Game's new guardians face tough challenge

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The Independent Football

The stakes have been raised for the Football Task Force as it nears completion of its final report into commercialism in the game. Following a Task Force meeting, its chairman David Mellor said yesterday that "a great deal of progress" had been made in discussing the form of the final document.

The stakes have been raised for the Football Task Force as it nears completion of its final report into commercialism in the game. Following a Task Force meeting, its chairman David Mellor said yesterday that "a great deal of progress" had been made in discussing the form of the final document.

They will meet again on 10 December to try to produce an agreed report which "will cover complex commercial issues," said Mellor. "Proper consideration and consultation about them takes time. The interests of reaching agreement are best served by providing that time."

The significance of the Task Force has been heightened by the Football Association's recent restructuring, voted through earlier this month by the FA Council, and by last week's appointment of the FA chief executive, Adam Crozier, formerly the joint chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi. Presented by the FA as revolutionary and modern, preparing the FA to play a central role in football's commercial age, critics argue that the changes make the FA too subservient to the Premier League's interests, and point to the glaring absence of any regulatory function, which, governing in the interests of the whole game, has been the FA's historic role.

The restructuring's main change is to form a "Main Board", comprising six representatives from the professional game and six from the Conference and below, known as the National Game. Crozier and the FA chairman Geoff Thompson will sit, but not vote, on this board, which will be responsible solely for commercial operations.

The National Game - semi-professional, amateur, youth and women - will have its own board, whose staffing is yet to be decided, although a seat is guaranteed for the English Schools Football Association. This will be welcomed by the association's long-suffering chief executive, Malcolm Berry, who has fought a determined battle for over a decade against schools football's inexorable decline. For the first time, dedicated funds will be available, mostly comprising five per cent of the the Premier League's next 2001 TV deal, to address the neglect of football's grass-roots playing facilities.

The FA executive director David Davies heralds the restructuring as a new dawn. "We are looking to create a new type of sports governing body for the 21st century," he said. "As well as running football, we will also use the popularity of the game as a power for good in wider society."

The FA, says Davies, will look to balance the game's diverse interests, to maximise revenue from TV sponsorship and merchandising - likely to be Crozier's main role - but also to fund grass-roots initiatives and programmes in anti-racism, drug awareness and women's football. Davies added that the FA is sensitive to the criticism that traditional fans are being alienated from modern football, and revealed that the FA is looking to fund a supporter organisation to represent fans' interests.

Davies performs his job, of representing the FA's changes to the media well and convincingly, but the substance of the restructuring has actually been done by two lesser-known FA executives. The company secretary Nic Coward, 32, a solicitor, and the finance director Michael Cunnah, 41, formerly corporate finance director of Coca Cola-Schweppes, have worked on the plan, together with the Premier League chairman Dave Richards, and Frank Pattison, the chairman of Durham County FA, representing the National Game. Beneath the rhetoric, the restructuring is in reality concerned mostly with streamlining the practicalities of deciding commercial strategy, by-passing the unwieldy 92-man council and myriad committees. The introduction of a formal structure for the National Game, with funding, was the key to persuading councillors to vote their own power away.

Welcome as these changes are, the restructuring looks to be weighted very heavily in favour of commercialism, with a main board likely to be dominated by Premier League chairmen. There is no sign of a role, central for any governing body, of regulating commercialism, and the conduct of clubs, to protect the game as a whole. As long ago as 1898, at the very beginning of football's commercialisation, the FA recognised the necessity for such regulation, imposing restrictions on the salary and dividend which could be earned from owning shares in football clubs, seeking to protect them as sporting clubs rather than see them exploited purely for profit.

In recent years, though, it has relinquished this responsibility. Clubs have been allowed to form holding companies when floating on the Stock Exchange, specifically to bypass the FA's rules, which survived into the modern era as Rule 34. In May last year, with little fuss and no publicity, the FA finally removed these restrictions altogether, a move inspired by Coward.

The FA's backing of the 1992 Premier League breakaway, contrary to its whole history and tradition, has resulted in the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the top clubs, leaving the FA floundering for a role. The Task Force was set up in 1997 partly to address problems burgeoning in self-regulation's absence, identifying ticketing and merchandising practices as key areas of concern, along with the supporter-shareholder conflict where clubs have floated, and looking to encourage supporters to be involved in the running of clubs.

David Davies does not discuss the subject of regulation at all, which has been solely Coward's responsibility. Sources close to Coward, however, say the FA has no plans to introduce any regulation with teeth to deal with such matters, which it admits are genuine problems, because of the difficulty of applying uniform rules. Instead the FA, freshly streamlined to concentrate on its own commercialism, with an ad-man as chief executive, is to concentrate on "promoting best practice" among its member clubs. There are unlikely to be any sanctions imposed on those reluctant to follow their lead.

This void, insitutionalised now by the FA's restructuring, has increased the significance of the Task Force's deliberations. It is to be hoped that the discussions, resuming in December,will finally produce a concrete reform for football, which will fill the yawning gap left by the absence of self-regulation in the game's historic governing body.