FOOTBALL: Parry puts his faith in integrity

The Premier League's chief executive has come to terms with the challenge of his role. Glenn Moore reports
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It is not the sort of thing you would want to look at through bloodshot eyes at nine in the morning, 22 gaudily coloured football shirts hanging from the walls of your office, with enough static electricity to make Bobby Charlton's hair stand on end.

This is what the Premier League's staff have to put up with at their West London headquarters. Twenty-two daily reminders of the Premiership's pulling potential. Regardless of design, and some are truly awful, each one of these shirts is a money-maker, a testament to the competition's glamour.

But, with a step inside the adjacent office of Rick Parry, the chief executive, you come face-to-face with its sleaze. The outer office may resemble a Chinese laundry but this is where the dirty washing is being hung out to dry.

There, racked along one window-sill, are eight thick blue files detailing the evidence acquired by the Premier League's "bung" inquiry. On Parry's desk is another one, the index, sitting near a seven-inch pile of notes recording the progress of new laws designed to stop corruption. Oh, to be let loose in here for an hour with notebook and camera.

But there is no chance of that for, behind the desk, is the "bungbuster general" himself. Wiry-haired (must be all that static) and light-limbed he looks like Alan Dershowitz, the lawyer who represented Klaus von Bulow and now defends OJ Simpson. His instincts, however, are firmly on the side of the prosecution, an Elliot Ness, only armed with an maths degree, not a gun.

So far only George Graham has been been through the wringer but Parry expects "there will be one or two others. We have not seen the end of it. But I don't think we will discover deep-seated corruption is rampant."

The other reason why there will not be a procession of well-known managers and players trooping out of the game in disgrace is that evidence is hard to find. Unlike Ness and his Untouchables, Parry does not have the Inland Revenue on his side, not entirely. Ness eventually put Al Capone away for tax evasion but miscreant football men are merely doing deals with the taxman and retaining their jobs.

This is partly because it is Revenue policy. But also because the League encouraged clubs to open up their books and allow the Revenue to trawl through and deal with what they found. "Having done that," Parry said, "it would be churlish, stupid, to then say `if you now give them to me I can throw the kitchen sink at you as well'."

Thus the Premier League's own inquiry has concentrated on examining every overseas transfer and acting on tip-offs and rumours. "Some have substance, some are just juicy rumours," he said. "It is not a tea party, we take evidence under oath, it is for real.

"But you have to have proof. If cash is involved and no one is going to admit to paying it, and no one is going to admit to receiving it, there is not very far you can go. In some instances there is innuendo but no proof. That is why my priority has been to learn from the inquiry, look at holes in the system, and get things tight for the future. It is the next 100 years we are looking to."

New regulations concerning transfers, payments and agents are well on course and Parry added: "I get a lot of calls from chairmen asking for interpretation of the rules over the hiring and firing of managers and over transfers. One club [thought to be Wimbledon] even asked us to sit in on negotiations on an overseas transfer to see there was nothing going on.

"We will come through it stronger. We are learning from the problems, they are not being swept under the carpet. Malpractice has to go, we have to operate with integrity."

From a long-term perspective the problem with all this crisis-management is that it has slowed planning. Parry loves the constant dialogue with others in the game. The players' union, the managers' association, supporters, all are consulted. The recent decision to safeguard visiting supporters' ticket allocations is a direct result of appeals at supporter forums and Parry is now trying to persuade clubs that visiting juniors should pay half-price as home fans do.

But the chairmen remain the biggest influence. Even this interview was interrupted by a call from Alan Sugar, the chairman of Tottenham. Unfortunately Parry stepped outside to take it. If there is one overriding achievement by Parry it is getting the Premiership pulling, for the most part, in the same direction and, occasionally, looking beyond their own boardroom.

He mentions discussions about a national stadium, adding: "It is really refreshing, we have had three or four meetings when we have discussed it positively. A few years ago we would not have even got it on the agenda, it would be almost incomprehensible to be talking about projects for the good of the game 10 to 20 years ahead."

It is also an unexpected achievement. Three years ago he was being written off as lightweight, he still looks so mild-mannered one fears for him duelling with the likes of Sugar, Ken Bates, Doug Ellis and Sir John Hall. But, he said, "Given the nature of the individuals we have lots of different ideas on many issues. They are not difficult to stand up to if you believe you have right and integrity on your side.

"The skills of this job are two-fold, if you have ideas it a case of trying to persuade the clubs to adopt them. More importantly it is picking up on what the clubs want and helping to reach an agreement."

An accountant by trade he got to know Graham Kelly when acting as a management consultant to the Football League when Kelly was there. When Kelly moved to the FA and began planning a Premier League he called Parry.

Initially Parry, who worked on the failed Manchester Olympic bids for 1992 and 1996, was on a three-month contract. Then, when the League began, he was given a three-year one. That expires in the summer. It will be the chairmen who decide if it is renewed. "I have never thought about it - I could not do my job if I was wondering how decisions affected my position."

In the meantime he continues to commute from his Cheshire home to Lancaster Gate, where the Premier League rents offices from the FA. His family do not see enough of him but the two elder boys relish his link with football. "The other one will do when he is old enough," said Parry confidently. He describes himself as a "lifelong fan" and had trials, as a goalkeeper, with Everton and Liverpool before playing at semi-professional level."

In the early days there was a lot of criticism,and there are still bursts of it, often from people who do not realise how limited is his power, if not his influence.

"What irritates is when you get criticism from people on the basis of no information and no knowledge. There are about four or five journalists on the hit list, who I have never spoken to in my life, and who continue to pontificate from on high on what I may or may not stand for. I find that totally unprofessional."

He does appear to stand for the adoption of the market economy in football. There is sympathy for the impoverished clubs of the lower divisions but no offer of support. There is talk of providing support for clubs coming into the Premiership in an attempt to bridge the growing gulf between the leagues. But Premier League II seems unlikely, if only because the current 22-club, 22-vote, Premiership consitution is too efficient to lose. Next year that will be 20 clubs but a further reduction is not expected.

Despite the problems Parry is upbeat. He points to the quality of stadiums and football in the Premiership now. He notes attendances should top 11 million for the first time in 14 years.

"The problems we have at the moment are nothing like the early days. There were times when I wondered if we would have a league. We had litigation with the Football League; rows with the PFA; controversy over the TV deal. We had walk-outs by clubs; major rows between chairmen.

"It is horrendous when you open the paper and find a raft of allegations, it is devastating for everybody. But, given the will, they are soluble problems."