Brian Barwick: 'I think Sven's time here will be looked upon as nearly, not quite...'

As the McClaren era gets under way in earnest, the FA chief executive believes that scandals and underachievement can be relegated to the past
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The Independent Football

The talk of the Football Association offices in Soho Square, on the day I arrive to interview the chief executive, Brian Barwick, is of cricket rather than football. It is the morning after the farcical scenes at the Oval and it's just possible that the old Eintracht Frankfurt full-back Schadenfreude stalks the corridors of power, at least in the sense that the FA blazers can sit back and watch a sporting fiasco unfolding on both the back and front pages of our national newspapers, knowing that it does not, for once, concern them.

Barwick - who, for the record, is sitting at a table in his corner office wearing not a blazer but a rather natty black suit - was at home watching Chelsea v Manchester City on Sky that Sunday afternoon, but flicked over to keep an eye on the fourth Test match between England and Pakistan, only to find himself forsaking the football as he was sucked in by the cricket. Or rather, the lack of it. And like the old telly executive he is, he could not help seeing it more as a broadcasting dilemma than anything else. "It was a difficult broadcast for them [Sky]," he says. "They weren't being told anything, and I know from a previous life that you've got to keep going and going."

He will not say whether, as he made his way to work on Monday morning, he offered a silent prayer of thanks that the Pakistan Cricket Board and the International Cricket Council were the sporting institutions in the media spotlight following the previous day's ball-tampering allegations. But it would not surprise me if he had, because there seems little doubt that the latest Wayne Rooney affair, with the player reportedly threatening to withhold his commercial favours unless the FA overturns the three-match ban enforced by an independent tribunal, would have had a good deal more attention on a slower news day. England's best player holding his national association to ransom? It's a heck of a story.

I ask Barwick whether his was the desk on which the letter from Rooney's agent, Paul Stretford, had landed? "It's on my desk right now," he says, gesturing to the offending document. "I have to say I was disappointed. It's marked private and confidential, and I only read it yesterday, yet this same letter [was leaked to the media] ... that's a slight disappointment to me."

Has he formulated a response? "I haven't responded but at some stage, out of professional courtesy, I will."

It doesn't sound, then, as if the FA is prepared to concede to Rooney and Stretford. Nor can it, in fact, because it is bound by its own regulations to abide by the findings of the tribunal. "I can understand to a degree why Manchester United might feel disappointed that a sending-off in a pre-season friendly has equated to a three-match ban in competitive matches," Barwick adds, "but they put an appeal in, for both Rooney and [Paul] Scholes, and an independent disciplinary commission basically upheld the original decision."

Was he happy it did so? Did he not himself think that Rooney and Manchester United have been disproportionately punished for a sending-off, in a meaningless match, that wasn't even clear-cut in the first place? "One of the complexities and strengths of the FA is that there are divisions between different departments. There was no reason why I would influence, could influence or should influence that decision. And I didn't. It was the procedure working in the proper manner."

I'm not the first to observe that Barwick has a look of Captain Mainwaring, and there are times when he sounds like Captain Mainwaring as well, albeit with a Liverpool accent. But those I know who have worked with him speak highly of him: decent, competent, companionable, an all-round good egg, seems to be their verdict.

There wasn't, though, too much competence in the way that Luis Felipe Scolari was ardently pursued in the quest for Sven-Goran Eriksson's successor, only for Scolari to turn down the FA's advances and for Steve McClaren to get the job, with Barwick claiming that he'd been the first choice all along. Happily for Barwick, and England, McClaren has made an encouraging start. But that does not alter the fact that it was an embarrassment-strewn recruitment process.

We'll come to all that, and indeed to the underachievement of the Eriksson years, but first I ask Barwick to reflect on McClaren's first weeks in the job. What has he done that's differed from the way Sven operated? "People will say that he's got around the clubs. His first port of call was Manchester United and Alex [Ferguson], I think he's been across to Liverpool, he intends to get to Chelsea this week. He has a good rapport with the top coaches. They speak his language, he speaks their language." A small chuckle. "Or their languages, so to speak. He's trying to break down some of the mystery of this job."

Which begs the question, what did Sven do to break down the "mystery", to generate a good rapport with the top coaches? "Sven did less of it. He went to a lot of games, certainly. But Steve has seen a real possibility to move it on."

