David Conn: Supporters to have voices heard as Burns prepares overhaul of FA

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The Independent Football

Millions of football supporters are to have the opportunity to make their views known to the man spearheading the most significant overhaul of the Football Association in its 142 years, Lord Terence Burns. Questionnaires will be sent out when Burns presents his preliminary thoughts on 4 April, and supporters' groups will urge their members to write to Burns about the game's wider problems which, many believe, the FA has limply failed to address in recent times.

Millions of football supporters are to have the opportunity to make their views known to the man spearheading the most significant overhaul of the Football Association in its 142 years, Lord Terence Burns. Questionnaires will be sent out when Burns presents his preliminary thoughts on 4 April, and supporters' groups will urge their members to write to Burns about the game's wider problems which, many believe, the FA has limply failed to address in recent times.

A senior economic adviser and Treasury figure throughout the Thatcherite privatising revolution, Burns has become the somewhat odd choice of the Labour Government as a serial reviewer of sensitive British institutions, and the FA's dysfunctional council, committee and board structure now festers in his in-tray.

Having sat solemnly on the fence in his report on hunting with hounds, and informed the current BBC Green Paper which recommends retaining the licence fee - although, reportedly, with the suggestion that part of it might be parcelled out to independent companies - Burns has been holding what are described as "exploratory talks" recently about his "structural review" of the FA. From 4 April, the battle will truly begin about what should be done with football's distinguished, benighted governing body.

Burns' appointment as the structural review's independent chairman - on the suggestion of the Sports Minister, Richard Caborn - follows last autumn's "Faria-gate" embarrassments and exits of the FA's chief executive, Mark Palios, and communications director, Colin Gibson. The FA's National Game directors, from the amateur ranks, resisted the idea of a structural review, arguing that the saga of middle-aged men behaving badly had nothing to do with the FA's constitution. They were, too, suspicious that the Premier League would exploit the post-Palios vacuum, and the review, to stage a financial takeover of the FA.

That fear was dramatically increased when, on 16 August last year, Rupert Lowe, the Southampton chairman and a Premiership representative on the FA board, wrote to Dave Richards, the Premier League chairman, calling for exactly the carve-up suspected - for the professional clubs to run the "crown jewels", the FA Cup and England international team, leaving the FA as some flaccid rule-making body.

A series of squabbles followed; the Premier League representatives did not want even to appoint a new chief executive, but the National Game carried that vote with the crucial support of one of the Football League's representatives, Peter Heard, the Colchester United chairman generally respected for acting in the game's wider interests. Eventually, Brian Barwick was given the job - although without the votes of four of the professional game's representatives.

Then came Burns' appointment, followed by a micro-battle over his terms of reference. Burns is to set these out fully on 4 April, but it is thought unlikely he will accede to a carve-up of the FA Cup and England team, which give the FA its prestige and, crucially, its wealth independently of the big clubs.

Burns will, however, be clear that he has not been appointed to "sort out football" - which, given his Thatcherite credentials, may be a good thing for those who believe the game needs much more equal distribution of money. His role, instead, is to sort out the FA's decision-making and constitution, to enable it better to fulfil its role as football's over-arching governing body.

One thing all sides round the FA top table agree on - besides the urge to occupy the comfiest seats in any directors' box - is that the FA is currently dysfunctional. Even Rupert Lowe said, in his letter: "The current [FA] structure indubitably fails the accepted tests of corporate governance."

The board, introduced only in 2000, with six directors from the National Game and six from the professional game, was intended to provide balance but instead has institutionalised conflicts of interest. The FA's needs, over international fixtures, FA Cup matches and other fundamental issues, are often naturally at odds with the big clubs', yet four Premier League representatives, Richards, David Dein of Arsenal, Lowe and Phil Gartside of Bolton, sit as FA directors. There is no independent chairman, just the FA chairman, Geoff Thompson, who was elected with the rich clubs' backing, nor non-executive directors.

That lamentable stew led David Bernstein, the former Manchester City chairman and experienced plc director, to conclude that the FA "has no corporate governance at all".

Burns is expected to suggest more board independence, although he will weigh carefully how far the Premiership chairmen will stomach exclusion from the FA boardroom.

Richard Scudamore, the Premier League's chief executive, is on an "advisory group" for Burns, along with Roger Burden of the National Game, Sir Brian Mawhinney of the Football League and Barwick, representing the FA executive. Burns will doubtless recommend reform of the FA Council, the 92-man outfit now regarded more as a museum of FA history than a living, breathing body fit to govern a great 21st century sport.

The council reflects the FA's evolution from a public school gentlemen's association which unified the world's first football rules in 1863, to a nationwide organisation of counties as the game's popularity exploded towards the 1900s. This legacy remains, with Oxford and Cambridge Universities having a representative, private schools - not comprehensives - the army, air force, navy and even the Australian and New Zealand football associations. The professional leagues did secure representation over the years, but, as Burns will have been reminded many times, there are no seats for players, managers, supporters or amateur clubs.

Some who have met Burns - he has had discussions with the Premier and Football Leagues, Professional Footballers' and League Managers' Associations and Supporters Direct - have assessed him to be a keen procedure man, eyeing the FA's constipated policy-making processes, but left wondering if he understands the broader difficulties which the FA must govern; principally football's maladministration and financial inequality, which have led to 37 of the Football League's 72 clubs being insolvent since the Premier League breakaway of 1992.

The challenge for the Football Supporters Federation and Supporters Direct is to co-ordinate an intelligent, concentrated response from fans, to counterbalance the relentless lobbying operation with which Richards and Scudamore will push the rich clubs' interests.

Supporters groups are expected to call for involvement in decision-making, and for the council to become truly democratic, representing the whole constituency of football, probably electing independent directors, creating a progressive foundation for the FA. The key political considerations are how far the Premier League will seek to control any structure Burns recommends, and also that his proposals must ultimately be approved by the council itself, where several sensible initiatives have foundered on the maxim that turkeys do not vote for Christmas.

Burns is keen to produce a report pragmatic enough to be implemented, not one which gathers dust, along with the other worthy documents going back 15 years.

Football people concerned about how much Burns can realistically achieve might draw hope from his report on hunting with hounds, published in June 2000. At paragraph 64, for example, he said: "We are satisfied that being pursued, caught and killed by dogs during coursing seriously compromises the welfare of the hare."

With thinking of that clear-sighted quality, perhaps the FA's bleedin' obvious shortcomings are not long for this world.


Trouble At The Top Conflicts In The Fa Boardroom

Crozier's ousting

Chief executive Adam Crozier, was forced out in October 2002 after FA director Dave Richards asked him to sign a contract giving the Premiership greater control of the FA Cup and England.

Sven's window

The current dispute over England's preparation before next year's World Cup. The Premiership refused to move its season back a week, leaving the FA to rearrange the FA Cup schedule instead.

FA Cup money

With the FA supposedly in financial crisis in 2003, 60 staff were laid off, and the FA Cup prize money was cut - but only in the early rounds, which feature smaller clubs. The Premier League clubs' prize-money did not drop by a penny.

Homegrown players

Uefa's proposals for clubs to select a minimum number of homegrown players was supported by every European association except the FA.

Compensation for players

Calls for clubs to be compensated for players on England duty have been led by Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein. As an FA director, presumably he has this argument facing a mirror.