Football: FA likely to resist major changes

Battle for the chairmanship: Traditionalists will back Thompson to fight off the challenge of stylish Sheepshanks

BATHCHAIRS AND ear trumpets will be in short supply in Chester this week as football's equivalent of the House of Lords, the Football Association Council, convenes for its annual meeting.

The choice of venue, an out-of-town hotel complete with three golf courses and myriad leisure facilities, might suggest that the younger members of the ageing oligarchy are finally gaining control but, this morning, in an odd alliance between ancien regime and nouveau riche, the would- be revolutionaries are likely to be put in their place.

This is when the Council's backbone, the county representatives and sundry others from such organizations as the RAF, Oxford University and the Independent Schools, determine who will replace the deposed Keith Wiseman as chairman. The smart money is on one of their own, Geoff Thompson from the Hallamshire and Sheffield FA, winning the majority of the 91 votes.

Thompson, who stepped up from deputy chairman to acting chairman when Wiseman resigned in January after being implicated in a cash-for-votes scandal, faces opposition from David Sheepshanks, the thrusting chairman of Ipswich Town and a keen moderniser.

While either would be a vast improvement on the myopic Wiseman and the later years of his octogenarian predecessor, Sir Bert Millichip, the more dynamic and independent Sheepshanks would be the better man to take the game moves into the millennium.

However, while he is supported by the Football League, for whom he was an impressive chairman, and some of the more enlightened and frustrated council members, that is unlikely to be enough to overcome the self-interest of others.

His Blairite campaign, complete with swish video launch, glossy brochure and carefully staged media appearances, has been more style than substance but it has hinted at radical change. Both presentation and message will have alienated many of the conservative council members, but the crucial factor is likely to be the Premiership's decision to back Thompson. The Sheffield JP may not be one of theirs but he has agreed to take David Richards, chairman of the Premier League, as running mate.

Richards, who is also chairman of Sheffield Wednesday, thus should defeat Ian Stott, the chairman of Oldham, in the election for deputy chairman. The subsequent Thompson-Richards partnership would be unlikely to press too hard for a levy on Premiership income or a reining in of their growing power.

While he has been a strong chairman of the disciplinary committee, Thompson's eagerness to go with public opinion, rather than personal judgement, and secure Kevin Keegan on a long-term contract as England coach did not indicate a firm and independent mind. His original verdict, that a Keegan stewardship "could end in tears rather than trophies", suggests his judgement may be shrewd but not his exercising of it.

Once the new chairman is in place the appointment of a new chief executive, to succeed Graham Kelly, will proceed. It is unlikely to go to David Davies, the former director of public affairs who has been doing Kelly's job, because of his lack of a business background. However, a high-profile role is likely to be found in which his political and media contacts can be utilised. Since he has already forged a working relationship with the less telegenic Thompson, that should not be a problem.

The rest of the weekend is mainly concerned with procedural matters, but behind the scenes there will be much lobbying over the plan to restructure the FA, which is continuing its slow progress through the bureacracy it aims to dismantle.

The successful completion of this process would significantly help the new chairman, whoever he is, in the FA's next balancing act: to convince the Government there is no need for direct intervention in football administration while continuing to indulge the barons of the Premiership whose very power makes such intervention necessary. The fact that Thompson, through a deal with the Premiership, is likely to be that man highlights the problem.

DAVID SHEEPSHANKS

Schooled at Eton, he made his fortune in the food industry before joining the board at Ipswich in 1987. Took over as chairman of the club in 1995 and the Football League a year later. Age 46 and only a Council member for two years but already on several FA and Uefa committees and a director of Wembley National Stadium Ltd.

GEOFF THOMPSON

A 53-year-old full-time football administrator graduating from general manager of Doncaster Rovers to secretary of the Hallamshire and Sheffield FA whose seat he has filled on the FA Council for 20 years. Has for many years brought his experience as a Justice of the Peace to his position as chairman of the FA's disciplinary committee.

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