Football: Brooking ready for a new game

Alan Hubbard finds an elegant solution to one of the FA's problems
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The Independent Online
TREVOR BROOKING had a date at the Palace last week when the MBE whose insignia he received 18 years ago for services to football was upgraded to a CBE, one step away from a knighthood.

Those who are aware of the time and energy the former West Ham and England stylist turned media pundit now devotes to nurturing the grassroots of sport will testify that it is no more than he deserves. Indeed, many are wondering just what he needs to do to obtain ministerial as well as royal approval for another overdue elevation.

For the past seven months, Brooking has been acting chairman of the English Sports Council, an organisation which, under his temporary stewardship, has just changed its name and, Brooking hopes, its image to become the sexier, more user-friendly, Sport England.

Although Brooking has proved himself a popular, hands-on figurehead of a convoluted quango, whose worthy activities usually bring an eye-glazed reaction to those outside the perimeters of sports politics, he still has not been given the job on a permanent basis. His was one of two names put forward by an independent panel - the other being the black youth worker and former karate champion Geoff Thompson - but both were rejected by the Minister for Sport, Tony Banks, whose determination to get a female ensconced in the seat of power (most notably the former Olympic javelin champion Tessa Sanderson) has led to allegations of barking mad political correctness. Brooking, as one would expect from one of such diplomatic mien, has stayed out of the embarrassing controversy, but some Sports Council staff are incensed. "The way Trevor has been treated is outrageous," one told me. "He would make a terrific chairman."

With his future still in the lap of the gods of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport who have ordered the reassembly of the head-hunting party, Brooking has publicly committed himself to holding the fort for as long as is needed. He is happy to continue, he says, as long as the appointment is made on merit. But privately, and in his own dignified way, he is pretty peeved at what can only be perceived as a snub.

So now, after a lifetime of playing in midfield with finesse and wit, it is understandable that, at 50, he should be giving himself a deadline to secure a striking role. "I've never been one to push myself forward," he said. "I always seem to jog along." Which is why he will not be reapplying. Nor will he be calling another Geoff Thompson, and fellow acting chairman, to suggest that they might have a chat about the present vacancy for a chief executive of the Football Association.

One wonders whether it has ever crossed the at present preoccupied minds of the Lancaster Gate-keepers that they may be overlooking the perfect candidate; someone who knows the game from both sides and has the acumen to run it.

Although Brooking says he is "not one to go looking for things", I believe he would readily accept an offer to become the new Graham Kelly. He admits the Sports Council situation is frustrating and that his administrative career is at a watershed.

"It's certainly getting near the time to prove that I can do something big in sport, maybe to shove myself in another direction or simply settle for furthering my career in the media." He says cautiously of the FA scenario: '"There is certainly a wonderful opportunity there to do some restructuring."

His references are impeccable: an ex-grammar school boy who became a model player and one-club loyalist with an exemplary international record; steeped in sportsmanship and with a sound business background - he has been company secretary and managing director of his own loose-leaf binding company since he was 22. His brother is a high-ranking police officer and his two children are university-educated. On the administrative front he has slogged his way up through committees and regional chairmanships to his present role, which also puts him in charge of sport's multi-million pound Lottery distribution. For this, he receives just an honorarium and expenses, his main income coming from his business, and his work for BBC radio and television, as well as a newspaper column which he pens himself.

As his critics will tell you, not much gets up his nose, but he admits to some irritation at being labelled bland, boring and a fence-sitter. "I just don't accept it. Maybe I'm a little old- fashioned when it comes to standards - I hate rudeness and arrogance - but I assure you I can lose my temper, I can be critical but I hope it's constructively so. There is no need to go for the jugular all the time. I've never wanted to earn money by ridiculing others. I've been a player myself and I know how easy it is to score cheap shots."

What makes him even more angry is the gradual dissipation of sport in schools. "I learned all my skills and discipline at primary level. That simply isn't happening any more. I fear for the future of football because the kids aren't coming through and it will take 10 years to restore those grass roots. Everyone says there are too many foreign players in the game and that English youngsters are not given a chance to develop, but the truth is we have nowhere near the quality of young players to satisfy the demands of League clubs. Our youngsters simply aren't good enough."

While Brooking was collecting his gong on Tuesday his erstwhile England room-mate, Kevin Keegan, was becoming the world's best-paid temp. Brooking says Keegan is the right man, but is in the wrong situation and doubts the arrangement will work.

Management is something he has never been tempted to try. "It was never a conscious decision. It just didn't happen because of my other interests and I didn't want to uproot my family. I don't know whether I would have been a good or bad manager, I often wondered how I would have handled certain players. It all depends on how capable you are in bringing in the players you need, and I guess Kevin is pretty good at that."

Brooking's love of football is such that until 18 months ago he was paying his pounds 2-a-week subs to play for an Essex Sunday League team. Observers say he remained the epitome of elegance until knee trouble forced his reluctant retirement.

"Give it to Trev," was a familiar cry on the parks, as it was at West Ham and Wembley, whenever some intelligent, inspirational foraging was required. It is advice to which the mandarins at the sports ministry and/or the Football Association might well give serious thought before Brooking becomes another of sport's lost leaders.