The Football Association have taken a stand for David against Goliath by putting aside their concerns over England's next European Championship qualifying match being staged at a tiny stadium in Liechtenstein. In the same vein, they are also prepared to bring in new regulations preventing small clubs making a fast buck by surrendering home advantage in the FA Cup.
Senior officials regret that Farnborough Town's fourth-round tie against Arsenal yesterday had to be switched to Highbury. While emphasising that safety considerations are paramount, they want home clubs and their local emergency services to make every effort to stage games at the original venue.
There is particular concern that, in Farnborough's case, the Conference club had made up their mind about switching even before a meeting with the relevant authorities took place to discuss it. Farnborough's chairman, Graham Westley, has admitted doing so after taking a telephone call the night before the meeting from Arsenal's managing director, Keith Edelman. "Arsenal put it very nicely," Westley said. "They said, 'We have 38,000 fans, are your stands up to it? Is there the potential for mass disaster on the day and can you give us assurances that there won't be?' There was only one decision to make."
That decision was duly confirmed the next day, ensuring that the non-League club would effectively double the £300,000 to be made from playing the match at their Cherrywood Road ground. They were entitled to have requested a neutral ground, but would have made less money.
"You want the game on at the smaller club," said David Davies, who with Nic Coward is acting chief executive of the FA until Adam Crozier's successor is appointed. "That's what this competition is all about. We want to make that happen." Coward, a Shrewsbury Town supporter who took Davies to Gay Meadow for the famous third-round victory over Everton, added: "It's our priority to make sure that continues. This decision at Farnborough is the exception, not the rule. We want to understand how that came about, so we can make sure the magic of the Cup is kept going."
Discussions are being held with Ken Bates, the chairman of the FA Cup Committee, to that end, and new regulations are being threatened if necessary; what they might be has not been specified.
The Euro 2004 tie in Liechtenstein on 29 March will take place at a ground 25 per cent smaller than Farnborough's, with a capacity of barely 3,600. "We had concerns and discussed them with Uefa," Davies said. "But Spain and Portugal have played there in the recent past without incident. We are part of European football, members of Uefa, and if the advice we're getting is that there's no reason why the game should not go ahead, we take the advice and we're happy to play in what will be the biggest match ever played in Liechtenstein." England have been allocated 900 tickets, to be distributed through their members' club, and the appeal – as ever – is for those without tickets not to travel.
Gate receipts will hardly be sufficient to swell the FA's coffers as they seek a reduction of one-fifth in operating expenses, and they are determined not to give up playing lucrative friendlies, despite Sven Goran Eriksson's agreement to hold occasional get-togethers – like last November's – instead of playing matches. Leading Premiership clubs wanted a reduction in the number of internationals and are still pressing for compensation when their players are called up.
Discussions are likely to continue for some time on that issue and will not be resolved before the friendly against Australia at Upton Park on 12 February, which is already sold out. England play in South Africa on 22 May and will be at home, probably to Yugoslavia, on 4 June, a week before the European Championship game against Slovakia.
Meanwhile, Davies and Coward find themselves with much to do before a new chief executive is appointed. Neither will be applying for the position, which has only been advertised today. In the interim, new initiatives include a Financial Advisory Committee under Sir Roland Smith, which will at last include a "fit and proper person test" designed to stop con-men and fraudsters gaining control of clubs for their own ends. Few people will share Coward's faith that football is "an industry that self-regulates well" and Davies has already admitted that introducing the fit and proper person test could be a legal minefield.
Other declared aims include recruiting Howard Wilkinson's successor as the FA's technical director, speeding up disciplinary procedures and attracting more coaches from ethnic minorities.