Dead hands on the tiller

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The Independent Online
ENGLISH football's latest search for a lion to lead their donkeys hasn't been in progress for more than a few days and already it has reached the foothills of farce and, with any luck, will eventually prove how urgently we need a real revolution in the game.

Strict adherents to the long balls-up strategy that has been their hallmark for many years, the Football Association's International Committee will meet on Tuesday when their first task will be to discuss the appointment of a caretaker manager.

At the time of writing, Don Howe's insistence that he didn't want the job was echoing around the game almost as loudly as the persistence of the committee's chairman, Peter Swales, that Howe was going to be offered it none the less. Better one pressed man than 10 volunteers.

Then the name of John Lyall cropped up and he, too, rapidly took his telephone off the hook and taped up his letterbox. I would forgive the FA this caretaker nonsense if I could believe they were waiting for the Republic of Ireland's Jack Charlton to become available after next summer's World Cup; but that is crediting them with far more sense than has previously been discernible from this quarter.

It will probably not occur to Swales and the other 11 worthies on the committee that what they are offering is no rose garden - certainly not when they remain in charge of the manure - and they should be worried about the number of fine men who are not tempted by the chaos over which they preside.

Having made a lifetime's observation of the men who run international football from committee rooms, I am not surprised at the lack of sensible preparation for the day when they would need a new manager. Graham Taylor's departure was not the least of football's predictable events. Their confused reaction was, alas, typical of a long procession of inadequacy that stretches back for decades in British football.

The installation into the Rhondda Hall of Fame on Thursday of Mel Hopkins, a sterling full-back for Wales and Tottenham in the Fifties and Sixties, brought back to mind my first experience of official dunderheadedness. After one of the first Welsh international matches I had the pleasure of reporting upon, I was hailed by a Welsh selector and received a warm handshake and an embrace before being backslapped on my way with the words: 'Bloody good game, Mel.'

I was also on the aircraft which was ready to take the Welsh team to a foreign fixture when it was discovered one of the players didn't have a seat. Eleven selectors watched him leave the plane with instructions to catch one the following day. As the engines revved up one of the selectors turned round angrily: 'I would have thought one of you reporters could have given him your seat,' he shouted.

The game is riddled with similiar anecdotes about the large number of bungling amateurs who have traditionally infiltrated the top echelons of all four home associations, not the least the daddy of them all, the FA, one of whose most senior figures of recent years was accosted by me at the 1988 European Championships with a simple question that I won't bore you with but which concealed nothing sinister. 'Do you mind if I think about that one?' he answered. Two days later I padded purposefully towards him again. He held up his hand. 'I haven't had time to think yet,' he said, indignantly.

It is possible to attain such positions of power by buying or otherwise gaining control in a club or through long and often mundane service in the lower levels of the game. It is not possible if one has been a first-class professional administrator, manager or player.

We must be thankful that through the years a sufficient number of able people have found their way to the top to limit the damage, but the fact remains that the gifted amateur administrator, not only in football but in many other sports, is a rarity. The only time you are likely to feel the urgency of the average committee's mission is to stand between them and the after-match buffet.

Neither is it enough to have a chief executive as good as Graham Kelly if he is not given more authority to run the place. What he has to contend with was all too evident as the headless chickens ran around him last week. The players' chief, Gordon Taylor, is allowed a far more persuasive role and now that the managers are seeking a high-profile administrator to look after their interests, the FA has every incentive to take a firmer grasp of the game's direction, particularly in bringing the Premiership clubs to heel.

How on earth are we going to get rid of the dead hands on the tiller? You might have formed the impression that the FA was capable of curing itself after last week's news that there is a committee already investigating the structure of the association and how it can speed up the decision-making process. It is due to report back next summer.

THIS is morbid but essential information for all those intending to create an eternal connection with their favourite sporting site by having their ashes sprinkled over it.

Experts have deduced that human ashes are not good for the grass and groundsmen have been advised that the willy-nilly sprinkling of them is not in the best interests of a perfect pitch. This is difficult news for football grounds such as Anfield and Old Trafford where many fans expect to end up being trampled over by their heroes. Even Hartlepool United get one or two requests a year.

Not wishing to disappoint loyal fans and their families, some clubs may allow urns to be buried behind the goals. Little boys can add up how many goals granddad has conceded in a season. I have been dissuaded from planning such a finale since I once attended a solemn ceremony at the 16th green of our golf club where a member had asked for his ashes to be scattered. Unfortunately, it was a very windy day and as the urn was opened the ashes blew all over the place.

'Shame that,' said someone after we had trooped disconsolately back to the bar later. 'He never could hit that green.'

THE Welsh Rugby Union have been criticised for introducing their third new international strip in two years. The new one, aimed at the Christmas market, has white arm-bands instead of the more appropriate black.

It looks a mess, but Welsh fans should welcome the development - any more changes and people might think they're another team.