The Saturday Profile: David Davies - The presentable face of football

David Davies, Acting Chief Executive of the FA
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The Independent Culture
THE PRESS conference was turning nasty and Bobby Robson, the England football manager, did not like the way the questions were going. Finally he snapped, got up from his chair, stepped off the dais, and opened a side door. Several brooms fell out. Robson, flustered, strode through the media to the door at the far end of the hall. Then he strode back; he had left his mackintosh on the chair. Muffled sniggers were heard. This is how the Football Association used to work.

On Tuesday there was another press conference, called to announce the dismissal of Glenn Hoddle, one of Robson's successors. Seconds into it, with David Davies, the FA's director of public affairs and acting chief executive, reading a prepared statement, a man burst into the room screaming obscenities. As he was wrestled to the ground by security men and surrounded by press photographers, Davies quietly waited. Then, after a light-hearted reference to being interrupted for a "commercial break", he calmly read the statement again.

This is how the FA works today. This is why Davies, the FA's press officer, managed to emerge from a week in which his chief client was pilloried, ridiculed and sacked, with his own image enhanced. Acute political antennae, a smooth presentational manner, hard work and ruthlessness ensured that Hoddle's departure was not accompanied by that of his messenger.

Davies is football's spin doctor; its Alastair Campbell. But he is also its Peter Mandelson, seeking to direct policy as well as disseminate it.

In his dramatic rise from reporting on football to running it, he, too, has made enemies; but, unlike Tony Blair's fallen favourite, he is yet to overreach himself. He even survived his collusion with Hoddle in the notorious World Cup diary, which betrayed dressing-room confidences.

Davies has now become, in the words of one leading commentator, "arguably the most powerful administrator in the English game". At a time when football, once confined to factory floor and public bar, even pervades the Cabinet, that is an influential position, one underlined by regular contact between Davies and Campbell.

Such a link should come as no surprise, given Davies's background. Politics is in the family; his grandfather was mayor of St Pancras and his father would have contested the 1950 election but for his early death. They were Tories, but other family members had socialist allegiances and it was that example which Davies followed when he became involved in student politics at Sheffield University.

Football was also in his blood by then; appropriately, he played left wing for the university. He had been enraptured by the perceived adult glamour of the game as an eight-year-old, when Manchester United fans wearing big, bright red rosettes had visited the family grocer's at Euston Station en route to that year's FA Cup final.

Though he attempts to be impartial he remains a keen United fan. Last Sunday, while working on the Hoddle story, I was on the phone to him when he suddenly sounded distracted. I looked up and saw that on television, Sky were showing United's match-winning goal at Charlton, scored a few seconds earlier.

He took his twin passions to Oxford, where he acquired a teaching certificate he has never used, before entering journalism with the Belfast Telegraph. That week the Troubles began; timing, as he is fond of saying, is everything.

He swiftly moved on to the BBC, initially in Wales, then Manchester, London and Birmingham. During a varied 23-year career he covered everything: politics, education, crime - even presenting Songs of Praise. The experience has been invaluable in his current jobs. His time as a lobby correspondent educated him in the ways of Westminster and brought him important contacts; his interviewing and presenting taught him to handle himself in front of reporters and cameras. All the while he maintained a link with football, covering matches, attending tournaments, seeing for himself the terrible gaffes the FA blundered into.

The FA had a press office, but it was given little status and staffed accordingly. During Graham Taylor's ill-fated reign one press officer arrived at a media conference with a large alarm clock in an attempt to instil control over its duration. As in most British sporting institutions, the principle was the hopeless one of suppressing news rather than anticipating and managing it.

Davies was approached, with a brief to change this, almost five years ago. His title, "director of public affairs" rather than "press officer", reflected the enhanced role. It has proved to be a more difficult task than he could have imagined. He spent his first 12 months reacting to events as three footballers were accused of match-fixing, another confessed to a drugs, alcohol and gambling addiction, Eric Cantona assaulted a supporter, England fans rioted in Dublin, and there were allegations of "bungs" (illegal financial inducements) involving leading managers.

However, as with this week, each crisis gave Davies justification for pushing through changes, often in the face of stern resistance from a hidebound and conservative administration. His creation of a large press department led to accusations of empire-building but, aside from the need to meet the growing demands of the media, this was more a case of building the power base that was required to survive the FA's internal politics.

It has also, his detractors say, enabled him to concentrate on the more glamorous jobs while others do the paperwork. Most notably, Davies presents the televised FA Cup draw and acts as press attache to the England coach of the day. Given his television experience it would be daft if he were not to undertake the first role; but there is a hint of vanity here, and it almost cost him his job in the summer.