Implicit in Barwick's praise for McClaren is inevitably some dissatisfaction with Eriksson; not that he likes to articulate it. But I venture that when most England fans consider Sven's long tenure, two words come to mind. Two polite words, anyway: expensive failure. Does he concur? A long, long pause, followed by a heavy sigh. "I think Sven's time here will be looked upon as nearly, not quite. He himself would see that. Three quarter-finals, a little bit of Groundhog Day about the last one, going out on penalties to Portugal ... in the end he didn't quite get there. But he certainly cared, he was certainly committed. There have been some lazy words, pretty pernicious on occasion, written about Sven. In the end, my view on Sven is that he gave it a real shot."

But real shots sometimes hit the corner flag. We could all see that Eriksson, in his own phlegmatic way, cared about the job. But surely the verdict has to be that he just wasn't very good at it? "Well, look at his club record and it's impressive. Look at his international record and history will reflect that three quarter- finals in this period for England wasn't quite good enough."

Was Barwick surprised by the decision to take the untested Theo Walcott to Germany, instead of Jermain Defoe? "I've always left decisions about teams to people who know more about these things than I do."

But he must have had an opinion? For the first and only time in our conversation, he gets slightly shirty. "If I have an opinion, I might keep it to myself. Look, we all like to pick our own squad, and I'm not suggesting for one second that on the back of an envelope I don't, because it's part of the fun of life, let alone the fun of the job. But those are football decisions, and I will always back whoever makes them."

Fair enough, but what of the decision to pick the man who makes the decisions? I tell Barwick that I am still confused about McClaren being declared original first choice following the regrettably public wooing of Scolari. The truth, surely, is that McClaren was first choice only once Scolari had said no? "I think you're saying that."

OK, then let's consider the decision to appoint the new man before the World Cup. Did it occur to Barwick or anyone at the FA that they were making themselves hostages to fortune by appointing McClaren, Eriksson's assistant; that he would be tarred by association if things went wrong in Germany, which indeed they did? "That's for you to decide. It doesn't seem to have played out that way."

This is true. Following the emphatic victory over Greece last month, folk seem to have forgotten that the man now praised for working out a way for Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard to play together, for bringing Defoe back into the fold, for assigning Walcott to the Under-21s, is the man we all saw frantically scribbling notes beside the hapless Eriksson at the World Cup.

Which brings me to McClaren's own assistant, Terry Venables. I ask Barwick how much dissent there was within the FA when McClaren declared that he wanted Dagenham's finest back on board? "Well, there are people at the FA who are part of a previous history with Terry, but it's fair to say that, in the end, everyone was in accordance with Steve's wishes. Terry was Steve's choice, and I thought it was a really interesting choice. He came to me, we discussed it, I said I would back it and I did. Terry is a strong individual with a big profile in football and with the media, and some thought Steve might be undermined. But I think it takes a strong man to appoint a strong man, and a strong man to allow a strong man to appoint a strong man." A chuckle, at his own convolution.

"Terry will be a great asset; in fact, Steve will tell you that he already has been. He brings experience, wisdom and enthusiasm. Somebody said to me the other day that he needed an operation to get the smile off his face, he's that pleased to be involved. I don't know whether he thinks there's unfinished business, that's not my issue. But Steve wanted a football brain that would challenge him, who wouldn't be a sycophant, and in Terry he has that. He will be a great technical friend to Steve."

I ask Barwick whether he thinks he has made mistakes in this job, and what he might do differently if he could live the last 18 months or so again? "I think there's an opportunity to make a mistake every couple of minutes in this job," he says. "But what scale of mistake? On the basis of what timescale? I feel OK, 18 or 19 months into this job, about where we are. It's a very public challenge, and if I walk in on a day when there are no cameras out there I think I must be doing all right ... When I came in [as a successor to the amorous Mark Palios] I felt I needed to dampen down the level of intrigue about this place, and it helped that my background was in event management and crisis management. We're moving the organisation on quietly."

For the time being, I think we will all settle for that. Finally, a question to which I already know the answer: does he feel compromised, as a devoted Liverpool fan, in his dealings with Manchester United? He smiles: "When I was editor of Match of the Day, I used to get letters from Manchester United fans complaining that we showed too much of Liverpool. I also got letters from Liverpool fans saying we showed too much Man United. I used to say we should send them to each other."

Enough said.