Football: The heir becomes apparent

Richard Scudamore can bring acumen to Lancaster Gate.
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The Independent Online
RICHARD SCUDAMORE sounds like someone who is heading for the winning post. His is a name more famously associated with the Turf - though there is no family connection - and while he is not a racing certainty to succeed the departed Graham Kelly as chief executive of the Football Association he is an increasingly fancied outsider fast coming up on the rails.

Less than six months into his job as Kelly's counterpart at the Football League, Scudamore is emerging as a potential front-runner despite the popular wisdom that Kelly's former post will be scrapped. The theory is that whoever takes over as chairman will fulfil a duel executive role. Don't bet on it.

Not that you could. The bookies are fighting shy of taking punters' money on the outcome of the Lancaster Gate kickabout. "We are keeping out of this one," said Graham Sharpe of William Hill. "There are too many people with too much inside information." Curiously, though, Sharpe reckons it is "long odds against" Chelsea's Ken Bates taking over once the beleaguered Keith Wiseman has been formally red-carded tomorrow.

Ipswich Town's David Sheepshanks, the Football League deputy chairman, remains the leading candidate and insiders believe that, once elected later in the year, he would bring in Scudamore to ride shotgun. However, such idle speculation is causing distinctly uncomfortable fidgeting at the League's headquarters in Lytham and the new branch office in Marylebone, central London, where Scudamore was installed only last summer. So far he has not entered the lists, insisting: "There's a job to be done here and I'm getting on with it. We're all working hard at the Football League today and will all be working just as hard tomorrow."

It was Sheepshanks, then the League chairman - they now have an independent one - who personally headhunted Scudamore as part of his plan to give a more dynamic and market-led image to an institution that was perhaps even more traditionally hidebound than the FA.

At 39, the Bristol-born Scudamore has an impressive business background in media and marketing, areas which are crucial to the modernising of the League. He spent nearly three years as vice-president of the Thomson newspaper corporation in New York, running a division which generated around pounds 185m, increasing profits by 15 per cent last year.

While not long enough in the US for his West Country burr to be suffocated by a trans- Atlantic twang, he had sufficient time to acquire the promotional and commercial trappings needed to transform the League. He made an immediate impact by uniting the 72 clubs and quelling talk of a breakaway. One of his key strategies has been to promote closer co-operation between the Premiership and the League which has already produced a pounds 23m deal from the brewers Bass to turn the Coca-Cola Cup into the Worthington Cup.

He hopes there are even bigger deals to be struck and is already talking with Nationwide about extending their sponsorship, which expires at the end of the season.

Increasing the income of a body whose clubs collectively lost pounds 42m last season is the most pressing preoccupation of the Bristol City supporter, former West Country League referee and Football League linesman whose aspirations in that direction were curtailed by his burgeoning business career.

"Getting the finances of our football right is certainly the biggest challenge," he says. "I do not feel that in any sense the Football League are poor relations of the Premiership. We have nothing to feel second rate about and there is certainly no sense of loss after the split. Our gates are up - more people watch League football than the Premiership week-in, week-out - interest is up and the stadiums and facilities have improved beyond recognition.

"The product is more colourful and more enjoyable. Yet I cannot go to bed and sleep comfortably knowing that the financial situation means that some of our clubs do not have sufficient income to sustain them. All are technically solvent, in the sense that they have finances available to them whether through overdrafts or whatever. But two-thirds are trading at a loss and although these losses are currently sustainable the trend is not healthy. Even so we've managed to reduce these collective losses by some 14 per cent.

"Traditionally, football has always attracted benefactors, although not all of the stature of Jack Hayward or Jack Walker, but businessmen have been prepared to bankroll the local club and, although this still happens to a degree, as the stakes get higher the list diminishes.

"It is all about making the situation equitable. While there is no realistic way of robbing the rich to pay the poor there are legitimate ways of redistributing money, like keeping a decent transfer system."

Scudamore, who is divorced, has two children, both avid football watchers. "Whatever it may cost to follow a Premiership club, supporting a League team is not prohibitive. Most clubs have family schemes that enable a parent and child to watch for a season. Put into context that is quite reasonable."

He is realistic enough to appreciate that the future security of the League is linked with the present popularity of the Premiership. "Our trick is to translate the fantastic interest in the Premiership into support for the local club. We have to ensure that in an age of Total Football the spirit of competition is not killed."

The Football League is now in its centenary season and the fact that Scudamore gives pride of place in his office to a photograph of an international player circa 1895 is an indication that old values are still cherished. At the moment football is forever blowing bubbles. But could they burst? "I don't think so, though we must never be complacent. It is more than just a passing mania. The game has turned a full circle. Asking whether bubbles will burst is like asking whether shopping will ever disappear. Football, like shopping, is here to stay, although much more commercially orientated, and in the Nationwide League we are determined to fight for decent shelf space in the superstore."

To enhance the saleability of League football, Scudamore has hired a new marketing director from the Premiership's Newcastle and a communications director who has worked with the National Football League in the USA. There is much work to be done on a new television deal to replace the existing arrangement with BSkyB, which ends in 2001. One suspects that here is a man who may even have the measure of Murdoch, having prowled the natural habitat of the US-based mogul as well as the corridors of media power.

It is precisely these attributes which might tempt the FA into luring him from the seat vacated 10 years ago by Graham Kelly. There is certainly no question of Scudamore jockeying for position. But what is it they say in the racing game about horses for courses?