Football: Thompson's import curbs attacked

New FA chairman steps into immediate controversy.
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The Independent Online
THE FOOTBALL Association unveiled its new chairman yesterday after FA councillors meeting at a plush golf resort near Chester returned a widely predicted vote in favour of Geoff Thompson, who has been acting chairman since the resignation of Keith Wiseman in the so-called "cash for votes" scandal last year. The former Oldham chairman, Ian Stott, won the vote for vice-chairman.

Thompson, the Sheffield and Hallamshire representative, polled 53 votes against 31 for his rival, David Sheepshanks, the progressive chairman of Ipswich Town, but he had barely finished proclaiming a victory for his "unity" platform before it became clear that he was leading an organisation split by considerable division.

Thompson, the 54-year-old former chairman of the FA disciplinary committee and an FA man for more than 20 years, stepped into immediate controversy by proposing that restrictions on foreign players be reimposed - a move that would be vigorously opposed by the Premier League, whose representatives on the council had helped elect him. Indeed, David Dein, the Arsenal vice- chairman and a likely member of the 12-man FA "board" planned under proposed restructuring, wasted no time in declaring such a move "a non-starter".

Thompson's proposal emerged after he had spelled out his vision of "mini- soccer centres" in every town as the first step in an upward chain that would lead to English clubs rearing technically gifted players of their own rather than importing overseas stars. This, he said, hampered the progress of English players and weakened the hand of the national side.

"We need to talk to my counterparts in Europe to seek their views [on limiting the number of foreign imports]," he said. "A number have the same concerns as we have. We need to talk to Uefa, the different federations, to Fifa. We need to have one strategy for football worldwide.

"We are limited by European legislation but I think to have a successful England team [it is] important. I would have thought the old restriction on foreigners was about right."

Thompson had in mind a limit of three non-British players per side in domestic football but Dein, a member of the FA's executive committee, said he believed Arsenal would not welcome such a move - and that it could not be enforced.

"I would have thought the Brussels court would have something to say about that," Dein said. "Football cannot stand alone and make its own laws. If you are asking governments to get involved, you are talking about changing the Treaty of Rome. I would think it is a non-starter."

Dein, who had considered running for vice-chairman before giving way to David Richards as the Premier League's chosen candidate, said he believed the presence of foreign players had been to the good of English players rather than their detriment. "Look at someone like Ray Parlour, for instance. It is probably because he has been playing alongside Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira that he has become an England player. Talent will always come through. We are putting millions of pounds into Arsenal's academy and we will reap the benefit of that in time."

This was a view endorsed by David Davies, the FA's acting chief executive, who predicted that grass-roots development would reduce the dependency on foreign imports, redressing the balance naturally. "If talented young players are coming through as a consequence of clubs' investment, then it will make economic sense to use them," he said.

Meanwhile, the defeat of Richards by Stott appears to create a division at the very top of the council table. Stott's fellow Football League representatives had cast their votes in favour of Sheepshanks for chairman, endorsing the Ipswich man's view that to elect Thompson was to hand considerable influence to the Premier League.

The point of issue here is the pounds 120m the Premier League have promised to give the FA for investment in grass-roots football as part of restructuring plans that have been developing during Thompson's temporary stewardship. The restructuring package, if eventually approved, would give the Premier League a much bigger influence. Sheepshanks campaigned on the basis that this would be bad for the game and, in a letter to other councillors, drew parallels with the "cash for votes" scandal that also led to the demise of the former chief executive, Graham Kelly. "We must make sure that the individual judgment of the FA remains sacrosanct at all times without any undue influence from one body or another," Sheepshanks said.

The conference also discussed the possibility of finding a way to give British football a representation in the Olympic Games without compromising the independence of the individual national teams, perhaps by the home nations taking it in turn to field their own team under the Great Britain flag.

Dein, meanwhile, said that he had proposed to Uefa's club competitions committee on the FA's behalf that because of the uneasy peace in the Balkans, club sides from the former Yugoslavia be asked to play their "home" European matches in neutral countries.