Andrew Jenkin: Football fans can make a difference

SPFL's League Cup will be revamped from next season. Picture: John Devlin
SPFL's League Cup will be revamped from next season. Picture: John Devlin
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FOR all the criticisms levelled at Scottish football, this week the sport has at least demonstrated its willingness to change.

The announcement that the SPFL’s League Cup will introduce a two-week winter break, a group stage and a “ground-breaking” bonus point system has shown flexibility on the part of the sport’s governing bodies.

While this is a promising start, we need to ensure in future that supporters’ views are not just heard, but are rooted in the decision-making process from the start.

The key issue of governance affects almost every aspect of football – from how club finances are monitored, to changing the format of cup competitions. While it is widely recognised that supporters are the lifeblood of the game, some would argue that until recently they’ve been on the periphery of the governance, consultation and decision-making process.

In July the Scottish FA welcomed major stakeholders in the sport on to their Congress, including the PFA Scotland, the referees and coaching bodies, and Supporters Direct Scotland (SDS).

With these changes, the Congress is now representative of almost every facet of the game’s make-up and offers fans a direct link to decision makers through initiatives such as the National Fans Survey, ensuring supporters’ views are heard.

The real challenge will now be for the governing bodies to act upon the findings of key reports and implement change in a positive and collaborative manner.

We’ve been encouraged by the steps they have taken of late; but we also acknowledge that there is work for all of us to do to ensure this is a virtuous cycle, delivering real value for supporters in Scotland.

It is important that fans are not just represented within the governing bodies’ structures, but within their league clubs too. The success of groups such as Foundation of Hearts and the work of the supporters trusts at Clyde, Stirling Albion, Dunfermline and East Stirling have all demonstrated that putting democratic supporter groups at the heart of a club’s governance can deliver unrivalled benefits for their local communities.

And we’ve since welcomed the Scottish Government’s announcement and decision to conduct a consultation into what legislation can be introduced to further supporter involvement.

The government arrived at this process following Green Party proposals to widen the Community Empowerment Bill to include football clubs, which we at SDS deem as assets of community value.

Its consultation is up and running and we encourage all fans to have their say and make their voices heard. The process will examine whether democratically elected supporters groups will be given a new right – one of four options either to buy, bid for, govern or influence their clubs.

We acknowledge that while legislation will help, a key barrier for supporters’ groups is access to the necessary capital and expertise to be able to take a stake in their club and set up the infrastructure. That’s why in Scotland we’ve been working hard to address these issues, making football governance and involvement more accessible to fans.

The consultation has been supplemented by a recent government working group, which we sit on alongside the Scottish FA and SPFL.

A number of recommendations have been made, including setting up an organisation called Club Development Scotland which will offer expert advice to supporter groups interested in converting their treasured clubs into more community-facing institutions. There will also be a feasibility study examining how community banks could help with fund-raising.

We are bringing these strands of our work over the past year together at a Supporters Summit on 10 January at Hampden, an event open to all fans in Scotland with speakers including Sports Minister Jamie Hepburn MSP and the successful Swansea City Supporters Trust.

Fans have never been in a better position to be involved in the governance of their clubs, and we now have a chance to change football for the better and ensure supporters are embedded in the game’s DNA going forward. We would urge fans to take up this opportunity and have their say on the Government’s consultation by visiting www.scottishfans.org/supporters-consultation.