Football: Sheepshanks the cautious reformer

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FOOTBALL'S WANNABEE Tony Blair launched his bid for power yesterday with the same mix of glossy style and compromised substance that enabled the Labour leader to be elected Prime Minister in May 1997. Whether the combination will work for David Sheepshanks in June, when he hopes to be chosen as the next chairman of the Football Association, remains to be seen.

The problem for Sheepshanks, the 46-year-old chairman of Ipswich Town, is that the organisations which most need reform if the game is to progress at all levels are the ones he needs on his side to win election. The FA Council, which is the electorate, needs to be neutered while the Premiership, without whose support he has no chance, needs to have its financial dominance emasculated and its profligacy curbed.

Thus, while Sheepshanks yesterday pledged to support the game's grassroots, from the parks to the Nationwide League, he was unable to suggest he would "soak the Premiership rich". Instead he spoke optimistically of an improbable public-private partnership.

Similarly he spoke of the need to restructure the FA Council while insisting there could be a role for the 96-strong body whose members range from the anachronistic (Cambridge University) to the irrelevant (New Zealand).

Sheepshanks, who made his fortune running a variety of food companies, is the sort of dynamic, shrewd and smooth figure the FA needs to rebuild its prestige and influence at home and abroad. However, the favourite for the post is Geoff Thompson, currently doing a solid job as Keith Wiseman's temporary replacement. As the representative of the Hallamshire and Sheffield FA, he is likely to have the support of the county FAs who dominate the Council. He has not, however, yet shown an inclination for sweeping change.

Sheepshanks admits he is "the underdog" - thus yesterday's presidential style campaign launch complete with glossy manifesto: "The Way Forward with David Sheepshanks". He is also lobbying every individual Council member.

In the manifesto Sheepshanks calls for the development of a seven-year plan designed to end in England hosting and winning the 2006 World Cup. Previous such plans have been broken on the wheel of self- interest but, in a departure, Sheepshanks says the FA (and, thus himself) should be held accountable for its success.

Many of his ideas are sound, if lacking in detail and occasionally contradictory. The general thrust is to raise standards of play, behaviour and leadership at all levels.

"The English game is underachieving," said Sheepshanks. "The consequences if we don't embrace the type of change I have proposed do not bear thinking about."

He is in favour of restrictions on foreign players, if this can be squared with the European Community, and wants to tackle wage inflation and the accountability and control of agents. Other tilts at windmills include the eradication of hooliganism. He is in favour of Kevin Keegan (he is hardly going to say otherwise) but his preference for a chief executive with a business background would appear to rule out the temporary incumbent, David Davies.

Sheepshanks, who would like the position to become a paid one - it is three to four days' work a week - intends to cut back his work at Ipswich regardless of his fate at the FA's summer meeting in Chester on 26 June. His work there, and with the Football League, is one of the strongest parts of his candidacy. "He has," said an employee of the Suffolk club, "really turned the club around. He is popular and respected even though he has not spent millions on the team."