Graham Kelly: Football must put its house in order or risk legislation

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The Independent Football

This column appears to have caused some rustling in the dovecotes last week, judging by the reaction of the Football Association and Luton Town. Moreover, Ken Bates's sale of Chelsea to a Russian billionaire then provided the perfect illustration of why I had raised concerns about the stewardship of football.

To the FA first. Director of marketing and communications Paul Barber e-mailed me to say that, contrary to my strictures, a member of the FA's financial advisory unit had been heavily involved, alongside the Football League, in seeking to obtain answers from Luton. I apologised and pleaded for some additional information before I put myself in the public stocks. Apparently, the FA compliance unit is being strengthened rather than weakened as had been earlier reported. The effectiveness of the football authorities' intervention over the change of ownership at Kenilworth Road will only become apparent in the fullness of time, but it remains a worrying period for the supporters.

These events put me in mind of the origins of the FA's compliance unit, particularly having regard to the comments last week of the former head of the Football Task Force, David Mellor, who expressed the hope that the new Chelsea owner's money was clean.

Following the original corruption (bung) allegations after the establishment of the Premier League, the chief officers of the FA, the Premier League, the Football League and the Professional Footballers' Association agreed upon the outline of an advisory and compliance unit to regulate the finances of professional football.

Lawyers were consulted and the necessary legal framework drawn up. The membership committee of the FA was happy because the proposed early warning system would prevent smaller clubs sinking into the deepest mire. The only question that remained was: "Could the game afford it?" A more relevant question, it seemed to the PFA's Gordon Taylor and me, might have been whether football could afford to ignore the issue. Keith Wiseman, however, was the Premier League's representative on the FA executive committee at the time and he, like the good lawyer he was, succeeded in talking the proposal out, on the grounds that the clubs were sufficiently regulated already and by playing on fears of an expensive bureaucracy of accountants and solicitors.

As Taylor and the former Minister for Sport, Tony Banks, have said in respect of the Chelsea sale, there is a strong case for a public interest test to be applied to prospective owners of clubs. What are their plans? What is the source of their finance?

Which brings me to the second person I apparently upset last week: John Gurney, the managing director of Luton. I was asked whether I would consider acting as independent mediator in an effort to secure agreement between Trust in Luton (the supporters' trust) and Gurney. "Sure," I replied, and dashed off to the Centre for Dispute Resolution in East London to brush up on my knowledge of arbitration procedures. However, when I arrived back at my office I was mortified to learn that Gurney did not regard me as an acceptable independent broker.

The Government remains hopeful that the FA and football will prove capable of regulating itself in financial matters. But I have to say that I am not optimistic. Adam Crozier talked the talk, but when he came up against Bates and his ilk in the Premier League, he was forced to walk away.

The Premier League chairmen must understand that there has to be independent financial scrutiny. If a transparent formula cannot be established within the FA, which would be preferable, then there must be legislation.

I never thought I would say that when I was taking Mellor's barbs on 6-0-6, but I have listened to the excuses for so long now. I have fielded flak personally on behalf of an imperfect system, while owners have come and gone making fortunes out of loyal fans, who have never been able to understand how limited the FA's powers are. The FA is, in fact, the clubs, which constitute the membership of the governing body. The chairmen of those clubs are never going to vote for rules which could seriously restrict their freedom to trade, be it in shares or in transfers via foreign agents.

It would be unthinkable for the banking industry to be unregulated. But football, in which fans invest their lifetimes' hopes and dreams, is still subject to the whims of transients and speculators.

grahamkelly@btinternet.com

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