Issue The fit and proper fit and proper test

As told by Michael Wood

Stoke City manager Tony Pulis believes that the antics at his former club Portsmouth prove that the fit and proper test in English football his broken and the speculation that Notts County might be but two weeks away from administration comes as no surprise following the slow unravelling of the season they have had off the field.

At the top of Pulis’s league Manchester United and Liverpool have huge debts secured against the clubs by owners who did not make the dial twitch on the FA’s fit and proper test. Up and down the game clubs are bought and sold and as yet the fit and proper persons test has – as yet – has flagged very few people.

Is it broken? Well, no but it is inadequate for the job which people would have it perform which is protecting the future of football clubs from unscrupulous owners who put those clubs at risk.

The fit and proper test has no powers of prediction and on the whole the people who have run clubs into trouble have done so with no indicators to suggest they will. Aside from a little mild xenophobia there was no reason to believe that any of the owners of Portsmouth FC would be any worse for the club than the years of local businessman ownership.

There was plenty of reason to believe that Manchester United’s Glazier Family were going to saddle the clubs with massive debts – they made no secret of that fact – but it was decided by football’s authorities that they should steer clear of making that call. Certainly nothing in Glazer’s past flagged the fit and proper test which is not designed to ask chairman what the intentions they have when buying the club are.

Not designed to but perhaps it should be.

“Franchise” is a dirty word in English football after the Wimbledon/MK Dons saga but some of the elements of a franchise system could be brought to the English game for the betterment of teams and supporters.

The American franchise system is a way of laying out to the owners of one of the shares of a professional sporting league what they can and cannot do and in the land of the free the owners are free to move clubs hundreds of miles and generally treat the supporters not very well. The fact that the word is used to describe the Wimbledon/MK Dons action is because such an uprooting is not uncommon in American sports.

This, however, is a failure of the implementation of the system, rather than the system itself. At its core the system is about how much control of a club, a club’s finances, assets and its future an owner can expect to have which at the moment in English football is near total.

Imagine a Bradford City Franchise which had a specific remit: that the club played at Valley Parade, that the club wore claret and amber striped shirts, that the club would never trade at a loss and so on; and that these were the conditions of the Football League share some being changeable by a majority vote of season ticket holders such as switching ground and some being conditions of the league such as the trading concerns.

The owners of that club would be told they were to behave within a certain way and were they not to then the club’s share could be – effectively – removed from that business which had run the club and passed on. The club would be more healthy because it would be forced to be more healthy and the supporters would be more integral because they would ultimately be written into the constitution of the club.

There are many drawbacks with this idea some significant, some subjective (is it a drawback the it would make clubs less attractive investment possibilities if that means the Glazers of this world ignore it?) and some which could be worked out in the implementation.

Football needs to look at reassigning the weight of responsibility away from the idea that owners will be fit and proper towards giving the owners a remit they must stay within.