Football: Power swings to executive suite

The FA need to shift the emphasis from their equivalent of hereditary peers.
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The Independent Online
With a long campaign before them, the chief candidates for the chairmanship of the Football Association were understandably reticent to unveil their manifestos. Of the two favourites, David Richards, chairman of Sheffield Wednesday and one of the most influential members of the executive committee, had to deal with a sulking Italian and David Sheepshanks, his counterpart at Ipswich and former chairman of the Football League, was still being desperately coy about his intentions.

Only Ken Bates has orchestrated any sort of debate on the significant problems of modernising the FA and his early attempts to provoke discussion were predictably shot down by venerable members of the FA Council. Yet everyone is agreed that the current interregnum presents the best chance this century to revolutionise the workings of English football's governing body. A shift from the Julian Calendar would be a start.

By the time the full 91-member FA Council lumbers into action to choose a new chairman and chief executive, the cricket World Cup will be in full swing. Nothing better illustrates the task ahead than the cumbersome mechanisms of appointment. Yet, if the time is used wisely, avenues for change explored openly and old vested interests - yes, even those Cup final tickets - sacrificed for the common good of football, the six-month hiatus could prove a valuable prerequisite for confident and radical reform. The process has already begun. The report of the working party chaired by Frank Pattison, a 62- year-old solicitor who is president of the Durham FA, will be made to the executive committee either in February or March, progressing from there to ratification by the full council later in the year.

Hanging over the deliberations will be the veiled threats of the professional representatives, who want a greater say in the running of the FA. Their vision of the future involves a clearer division of power. The England teams and the FA technical department would be divorced from the present amateur-based FA structure and handed over to more professional masters, an amalgamation of the Premier League and the Football League. The ludicrously Victorian notion of a panel of amateurs deciding the disciplinary fate of a multi-millionaire footballer would be consigned to the 20th century.

Realistically, the full council would be unlikely to countenance such wholesale devolution of power, at least in the short term, given the suspicion of professionalism still lingering in the shires. But the spectre of rugby union, which has been brought to its knees by the power struggle between professional clubs and an outdated governing body, should be enough to concentrate minds.

Pattison's proposals will lead to a streamlined full council. Numbers might even be halved by amalgamating the different county and school organisations. At present, the council's composition is heavily weighted in favour of the amateurs: 43 members, one each from the county associations, 10 divisional representatives, 16 vice-presidents or life vice-presidents and 11 members from such diverse organisations as the Forces, schools and universities. The FA Premier League have a mere five members, the Football League only four. If reform is to be anything more than cosmetic, that imbalance will need to be redressed and a significant chunk of power shifted away from the FA's equivalent of hereditary peers.

Within the FA, much of the real power lies with the specialist committees, 14 of them handling matters of regular business ranging from the Challenge Cup through to Sunday football, youth football and rules revisions. Six more deal with more immediate issues such as commerce, discipline and the women's game. The committees are largely staffed by unpaid county members, who have time and commitment to spare.

The main administrative dilemma is balancing the old unbending rhythms of the FA, the worthy committee work and the gritty details of football's daily bread, with the fast food of the modern professional game. Both Graham Kelly and Keith Wiseman paid the penalty for ignoring procedure, but any new FA structure must recognise the need for some decisions to be made more swiftly and more arbitrarily than the present process allows.

Logically, that will mean greater executive powers either for the chairman, a proposition voiced by Sir David Hill-Wood, chairman of the influential finance committee, or for the new chief executive. While Sheepshanks has his advocates, Geoff Thompson, now acting chairman, and David Richards might be a more acceptable compromise ticket. The more significant, if unspoken, question is how much longer the game of two halves can continue to be administered by one body. The one guarantee is that nothing will happen at great speed. It took the Scottish FA, a much smaller outfit, more than a decade to complete its reorganisation.

The infighting on the government-backed Football Task Force, which emerged last week, hardly augurs well for the future. Incensed that he was not invited to the launch of the report and by the implicit criticism of his members contained within it, Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, resigned from the Task Force and accused David Mellor, the chairman, of "vindictiveness towards players and the PFA".

The report on "investing in the community", which is launched in Wormwood Scrubs (the Linford Christie stadium, not the prison) tomorrow, expresses concern that "some clubs and players are becoming more detached from the local communities". All professional players are contracted to do two to three hours' community work a week, but the report singles out Premier League players and clubs for failing to fulfil those obligations. In its recommendations, clubs are urged to develop their players as role models by introducing a weekly rota for community work. More controversially, players guilty of serious misconduct, such as Paolo Di Canio, should have the option of doing community service to shorten their sentence. In addition, the report suggests, there should be special "community" days where players go into schools to back campaigns against, for example, drugs and smoking.

The strength of the accusations has clearly angered Taylor, who can point to some thriving "football in the community" schemes. But it is the meddling of well-meaning amateurs in a professional sport which is clearly the underlying frustration. Taylor has got his retaliation in first, but his resignation from the Task Force will overshadow other more promising developments, including the promotion of anti-racism measures and the "learning through football" scheme. It is this unglamorous and unpublicised work which occupies much of the FA's time. But if a body designed to troubleshoot football's problems only highlights division, what chance a peaceful transition of the FA from stately liner to sleek speedboat for the voyage into the next Millennium?