Davies has advised three England managers: Terry Venables, Hoddle, and the caretaker incumbent, Howard Wilkinson. The media was divided by Venables: they either loved or hated him. Hoddle wanted to avoid this and sought to be even-handed. Thus, when he decided to write a book about England's World Cup campaign last summer, as had previous England coaches, he and Davies decided that Davies should "ghost-write" for him.

It was a public relations disaster. Information was released that had been previously denied, and several leading figures in the game, including current internationals, were criticised. Davies's desire to tell a story had got the better of his judgement. He later admitted: "I wanted to be involved, as I had never written a book before - but I won't be doing another in a hurry."

He can also, notes a friend, be "pompous". Two years ago, at a reception in the British Embassy in Rome to promote England's 2006 World Cup Bid, Davies told a rambling tale about the guest of honour, the former Manchester United and England footballer Sir Bobby Charlton. It was about an intrepid back-packing student in the Seventies who found himself imprisoned at an Iron Curtain border town for having the wrong papers. The guards freed him after he said the magic words "Bob-bee Charl-ton". Long before the denouement it was obvious that the pay-off would be "and I was that poor student".

But Davies can laugh at himself and happily tells a tale from Euro '96, the football championship England hosted three years ago. One night Davies had retired to bed early, leaving the players celebrating an important victory. He was awoken by a call from reception informing him that a retired colonel living near the hotel had complained about the noise. He went outside, couldn't hear a thing, but told the players - who were not drunk - to keep the noise down, and went back to bed.

He was awoken again to be told that the colonel had complained to the police that two players had been running around naked in the hotel gardens and had been seen by his teenage daughters. The police were downstairs. They said the colonel wanted to press charges. The horrific prospect of this leaking out to the press loomed. Davies was asked to come down to the station to answer questions and to organise an identity parade. Then one of the policemen cracked, and burst out laughing. The whole affair had been set up by Terry Venables.

The pair formed a warm relationship based on humour. They once planned an April Fool's Day joke that involved faxing all the national newspapers to announce a new press conference policy - "one for journalists with joined-up writing, one for tabloids". To Davies's enduring frustration Venables leaked the tale.

Writing and surviving the World Cup book brought Davies and Hoddle close together but, last week, Davies cut Hoddle adrift as soon as he sensed the way the wind was going. He was also acting chief executive, and his need to protect the FA - and himself - overtook his desire to protect Hoddle. As Hoddle floundered Davies prospered, presenting an unflappable presence to the cameras and a strong hand to the men who will decide, this summer, whether he should be given the chief executive's role permanently.

He has not publicly decided whether to apply. He is unsure about the effect on his family, who still live in Birmingham, though the eldest daughter is now at Oxford. Having lost his father as an infant he values family life, and the stresses of this week and the summer, when the fuss about the book coincided with several close family members spending time in hospital, has given him pause for thought.

Most observers expect him to take it if the chance arises. Enough of the idealist student remains to see football as a potential force for good and, since his arrival, the FA has become much more active in promoting social causes including that of disabled football. If he fails to be named as chief executive, he may stay in the game as long as football's star remains in the ascendant. He enjoys the sport and, at present, the profile of the job is as high as anything in government. It is also possible to impact on people's lives more directly.

But should he choose to leave the sport, or be squeezed out, expect him to move into politics. He is ambitious, is well thought of in government circles and those of the Opposition, and already has much of the politician's manner. While not mendacious, he can stonewall. When the pressure was on this week he turned questions about Hoddle's comments about disabled people into an advertisement for an FA initiative on disabled sport.

Whatever happens to Davies, he is likely to be seen on our television screens for several years to come, and it will not be presenting Songs of Praise.

Life Story

Origins: Born 28 May 1948, in London.

Education: Sheffield University (BA politics); Oxford (Cert Ed).

Media career: Belfast Telegraph (1970); BBC Wales (1971-72); BBC Manchester (1972-83); Political correspondent (1983-86); Education correspondent (1986-89); BBC Midlands (1989-94).

Other jobs: Football Association: Director of Public Affairs (February 1994-); Acting chief executive (December 1998-).

Family: Welsh father, Irish mother, Scottish wife, Susan, a former Miss Britain. They married in 1977 having become engaged on their first date. Two daughters, Amanda and Caroline.

Nicknames: The Bishop (BBC), Mr Bumble (tabloids)

He says: "I am a football fan first and foremost."

Critics say: "He is upfront without ever coming forward with the kind of friendship that suggests he is totally sincere." (Nigel Clarke, sports writer)

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