Goodbye to ghosts after the Gate is bolted

Football's guardians are leaving their famous home after 71 years
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The Independent Online

Soon we are to lose Wembley's Twin Towers. The Baseball Ground, Roker Park, Ayresome Park and Burnden Park are no more. Highbury will be high and dry. The Football League have given up Lytham for an address more suitable for B & Q (Unit 5, Navigation Way, Preston). At least we still have Lancaster Gate, the Football Association's genteel west London headquarters. But not for long.

Soon we are to lose Wembley's Twin Towers. The Baseball Ground, Roker Park, Ayresome Park and Burnden Park are no more. Highbury will be high and dry. The Football League have given up Lytham for an address more suitable for B & Q (Unit 5, Navigation Way, Preston). At least we still have Lancaster Gate, the Football Association's genteel west London headquarters. But not for long.

The trophies will soon be packed, the books and minutes of council meetings going back to 1863 taken off the library shelves and, at the end of next month, one of the most famous doors in London at 16 Lancaster Gate will finally close. The FA are moving to "more suitable premises" at an address more in keeping with what they hope will be an up-to-date, not to say worldly, image - 25 Soho Square.

Because the FA have always tended to have more bad-press days than good, a makeover may not be such a bad idea. The new chief executive, Adam Crozier, has scythed his way through every department, cutting down what he sees as dead wood. Sentiment is not overflowing. Only three members of the present staff were with the organisation 28 years ago when they last moved from down the road at No 22. Admittedly, the FA have grown too big for the building. Yet having lost so many of their traditions (most regrettably allowing television to demand the end of the Monday lunchtime FA Cup draw which used to be whispered to radio listeners from the Centenary Room), you might have thought that at least Lancaster Gate would be incorporated in the new address. Or perhaps that would merely transport too many ghosts of cantankerous old men in grey suits.

From 1910 until 1929, headquarters was the allegedly haunted 42 Russell Square, which was leased from the British Museum. The FA then took over 22 Lancaster Gate, which was previously the Eden Court Hotel. By the time of the move to the present address, disciplinary matters occupied an increasing amount of hours so it was appropriate that the previous occupiers were the Association of British Launderers and Cleaners.

Curiously, although reports of disciplinary hearings often give the impression that they are held at Lancaster Gate, Vinnie Jones has not signed the visitors' book more often than anyone else. The hearings are almost always held in a hotel down the road; the idea being that too many people know the Lancaster Gate address, and spectators are not welcome.

It was at No 22 that the FA's greatest statesman, Sir Stanley Rous, became the most powerful man in world football and finally made the domestic organisation stop looking inwards. In his autobiography, Sir Stanley recalled that Lancaster Gate was "in many ways a quiet backwater when I arrived on 4 August 1934, to start my work... There was no problem parking my Hillman Minx as there was rarely another car in the road." There was a staff of five and disciplinary cases were "very rare, not more than five or six a year neededpersonal hearings".

The running of the game internationally has fallen from Sir Stanley's high standards while at home it has become so commercially minded that if he could walk into Lancaster Gate today he would not even recognise some of the departmental titles: Technical, Marketing, Services, Finance, IT. There is even an FA website which since last February has had over two million hits.

The need to move to larger premises was emphasised when the Premier League was born and had to share accommodation. Even now, with the Premier League people removed to Connaught Place, the FA have to find room for 135 employees. Some are in offices across the road and in a nearby mews while another group, concerned with coaching, work in Potters Bar.

David Barber, the librarian, one of the longest-serving employees, says that of all the famous administrators and managers who have worked at Lancaster Gate, the one whose company he most enjoyed was Sir Alf Ramsey, not best known for striking up warm relationships. Sir Alf would travel from his home in Ipswich by train. He would make his way across London by tube. And he always insisted on mid-morning tea rather than trendy coffee.

You can take your pick from hundreds of historic, significant or simply absurd occasions held at Lancaster Gate. Perhaps the most awkward one for many members of the International Committee came in 1977 when Brian Clough was invited to attend an interview before the appointment of a successor to Don Revie.

He had always disliked the then FA chairman, Professor Sir Harold Thompson ("stroppy, know-all bugger"), whom he had criticised for "getting rid" of Ramsey when England failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup. Much of the interview was taken up with Clough reprimanding the FA for allowing England to play in shirts he described as "horrible, garish red, white and blue - cheap and nasty". Since it was the FA's secretary, Ted Croker, who had struck the deal with a kit company it was hardly a diplomatic line of debate.

Even so, Clough met his friend and colleague Peter Taylor outside and told him he had "pissed" the interview. "Can't miss". He got one vote and later called the whole interview a "sham... cut and dried for Ron Greenwood". Most football fans condemned the decision. Lancaster Gate thought Clough did not have "the right kind of experience".

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