Central Park, New York by Frederick Law Olmsted. The park was established for the health, leisure and fitness of the people and is the very place where the story of competitive football began in the city.

The Football Quarter in and around the park would be a shared facility for the two clubs, for the local community and for the city with educational, recreational, leisure and community facilities. We propose to engage with city agencies to develop a brief; and the entire scope or design of the Football Quarter will be the subject of a feasibility study to establish what is and what is not feasible, affordable and achievable.

The proposed feasibility study would examine and deliver a social economic impact assessment of such a development in terms of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in addition to investigating potential commercial partners acting as enablers, sponsorship of the quarter and/ or public funding. The study would seek to maximise the commercial opportunities of the Football Quarter for the benefit of the clubs, the supporters, the city, and importantly the local community.

It is important to put forward a first proposal for testing. At this early stage, it is suggested that the vision to be tested and appraised, as part of the feasibility study, would include multi-use facilities to suit need and sports season...

The continuation of the use of the park’s recently-restored lakes, gardens, bowling greens and conservatory for public leisure and recreation is paramount and we envisage greater use and participation for nature and wildlife education.

Our preliminary proposal includes university faculties or centres of excellence of international standing, for sport, business and sports science. Improvements to football pitches, public practice and coaching areas; general field sports, running track and a show football pitch are all real possibilities as is the opportunity to utilize part of the park for large scale open-air events.

The potential for the creation of opportunities for even greater community involvement in football and closer links with the club academies should be explored as should the creation of health care, advice and community centres catering for the social needs of local families.

Whilst no comparison retail beyond the clubs’ own merchandise operations are foreseen at the moment, there’s clearly scope for football museums, bars, caf├ęs, restaurants and potentially hotels, in close association with the football stadia; all elements that would transform the area into a true tourist destination.

The need for a sustainable infrastructure based on improved parking, roads, rail connectivity and general public transport is indisputable. In particular, re-establishing the Bootle/Canada Dock branch line for passenger traffic should be investigated as a prerequisite to the successful regeneration of the wider community and safely bringing in football fans and tourists from across the country.

KEIOC and The Spirit of Shankly group believe that the Football Quarter has the potential to complement other world class destinations in the city region; a district designed to celebrate a world famous duopoly and its unique history. The opportunity exists to seize the initiative and we would hope that our civic leaders and football owners recognize the far reaching implications of this proposal before the opportunity is lost; consigned to history through a lack of vision, innovation and creativity that the supporters of or two great clubs have demonstrated admirably.
There are limitations to this idea, not the least being its reliance on the very same business investment which has inflated professional footballers' wages to truly obscene levels and generated a business model in which the sport and the fans are the very last priority. However, it does show remarkable initiative on a subject that nobody else is tackling. As professional football detatches itself from the grassroots, it is not just fans that suffer but the communities in which they live.

Take Portsmouth. They became the first Premier League club ever to go into administration, and their debt has now reached £135m. But it is not just the club, facing relegation alongside everything else, that is set to suffer. Like Liverpool and Everton, Portsmouth FC put forward plans to move their stadium away from its current heartlands location, with locals fearing that the harbour will be ruined by the development and opposing the idea. In all cases, what we saw was the lure of profit drawing the club away from its fans and threatening the local infrastructure.

If we want to see the ultimate result of this capitulation of sport to commercial interest, we need only glimpse across the Atlantic. In America, sports teams regularly move across city and state boundaries, relocated at the behest of their owners. They are not teams but "franchises," and in their wake they leave devestation.

The Spirit of Shankly / KEIOC joint campaign for a Football Quarter is a neccesary antidote to this possibility, and one that must be pursued by grassroots supporters and communities facing the same problems elsewhere. Of course, as mentioned before, the idea does have problems which need to be ironed out. But if this campaign is pursued with the ultimate aim of the Spirit of Shankly organisation in mind - i.e. "supporter ownership of Liverpool Football Club" - then it cannot go far wrong.

As Bill Shankly himself once said, "the socialism I believe in is not really politics. It is a way of living. It is humanity. I believe the only way to live and to be truly successful is by collective effort, with everyone working for each other, everyone helping each other, and everyone having a share of the rewards at the end of the day."