Government may act if FA rejects reforms

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The Independent Football

The Football Association celebrated its 143rd birthday yesterday but it is the future - and a choice between progress or corrosive stagnation - that will be the only item on the agenda today as the FA Council votes whether to adopt Lord Burns' reform programme.

A simple majority of the "blazers" on the 91-man council will need to vote in favour to trigger wide-ranging changes in the way the FA is structured but the outcome was "too close to call" last night.

Those in support of change - including the FA's chief executive, Brian Barwick, its chairman, Geoff Thompson, the Premier League, the Football League and the Government - fear for the future of the FA if the councillors elect for the status quo.

In a worst-case scenario, the Government might threaten to withdraw all funding to grass-roots football, and even attempt to impose independent regulation. This would fall foul of Fifa and Uefa, football's world and European governing bodies, who retain the extreme sanction of excluding England from the international football family if state authorities, rather than a football body, are running the game in England.

Nobody expects that to happen, not in the near future, but the shadow of the possibility hangs over today's vote and emphasises its importance. When Lord Burns delivered his report in August last year - a report prompted by the Faria Alam debacle that led to the resignation of Barwick's predecessor, Mark Palios - he suggested a raft of proposals for reform, including a revamp of the FA Board, the FA Council and disciplinary procedures.

But the single most important change, as Lord Burns and many in football see it, is the appointment of an independent FA chairman with voting powers on the Board, and hence genuine influence. This appointee, ideally an executive from a business background, would replace Thompson when he steps down in 2008.

A sizeable body of councillors oppose this measure, for various reasons. They see it as gifting an outsider with a prestigious job that should go to one of them. They fear that this independent chairman, steeped in the business world, might affiliate himself more with the already rich and influential clubs, such as those in the Premiership, than the minnows who make up the vast majority around the country.

Senior officials within the FA, the Premier League and Football League argue that these fears are unfounded, and that the National Game - the collective of the non-professional game - would have input over the appointment. "They don't seem to see they would be getting a credible, genuinely independent leader who would be working for them as much as anyone," said one pro-Burns official.

As has become sadly typical of the machinations of the FA, there is not even agreement ahead of today's meeting how the voting procedure will work. Anti-Burns councillors want separate votes on each of Burns' many proposals. There will probably even be a preliminary vote on whether separate votes will be held. Confusing, stilted and self-defeating? Perhaps, but that is why Burns was set to his task in the first place. Barwick is in an unfortunate position, being accountable while not actually having responsibility in terms of any voting power at the FA, as things stand. His efforts to secure a "yes" will continue until voting time.

In an article yesterday about its birthday, the FA concluded that its founders, "with courage and inspiration, had fashioned order out of chaos". It is a hope, albeit a forlorn one, that might happen today.

Items on Lord Burns' agenda

* Appointment of a powerful, independent chairman with voting powers; and a vote on the Board for the FA chief executive.

* Creation of new Board, to include independent non-executive directors, to take full responsibility for the running of The FA.

* Expansion of the FA Council into a "Parliament of football" of up to 110 members, to represent the whole of football, including supporters, players, managers, coaches and referees.

* Creation of a new semi-autonomous Regulation and Compliance Unit, to carry out the enforcement functions of the FA.

* Establishment of two new subsidiaries: the Community Football Alliance to provide leadership of the National Game, and the Professional Football Alliance.