Football: Wells can be the dynamic leader football craves

GAME IN TURMOIL: Alan Hubbard meets a supremo in the making
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The Independent Online
HE IS a qualified coach and referee, has worked abroad, been a talent scout and TV match analyst, headed a government quango and now runs a First Division football club. Perfect credentials, you might think, for a touch of toe-dipping into the troubled waters of the Football Association, especially as his first name is Howard.

No, not a Howard Wilkinson clone, though the initials are the same. This is Howard Wells, and while some will be asking "Howard Who?" it may not be for long. His is the name now being stage-whispered around the corridors of Lancaster Gate as successor to Graham Kelly, the FA's recently departed chief executive.

Even though the post has yet to be formally advertised, heads are already being informally hunted before a summertime appointment, and the word is that Wells, at present chief executive at Elton John's Watford, is in pole position.

This may be as much of a surprise to the 52-year-old Wells as it is to those who have yet to hear of him. While he is not touting for the job, he admits to being intrigued by the speculation. "If it came up, obviously I'd have to be interested. It is probably the biggest challenge in football. But equally there is a fascinating challenge here at Watford. It is a smashing little club with tremendous potential and I love working with Elton and Graham Taylor, who have such great integrity and passion for the game."

This is not an auspicious time for the buck-stoppers, with the chief executives of both the English and Scottish FAs spending more time with their lawyers. But in terms of the future well-being of English football, Kelly's hastily vacated hotseat needs to be filled by someone who has commercial nous and international clout. And following events at the Premier League, where both chairman and chief executive resigned over lucrative contracts for two television consultants, there are suddenly a host of top jobs to fill.

Senior FA Council members may well consider that Watford's Wells comes gift-wrapped for the Kelly role having successfully orchestrated multi- cultural, high-profile projects overseas and established top-level contacts in government and sport during his recent spell as head of the United Kingdom Sports Council.

Although most of his career has been spent in general sports administration, he's a football man at heart, playing in goal for Wycombe Wanderers, and coaching them in their amateur days. He had trials for Spurs, Bolton and Luton, was a scout for Plymouth and refereed in Sunday League football before spending 27 years in sports management, 15 in Hong Kong.

He returned to Britain in 1996 to become chief executive of the newly formed UKSC but quit last year in frustration and disappointment at the lack of resources and abundance of red tape. "When I was appointed by the then chairman, Lord MacLaurin, he told me it would be a fun job. That wasn't the case. Eventually I realised I could not exert the degree of leadership that I felt necessary. In Hong Kong I'd become accustomed to making decisions and standing by them. It just doesn't work that way here where the culture is just too cosy.

"We seem to be content to take forever to do routine things. There are so many long-winded procedures, it is just nonsense. The new UK Sports Institute is a good example. I worked on the original project but could see it was going to be a lost cause. With devolution on the agenda it was going to be virtually impossible to get things up and running from a British perspective. I don't believe the Olympic body backed their case strongly enough. What seems to be happening here is that most sports cobble their teams together every four years, but those countries who really take the Games seriously prepare them as an entity throughout the four- year span.

"Unfortunately, the Institute has turned out to be something of a dog's dinner and in my view it is dead in the water as a workable concept." In Hong Kong, Wells was instrumental in setting up their Sports Institute in six months. Now it has 350 athletes on full-time scholarships. "Here it has taken three years to get to first base. I'm afraid I just couldn't get my head round all the bureaucracy. When it comes to running sport, all we do is procrastinate and get ourselves in a muddle. Take the appointment - or rather non-appointment - of the new chairman of the English Sports Council. Why doesn't the government just head-hunt someone, put them in and say `get on and do it'?

"Why don't we just pick the best person for the job?" This is a question the FA must address shortly. Although it is unlikely that any appointment will be made before a new chairman is elected in July, soundings are already being taken and the short-list is likely to comprise: Wells, the acting incumbent David Davies (widely believed to have blotted his ghostly copybook as Glenn Hoddle's Boswell), Trevor Brooking (caretaker chairman at the English Sports Council), the Football League chief executive Richard Scudamore and Andrew Croker, entrepreneurial son of Kelly's predecessor Ted Croker.

The departures of Sir John Quinton and Peter Leaver from the Premier League may swell the number of candidates. Whether Wells would find the ranks of the FA Council's old boys brigade or the difficult chairmen of the Premiership less tiresome to deal with than some of the blinkered blazers who run other outposts of sport is something he may have to consider, but at least diplomacy is among his attributes.

Recent debilitating events at the FA are, he says, "regrettable", but he reckons there is nothing wrong with the game that strong leadership can't rectify. "It is a pity the FA didn't show enough of it at the time the Premier League was set up. There is a danger of the game imploding if we are not careful. The problem as in all major sports is that governing bodies have been talking about outside interference while the Rupert Murdochs have gone in and got it sorted."

Before joining Watford, Wells was in line to run the new National Stadium at Wembley, but withdrew over the delay. He was offered a similar role with a Premiership club and has been "tapped up" by two more recently. "I came to Watford because it was a different sort of challenge, more of a commercial opportunity plus the chance to work with someone I knew and respected in Graham Taylor." Watford seems to be run on the same neat and tidy lines as its 22,000-seater stadium and pitch, which is said to be the best in the land despite doubling up as home to Saracens rugby club.

At present he is working on a four-year strategy which envisages Premiership status. Elton's Rocket Man is keenly aware of market forces and he also knows a thing or two about handling the media. In Hong Kong he fronted the former colony's World Cup telecasts.

The 6ft 3in Wells cuts a debonair dash, being almost as telegenic as Davies and agreeably more so than Kelly. He'd be a dab hand at giving the balls a good shake at FA Cup draw time: the accomplished shaker might turn out to be a mover too, given the opportunity.