As Millwall’s crisis shows, football is about far more than just sport – The Guardian

The key moments in football are so often defined by rivalries. The clash of personalities, the season’s crucial fixture. The sweetest victory, and the bitterest defeat, will almost always be the away match at the ground of your biggest rival. Your greatest win there, or biggest loss, will remain lodged in your memory.

Even so, there is also a shared understanding among fans from all sides. While you want to beat your rivals, you also understand how much their fans love their team, and how their club’s identity matters as much to them as your own does to you. The beautiful game is a huge part of all fans’ lives.

That is why, even though I am a Blackburn Rovers fan, I was saddened to read about the prospect of Millwall being forced to leave their home ground, the Den, as Lewisham council consider pursing a compulsory purchase order on land around the site. I love Ewood Park, and the idea of Rovers being pushed out against our will is heartbreaking. And I know that for Millwall’s fans the idea of being wrenched from the Den will be just as bad.

Because football isn’t just about sport. It is about community too – the people you go to matches with, the chip shop you grab a bite to eat in before the match and the pub you pop into for a quick pint afterwards. You don’t forget your first match: mine was Blackburn against Oxford United and despite it being a 1-1 draw, it is a match I’ll never forget. Because it matters – it is one of life’s great moments.

And football is also about the jobs in the community that the club creates, the character it brings to an area and the local initiatives it supports – like the Millwall community trust, which offers local people sports classes, educational workshops, disability sports classes and children’s soccer schools. If the club were to go, what would happen to that? What about the people employed by it? What about the businesses in the area that have, in Millwall’s case, grown up around a club that has been playing in the area for over 100 years?

Too many clubs over the years have suffered from events outside fans’ hands – Portsmouth, Leeds, Wimbledon being three prominent and differing examples. But while fans sometimes worry about how their club is being run or who may take it over, they shouldn’t be faced with the prospect of the local council taking decisions that could destroy its future in their home ground, as seems to be the case with Millwall.

So what can be done? Well, in this case much power rests in the hands of the council, so the fans, community and those who want to see the club’s future secured at the Den must do all they can to make their voices heard to their elected representatives. More broadly, government must start recognising that football isn’t just a game – it is a huge business and clubs are a community asset.

In 1997 the government set up a Football Task Force to look at the future of the sport – I believe it is time for another. There should be an independent commission, representative of the whole game, to comprehensively review governance to make it more effective, inclusive, and no longer subject to conflicting vested interests.

For our part, Liberal Democrats believe fans must be given a real say in the major decisions that affect the future of their club – every league club should have a formally recognised supporters’ trust to represent their views.

The big money that goes into Premier League TV should also be better spread into the lower leagues, with a tithe on the amount received used to strengthen the sport’s grassroots. There must be better transparency about club ownership, and a new deal for fans with a commitment that 10% of all tickets for matches at English Premier League, English Football League and Scottish Premier League level to be made available at an affordable price. I’m a backer of the Football Supporters’ Federation’s “Twenty’s Plenty” campaign that would cap away ticket prices at £20.

I have huge admiration and respect for the work of the late Brian Lomax. He was a lifelong Liberal Democrat activist and significantly was the inspiration behind the supporters’ trust that would buy shares in Northampton Town and see him serve as the first supporter-elected director of a football club. It was his work – and the work of the fans and local community who rallied around – that saved Northampton Town in 1992. He went on to pioneer a model of fan ownership as first managing director of Supporters Direct.

Brian saw that football was so more than sport, through the role it played in communities, and what it means to fans. He put this beautifully, saying: “It’s about emotion, about sharing and comradeship, about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. These are very deeply rooted human needs and I believe that that is at the root of people’s love for football and loyalty for their clubs.”

Football clubs matter – it is time for politicians to realise that and take the game’s future seriously.

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