Football: Sheepshanks not deterred

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE PREMIER LEAGUE'S plan to become the dominant voice in running English football faces continuing opposition despite the victory of its chosen candidate in Saturday's election of a new Football Association chairman.

David Sheepshanks, whose challenge to acting chairman Geoff Thompson ended in defeat by 53 votes to 31 in the poll of FA Council members, is considering a second bid to unseat his rival amid growing concern that an offer of pounds 120m from the Premier League for grassroots football would effectively buy control of the game. He is encouraged both by the size of his own vote but also by the defeat, by 49 to 35, of Thompson's running mate, David Richards, of Sheffield Wednesday, in the vote for vice-chairman by Oldham's Ian Stott, whose fellow Football League representatives aligned themselves with Sheepshanks. It was Richards who made the money offer to Thompson on the Premier League's behalf.

The cash, to be invested over a 10-year period, is part of a reform and restructuring package drawn up by Thompson that would give Premier League clubs, who currently have only five representatives among 91 FA councillors, a substantially greater say in shaping FA policy and a stronger influence in European football.

The suggestion by Sheepshanks, the Ipswich Town chairman, that this would create a "difficulty over the independent judgement of the FA" in running the game sparked a bitter response from Thompson, a Sheffield JP and former chairman of the FA's disciplinary committee, who described an attempt to label the offer as cash for votes as "distasteful" - especially in the light of the scandal that forced his predecessor, Keith Wiseman, to resign six months ago along with the former chief executive, Graham Kelly.

A letter sent to all FA councillors by Sheepshanks is reported have made specific use of the phrase "cash for a vote" and, while Sheepshanks has denied to Thompson that the words came from his lips, he says now that he stands by everything he has said and is dropping strong hints that he will challenge Thompson again from the same platform.

The opportunity to do that could come sooner rather than later. Although FA chairmen tend to enjoy extended office, the position is subject to a vote every 12 months. Meanwhile, the FA's reform plans, scheduled to be in place by the end of the year, include a new slimmed-down "board of directors", which will require a new chairman.

"I'm very pleased that I enjoyed a large amount of support from across the game, both on the FA Council and in the voting, considering there was no Premiership support," Sheepshanks said. "I'm going to take stock now. Whether I could still be chairman in the future depends, of course, on whether I decide to run but I must have rung some bells with what I was standing for and I stand by every word of it."

He is particularly concerned about the conflict of interest between the FA and the Premiership over releasing players for England matches. "Whether we like it or not there is a debate between the interests of our top clubs and the international team," he said. "If we want to have a top international team we are going to have to work collaboratively with the Premier League to find a solution to the international fixture programme to ensure that players are released with the clubs' blessing. The drive for resolving that issue has to come from the FA and, with great respect to the Leagues, their job is to look after the interests of their members, not to think of what is good necessarily in the long-term interests of the international team.

"The Premier League's investment proposals are excellent news for football. The difficulty is that we must make sure that the independent judgement of the FA remains sacrosanct. The FA must provide vision and leadership without undue influence from one body or another."

Thompson denied any suggestion that the FA had sold out to the Premier League, which is hoping to have six or seven of its own people on the proposed 12-man board and a strong representation among FA delegates at both the European governing body, Uefa, and its world counterpart, Fifa. The FA Council, which would continue to determine regulatory matters but has no say in commercial decisions, could be reduced by a third.

"I believe the Premier League offer is a reaction to the recommendation of the football Task Force that money should filter down from the top,"Sheepshanks said. "I also believe the Premier League and the Football League need a greater say in their own organisation and that the Premier League representatives need a greater say in European matters."

The restructuring plans will need approval of the full FA Council, some of whose members would effectively be in the position of turkeys voting for Christmas, since their places would disappear.