Graham Kelly: The bruiser who spoke up softly for the smaller clubs

It was his quick wit as much as his legendary abrasiveness that intimidated the gentlemen from the shires
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The Independent Online

It was no contest really, but for a few days, before the stomach-churning Leicester City headlines, it appeared as if last week would be a Blatterfest, as the ubiquitous Fifa president breezed through London for audiences with Her Majesty the Queen and the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in the centenary year of the world governing body.

But although Sepp Blatter thankfully rang up a victory of sorts over a somewhat churlish Football Association chief executive, Mark Palios, by persuading the International Board to limit the ridiculous procession of substitutes in international friendly matches to six, it turned comprehensively into Ken Bates's last supper (as chairman of Chelsea at least).

Blatter is threatening that Fifa, football's world governing body, will pass a resolution compelling national associations to restrict clubs to a maximum of 45 matches per season. It's safe to assume that, if Bates retains his seat on the FA Council by accepting one of the invitations he has received to join the board of another Premier League club, he will fight long and loud against this move on behalf of clubs outside the élite few.

The old bruiser has generally been against reductions in the amount of football and led the move to restore the old First Division from 20 to 22 clubs in order to help pay for the Taylor Report improvements. The fact that England were relatively successful at the World Cup in Italy in 1990 after the players had played fewer matches gave added stimulus to the idea of the Premier League.

As Bates himself pointed out, such was his combative style, in the columns of newsprint that his words attracted, he invariably "blasted" or "stormed", but in person he was quietly spoken, deliberately so, in order that others would be compelled to strain to hear what he had to say. Often, it was his quick wit as much as his legendary abrasiveness that intimidated the gentlemen from the shires and made him to the Premier League such a valued member of the FA Council, where he always advocated charging top dollar at Wembley.

He had long been scornful of Uefa, the European governing body, and all its doings, but when Chelsea won the Cup Winners-Cup in 1998 there was no more pleased club chairman on this planet than Bates to be sitting at the official pre-match luncheon revelling in the occasion and dreaming of triumphs to come.

That dream hasn't lasted as long as he hoped, but he is moving on wiser and wealthier than when he was rebuffed by the bull-faced Methodist Bob Lord, when he tried to buy shares in Burnley in the 1960s. He resented the tyrant that Lord had become, and was probably perceived by Lord as he eventually perceived Matthew Harding at Chelsea.

Whether he cared that Harding established a closer relationship with Glenn Hoddle than he did is doubtful, but he was certainly to the forefront of those making life uncomfortable for his former manager when Hoddle's England tenure ran into difficulties.

Bates was definitely a man in a hurry, never one to suffer fools, particularly those on committees, gladly. He railed at the FA's excess on the international scene, and when the figures were presented for inspection he couldn't be bothered to stick around to discuss them.

Nothing tickled him more than when the commercial working party of the newly established Premier League liquidated itself - this at the time of his wonderful "I'm off to my pigsty, you meet a better class of person" remark - and his Arsenal adversary, David Dein, found himself out of a job. For Bates believed that in such matters the best policy was to make the right appointments and let people get on with their jobs.

The regionalised system of the Football League management committee was very weak and when it changed to divisions in 1986, Bates swept in to represent the First Division, along with Dein, Ian Stott of Oldham and Philip Carter of Everton. Apart from a season away from the top table because of relegation, he has been a fixture ever since.

We enjoyed a very pleasant lunch shortly after I joined the FA at a place called Bibendum, near Stamford Bridge. He fulminated against the iniquities of the disciplinary system which ruled Chelsea in breach of crowd control procedures following trouble at the play-off against Middlesbrough; for my part, I outlined ideas about how the monolithic 125-year-old governing body might be injected with a new dynamism at the heart of its ruling council.

The man who cries when a beloved dog dies and turns up at humble clubs where the critics who can't fathom his motives wouldn't be seen in a million years didn't demur, but it took more time than I possessed to reform the FA council and still the job isn't fully accomplished, according to recent official reports.

grahamkelly@btinternet.com

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