England united as Mr Palios loses friends

Player power: New FA chief alienates manager and squad as he pays dearly for his on-the-hoof disciplinary policy
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England's head coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, is frustrated at not being allowed to pick the players he wanted for a second international in succession, but remains committed to seeing out his contract over the next two-and-a-half years. That reassurance yesterday afternoon was one of the few positive notes for the Football Association's chief executive, Mark Palios, who must now be wondering just what sort of a job he walked into four months ago.

"I asked the guys, 'Is it always like this?' " Palios admitted enquiring of his colleagues in the fall-out of Alan Smith's arrest and consequent expulsion from the squad for today's international against Denmark. While Paul Barber, the director of marketing and communications, maintains that the new man has been "particularly unlucky" with the unexploded bombs dropping into his in-tray, an honest answer would be that yes, there are important issues of procedure and discipline to be dealt with most of the time, which tend to become complicated precisely because of the lack of guidelines laid down in in current FA regulations.

Under what circumstances should a player not be selected for the England team? What are the statutory punishments for various misdemeanours committed by players on the pitch or managers off it? Nobody seems to know, and although Gordon Taylor of the Professional Footballers' Association overstates his case on occasions, he is only reflecting widespread opinion in suggesting that the governing body are at present making policy on the hoof. Or, as Palios put it on the latest controversy: "We have what is to be honest an ad hoc process." Ad hoc being Latin for making it up as you go along?

Brendon Batson, formerly a deputy of Taylor's and a West Brom executive, has been brought in to help overhaul the whole disciplinary system, starting with a two-day seminar this week, but it is a long process and change cannot be brought about until the FA's annual meeting next summer. In particular, the speed with which cases are heard desperately needs improvement.

And "is it always like this" for Eriksson? Pretty much: tired and injured players at a World Cup; media intrusion into his private life; disputes with leading club managers about friendly matches and international get-togethers; threats of expulsion from Euro 2004; criticism over links with Chelsea; and, most recently, having Rio Ferdinand and Smith withdrawn from already depleted squads by his employers, who would also have banned Nicky Butt and James Beattie had they realised then what they know now. Vastly well paid or not, it is hardly a quiet life, which is the sort of life that the naturally conservative and uncontroversial Swede prefers. Club football must look increasingly attractive.

The eve of an international was hardly the time to admit as much, and Eriksson said: "It will not affect my future." His frustration and bewilderment were apparent, though, as he insisted of the latest controversy: "It's the second time it's happened and it's bad for football. My opinion is that a football player should be able to play until he's charged. That's what happens in other countries. I've been in Sweden, Portugal and Italy and I never came across this before. I don't agree with the sytem because I don't understand it."

Palios said of the latest UXB: "I would accept that this is not helpful in terms of his relationship with the FA. Sven would have preferred not to send Alan Smith home. And he would have preferred to include Rio. He's clearly frustrated, as we all are, with the interference with trying to play the game, but there's been no suggestion he'd want to walk away. It was frustration, not anger; he's not an angry man.

"My conversations with him have been very professional, he understands our position even if he doesn't necessarily agree with it. And from a professional perspective, you don't get a much better chance than he has at this point of his career, with a maturing squad in two major competitions. He's an experienced coach, and knows that from time to time there will be conflict. It still doesn't take you away from the fact that what he wants to concentrate on is the football."

One of the benefits of having a former professional footballer as chief executive is that he appreciates the most important relationship is the one between the coach and players. That is why leading FA officials were so relaxed about Eriksson lending his name to the players' cause when the Ferdinand case blew up, and will remain so now that all the coaching staff have united behind the squad in putting out their official statement yesterday.

The Swede later cited the case of Nicky Butt, as much as Smith and Ferdinand, in questioning current policy. Butt would have been banned from the critical Turkey game had anyone at the FA realised he had been arrested, but in the event he was found not guilty of an alleged assault. David Beckham, defending his friend and former club-mate, said: "Our point is that you're innocent until proven guilty. The relationship with the FA is not good at the moment and we've got to have a meeting now to hear why these decisions are being made. I'm not going to pick Mark Palios out, but the whole system is wrong."

Palios is prepared to play Mr Nasty when there is a tough decision to be made, while claiming that he has not embarked on some kind of moral rearmament campaign to whiten football's current grubby image: "In terms of wanting to get tough, I don't think I've ever said that anywhere. I'm not necessarily on a crusade to clean up the game, I'm in a job to make sure we do the best we can in the best interests of the game and improve it. The intention is to make the right decisions. If we have to make decisions that are unpopular, we'd still make them. It's not an ego trip with me, I don't find it pleasant at all when people have suggested that." He is already being called worse, "clueless" being the favoured adjective in yesterday's popular prints.

The former Tranmere midfielder has inherited an organisation strong on mission statements, less so on fundamental points of principle, information and commun- ication. That would be bad enough even without outside bodies, from the World Anti-Doping Agency to the Government and the police, exerting unwanted influence. (Was it really necessary for Smith to be arrested - a word that spawns dramatic headlines and drastic action - for an alleged offence about which nobody, including the supposed victim, has actually complained?)

"No, I didn't expect it to be as bad as this, but I've taken the job and I have to learn to live with it," Adam Crozier's successor admitted yesterday. And Eriksson? Ditto, except that the coach will eventually feel that he can happily live without it.