Football: Authority of game in danger

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The Independent Online
WHEN KEITH Wiseman and I were ousted after the so-called "cash for votes" row six months ago, the interim leaders of the Football Association were quick to proclaim that they would seize the opportunity to prepare some much-needed plans to modernise the governing body's creaking administrative structure. The proposals have just been issued and at tomorrow's Council meeting in Chester the members will elect a new chairman to usher in the new dawn.

The acting chairman, Geoff Thompson, the secretary of the Sheffield and Hallamshire FA, is coming under a late and forceful challenge from the Old Etonian Ipswich Town chairman, David Sheepshanks. But most council members who vote tomorrow have failed to recognise the full significance of the recommendations for restructuring, which are being explained to regional consultative meetings.

Buried deep in the small print is the recommendation that the Premier League should be given a golden share in the FA's constitution, which would oblige the ruling body to seek the prior written consent of the Premier League for any rule change which affects either the Premier League or the Football League. In three short lines Lancaster Gate is giving away a principle the Football Association has jealously and rightly guarded since its inauguration 136 years ago, the authority confirmed in the High Court to govern football in the widest interests of the whole game at its absolute discretion.

The Premier League is also alleged to be claiming five of the six seats that are to be allocated to the professional game on a new 14 man board of directors who, instead of the Council, will become the company directors of the Football Association.

In return the Premier League is pledging pounds 12m a year for the development of the grassroots. So the all powerful club chairmen are being given a right of veto over anything that might threaten to curb their influence by making an investment which by their standards is modest and which in any event they have a moral obligation to undertake.

Moreover, Dave Richards, the Sheffield Wednesday chairman who recently assumed leadership of the Premier League in succession to the former independent chairman Sir John Quinton, is another member of the FA executive committee and the strong favourite to defeat Oldham Athletic's Ian Stott tomorrow for the position of FA vice-chairman. The Premier League's five members on the FA Council have promised to vote for Geoff Thompson in the election for chairman.

An atmosphere of intrigue has descended upon tomorrow's meeting because the Football Association, rather than presenting the new image which was promised so hastily six months ago, is now running scared. Scared that the Premier League will take its ball home; scared that Tony Banks or his sidekick David Mellor will somehow produce a big stick if they do not change something; scared that the rank and file council members will be offended (rather than pruning the Council the new plans actually increase the number of the all-pervasive committee places).

As a consequence the election for chairman has become more difficult to call than appeared likely a couple of weeks ago. With one exception in modern times the chairman and vice-chairman have comprised an amateur/professional partnership. For example, Keith Wiseman came from the professional game to become chairman, with Geoff Thompson from the amateur ranks as his vice-chairman. It has been alleged that pressure has been applied to prevent an "amateur" candidate standing as vice-chairman this time.

Formal canvassing is not Geoff Thompson's style and his campaign has been low key almost to the point of invisibility. David Sheepshanks, in contrast, has put himself about quite a bit. The launch of a manifesto, fulsome but not particularly deep in its thinking, was followed by a number of media appearances in which the former Football League chairman subjected himself to fans' questions. He tried to be agreeable to everybody, which will be impossible if he succeeds tomorrow.

Sheepshanks wins on presence, then, and also on business experience. Thompson, however, has a strong grasp of the realities of football administration and has proved himself a highly effective, albeit sometimes affected, chairman of meetings, particularly disciplinary hearings.

If I were a member of the Council I would insist on a delay in the appointment of chairman and vice-chairman until the restructuring proposals were settled. I would appoint a respected national figure to pilot the new plans to completion. And the election for chairman would take place in more appropriate circumstances.