Football: Thompson ready for the benchmark

The man who would be FA king advocates evolution rather than revolution. By Nick Townsend
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The Independent Online
BY SATURDAY lunchtime, at a hotel near Chester, a majority of the 90 members of the Football Association Council will have entrusted Geoff Thompson with the responsibility of steering English football into the next millennium. After six months doing as effective a substitute's job as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the chairman of his local magistrates and representative of the Sheffield and Hallamshire FA is ready to come off the bench, in both senses.

Recent events have vindicated the faith of the supporters of his elevation to the chairmanship of the FA, which include the Premier League's five representatives on the council. He has had to investigate the Graham Kelly- Keith Wiseman affair, to deal expeditiously with Glenn Hoddle's dismissal and to handle Kevin Keegan's appointment.

"It's been a gradual process of getting to the top rather than a driving ambition," Thompson said. "I have felt for a long time there was a need for a change. But I learned early on that the only way to achieve it was to get people's confidence." He has done so with an astute, reformist approach, which means that the immediate aspirations of his only rival, the Ipswich chairman David Sheepshanks, will be frustrated when the councillors elect a successor to Wiseman at their summer meeting.

"We must have been through one of the worst periods in the FA's history, losing our chairman, chief executive and head coach in those circumstances," said the Sheffield born and bred 53-year-old, who in his twenties refereed in the Yorkshire League and who worked for a year as general manager of Doncaster Rovers. "But with all the turmoil at the turn of the year it was an opportunity to introduce change that we could not afford to miss."

Three years ago, he lost out to Wiseman for FA chairmanship. But he was given another chance to assume power, much earlier than he anticipated, when the FA's chief executive Graham Kelly, voluntarily, and Wiseman, by the collar in political terms, departed. Their "crime" had been an attempt to persuade the FA of Wales to help unseat David Will, Britain's ex officio vice-president of Fifa in favour of Wiseman.

Thompson began immediately by hastening the formulation - and convincing FA councillors of the merit - of plans to restructure the FA so that business decisions would be made by a board of directors, six each from the professional and amateur game and a chairman and vice-chairman. "If we'd had a proper board then the situation over the FA of Wales could never have happened - or last summer when we reneged on our support of Lennart Johannson," he insisted.

Unlike his younger, urbane opponent, who has produced a written presentation of his vision for the future, Thompson stood on his record in domestic and international football administration, the crucial contacts he has made - and his integrity. Alluding to that decision to "renege" on the support for Johannson in favour of Sepp Blatter as president of Fifa, he describes himself as "very much an English gentleman" and adds: "If I give my word that's the end of it."

He added: "I want unity. I want the professional games working together for the betterment of the whole game. I think there's an exciting future ahead of us, but we've got to be open for change, but through evolution, not revolution.

In 12 years as chairman of the FA's disciplinary committee Thompson has dealt with such diverse characters as Eric Cantona and Ian Wright. He is also a member of Fifa's disciplinary committee and has frequently been a match delegate for Uefa.

His lack of public profile and the fact that he emanates from the amateur game could have counted against him, although the expected election of Sheffield Wednesday chairman Dave Richards as vice-chairman has largely countered the latter concern. As for the former, he conceded: "I'm a bit of an iceberg, I'm afraid. I'm not a charismatic character. I'm perhaps a strong character, though, and I hope that my disciplinary chairmanship has shown that. The criticism people seem to have of me is `You're very hard, but you're fair'. I've not been afraid to make the decisions, as shown by the Kelly, Wiseman and Hoddle affairs.

"I may have been elected from the amateur side, but I look at the whole game and have a vision for the whole game. That's why I'm delighted the Premier League have said it will support me. People in the FA have known me a long time, they know what I can do, and that I would never compromise their trust. I hope that people regard me as a safe pair of hands."

It was a sharp elbow that he used where Hoddle was concerned. "The day that I was asked to take over, I said that I would be transparent," Thompson declared. "I may be too straight for people, I don't know. With Glenn, we had no alternative, quite honestly. I don't think somebody in his position can say those sort of things. We acted very quickly, but then I think we needed to. We'd been accused of not acting decisively, and I hope I have brought some decisiveness to the job."

When Keegan entered, Thompson was reported as saying: "It could end in tears." Thompson insists that was taken out of context, but he did admit: "Kevin has got a history of walking out of things." He added: "I was just concerned that we should be very careful before we made an appointment because there is a difference between an international manager's job and the day-to-day job of running a club but, apart from that, I believe that Kevin has matured considerably since he was at Newcastle."

"I felt Kevin was the right man and so did the other members of the committee. With the state of English football after Glenn, I felt we needed somebody with Kevin's charisma, ability and his patriotism to lift the country. We had that against Poland. Since then, he would say to you that he has not lost a match; I would say to you that, well, I would have been pleased if he'd won more than he had drawn, but there you are."