Football: The man who would be king

Andrew Longmore looks behind the new public face of English football
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The Independent Online
THE public face of Graham Kelly has now become the public face of English football. In the right place at the right time, David Davies has assumed the duties of acting chief executive of the Football Association and though he will only decide over Christmas whether to apply for the job full-time, the former BBC journalist has already completed a remarkable rise to power. Poacher turned Lord of the Manor in one easy step.

While football has been trying to absorb the implications of Kelly's departure, Davies has lost no time in canvassing his constituency. He is, as many colleagues acknowledge and his close contacts with New Labour suggest, a political animal and the campaign trail - for most believe he will apply for the post - has taken him to the main centres of the Football Association over the past few days. With Nic Coward, company secretary, and the finance director Michael Cunnah, Davies has attended a number of informal briefings with staff, putting forward his own agenda for reform and, to the astonishment of those accustomed to a more impersonal style of government, asking for ideas in return. As an employee of the BBC for 24 years, Davies knows about monolithic corporations and he sees no reason why, with a staff of about 180, the FA should be so ponderous.

Within the game, the notion of Davies, who arrived at the FA five years ago to overhaul the FA's image as the first director of public affairs, ascending to the top job is greeted with a mixture of curiosity and mirth. Kelly was a career bureaucrat, the Blackpool bus-driver's son who laboriously climbed the greasy pole. Davies is a very different character, a Londoner, a graduate of Sheffield University - where, neatly enough, he was a speedy left-winger for the university side - who trained to be a teacher at Oxford before turning to journalism, initially with the Belfast Telegraph, then in the BBC news room at Cardiff. He is classic New Labour material and numbers Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's spin doctor in chief, as one of his closest political allies. The contact was fostered during Davies's time as BBC political correspondent and has served him well when urgent support for the 2006 World Cup bid was needed from No 10. The hot lines were buzzing in the wake of Kelly's resignation last week.

As a self-confessed football fanatic - "I'm a fan first and foremost" - and long-time supporter of Manchester United, Davies has solid footballing credentials, without resorting as yet to the religiosity of Kelly's Saturday devotions. At times, notably in the wake of Hillsborough, Kelly's myopic view of football warped his perspective. Davies would not fall into the same trap, though critics of his style would say he has concentrated on his most obvious role as press attache to England coaches to the detriment of wider, less glamorous, duties. It was this refusal to delegate that led Davies into his most serious error at the FA, the misguided ghosting of Hoddle's World Cup diary.

Davies was far more professionally culpable in the whole overblown affair than the England coach and he would privately admit to the lapse now. With his mother unwell and his daughter also undergoing an operation, the book affair only added to the personal stress of a highly charged summer.

Insiders say his relationship with the streetwise Terry Venables was much closer than it is with the aloof Glenn Hoddle, but both have benefited from Davies's expertise in public relations. His coaching task was easier with Venables, who had a natural gift for communication, than with Hoddle, who has none of El Tel's wit. But Davies himself has narrowed down his contacts among the regular footballing press. Though the fault cannot be laid entirely at his door, relations with the press are as poor now as they ever were under Bobby Robson or Graham Taylor.

During press conferences, Davies guides, cajoles, organises and harangues in roughly equal measure. No one is left in much doubt who is in charge. If his nickname at the BBC was "the Bishop", his character is more Mr Busy than the Mr Bumble portrayed in the tabloids last week. But there always seems to be something marginally more important on the other side of the door.

Yet it is Davies' ability to sense the political air which has helped to put him in temporary charge of English football. His ease in front of the camera, developed as a presenter on BBC Birmingham's Pebble Mill, contrasted immediately with the pained performances of Kelly in the aftermath of Tuesday's meeting. He lost little time in setting out the agenda for the future and establishing the FA's commitment to what politicians would call a broad raft of policy issues. Whether Davies, 50, has the commercial acumen to satisfy the professional powers or the devotion to woo the diverse ranks of the amateurs will be key issues. As a skilled political operator, Davies will know which way the wind is blowing. But no one should underestimate his tenacity or his powers of persuasion in the coming months.