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Football and ‘The Big Society’

Britain’s football family could offer a rare example of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Big Society idea in action.

That was the consensus at a Conservative Party conference fringe meeting – “Football and the Big Society” – held at Manchester Grammar School last week.

Over 50 people attended the forum, including Jesse Norman – author of ‘The Big Society’- alongside numerous representatives of the FA and fans groups to discuss the much maligned concept of ‘The Big Society’, and how football offers a key example of how it can work.

Remarkably, with the London Olympics just 10 months away, the forum was the only event to cover sport throughout the three week party conference season – which in itself is a sad indictment of current political priorities.

This apparent lack of political attention and support for sport – particularly at grassroots level – was a key issue for a number of panellists. Jim White – Daily Telegraph columnist and author of the highly regarded ‘You’ll Win Nothing with Kids’ – was particularly vehement in his criticism of the facilities available for young footballers nationwide. Tracy Crouch, MP for Chatham and Aylesford and an FA qualified coach also lamented the state of the infrastructure available in amateur football.

An overriding theme throughout the forum was the idea that the ‘Big Society’ is an intrinsic part of football’s make up, whatever the level. The ‘Big Society’ is the concept of the social contract between society and the state, and the institutions – sporting or otherwise – which link the two.

Tom Hall, head of policy and development at Supporters Direct, a group campaigning for ‘…the wider recognition of the social, cultural and economic value of sports clubs’, argued that whilst football at the top level may reflect a lot of society’s ills, it also presents a pertinent example of the ‘Big Society’ in action – especially the huge volunteer and community involvement in amateur football.

Whilst the panel gave a lot of credence to community-level football, there was also keen debate on the state of domestic top-flight football – particularly the growing disenchantment of football fans as they become increasingly alienated by commercialised clubs. Sandip Jobanputra, a member of the Manchester United Supporters Trust – M.U.S.T – talked of a desire for fans to become en-franchised in their football clubs, believing the energy and passion they would put into running their club would far surpass that of plutocrat owners.

Whilst this is clear, especially in the case of Manchester United and their crippling Glazer ownership, Norman – MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire – argued that much sort after government intervention to regulate the ownership of football clubs would be politically unrealistic given the expenditure owners often make to procure their assets.

Whilst Robert Sullivan, the Football Association’s head of Social Affairs, championed the numerous schemes the FA have deployed to stimulate grassroots football, the overriding feeling from the panel and audience was that football needs to embrace the concept of the ‘Big Society’ before the game is lost to its audience forever.

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Paddy Madden

Former sports editor (2011-2012).
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