Fans hit former minister's sporting ambitions

Wanted: a chairman for the Independent Football Commission. Pay: £15,000 for just four days a month. Jack Cunningham need not apply.
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The Independent Online

In a rare display of unity, fans and the footballing authorities have blocked the appointment of Jack Cunningham, the former cabinet "enforcer", as head of the Government's new football watchdog.

In a rare display of unity, fans and the footballing authorities have blocked the appointment of Jack Cunningham, the former cabinet "enforcer", as head of the Government's new football watchdog.

Mr Cunningham had seemed certain to be made chairman of the Independent Football Commission after Downing Street promoted his name for the job in the summer.

He even managed to take charge of a secret preliminary meeting of the group - which ended with complaints about his overbearing behaviour and demands that he be removed.

In many ways Mr Cunningham, 61, seemed perfect for the job: a former politician and a keen Newcastle fan. Yet the very mention of his name nearly wrecked the plan to give football fans a voice, particularly on issues such as ticket prices and the high cost of replica kit.

The prospect of "Junket Jack", famous for his love of foreign trips, being appointed led to an extraordinary campaign of protest from the blazer brigade as well as from supporters, a rare about-turn for Mr Blair and humiliation for Mr Cunningham, who had already been relieved of his posts in the Department of Agriculture and in the Cabinet Office.

On Friday, the Government was forced to scrap months of planning and announce that all the posts will be advertised. Mr Cunningham will no longer be considered for the job, a source at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport confirmed.

His appointment had been attacked as a cosy stitch-up for one of "Tony's cronies" ever since the job was suggested. The FA was opposed to such a political appointment as was the Premiership.

A coalition of football supporters' organisations wrote to Mr Blair, describing the commission as "a weak and biased establishment lapdog" that had come about through "seedy horse-trading". The letter said that Mr Cunningham "simply does not have the confidence of football supporters".

But the final nail in his coffin came at the initial get together of the Football Commission when fellow panel members, including the football academic Rogan Taylor, and the black Conservative peer Lord Taylor of Warwick, staged a revolt against their putative chairman. The other members were Kate Barker, the CBI chief economist and Sir John Smith, the widely respected former senior policeman who produced a 1997 report into corruption in the game for the FA. A fifth panellist, the former ITV football commentator Brian Moore, was on holiday.

Such is the chaos that this initial panel has now been disbanded and its members told they must reapply for the posts.

One panellist, who was present at the meeting but did not wish to be named, said: "The Government has reverted to following the supporters' advice that this should be done under clear and open rules rather than through horse-trading."

It is said Mr Cunningham is a richer man now than when he was a minister, drawing around £90,000 in consultancy fees. The Football Commission's £15,000, plus expenses, is money he will have to do without.

He will, no doubt be able to hide his disappointment, however, as Mr Blair has just put him in charge of yet another panel, overseeing the expansion in lottery funding for top athletes. The pay has not yet been disclosed.

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