Graham Kelly: Warning to Palios: never underestimate the old guard

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The Independent Football

Mark Palios comes to the Football Association chief executive's position after a bewildering hiatus since Adam Crozier's dramatic resignation last October. The media sleuths were itching to discover the other name on the FA's shortlist, but as soon as it was publicised that the Mars Organisation man, Peter Littlewood, was the preferred candidate, he withdrew his name, leaving the FA chairman, Geoff Thompson, with egg on his face again.

Fortunately for Thompson – if Palios is indeed the safe pair of financial hands he is reputed to be – the former Tranmere Rovers midfielder accepted the terms offered and he commences his daunting new job on 1 July.

What is so depressing about all the column inches devoted to the transition is that one begins to wonder whether anyone asked these business high-fliers and marketers what their true feelings are about modern football? Palios was a tough-tackling player who enjoyed his professional career before trainees were required to learn the laws of the game. So would this mean, for example, that he would be more likely to sympathise with the current trend of pundits who never see validity in a red card because there is "no malice" in a challenge? Do you imagine such questions ever arise in the executive dining rooms of the City headhunting firms when they are searching for a chief executive of the FA? I doubt it.

Actually, I know they do not, because, when I was privileged to be appointed – it seems a lifetime ago – the firm concerned did not have a clue, nor should it, because the prime responsibility is down to the client, in this case the FA. With its recent dithering between the two candidates, the FA has clearly found difficulty in sticking to its brief, just as it did in my case.

In 1988, as now, it was unclear as to what it wanted. Originally, it was advised that it wanted a businessman to follow Ted Croker. I convinced the committee, when I eventually succeeded in outflanking the headhunters, that it could find no better football-loving administrator.

Unfortunately, I was never able to develop a close personal relationship with the long-serving chairman, Sir Bert Millichip. Though I respected him for his integrity, I felt he would have preferred someone else and I was prey to the undercurrents which were always prevalent at Lancaster Gate. Ironically, when a new chairman came in, Southampton's Keith Wiseman, he was prepared to go out on a limb and support me. He did. And we were both ousted. The old guard would not be under-estimated.

Funny thing was, most of them acted subsequently as if nothing whatsoever had happened whenever our paths crossed. Thompson himself, who, as interim chairman, had walked into my second-floor office early one morning just before Christmas 1998 to inform me of the executive committee's decision that the Football Association would function more smoothly and cleanly without Wiseman and me, invited me to have lunch with him as soon as his four-year appointment was confirmed. He got his mandate, but as for my lunch...

With the unveiling, by virtual reality, of the new Wembley seating last week, much comment linked Palios's imperative to bring to fruition the grandest dream of his immediate predecessor. If that is indeed the priority, the biggest immediate problem facing the new man, and one associated with the new stadium, is the renewal of the television agreements, which are due to expire at the end of next season. The battle lines have already been drawn and he will walk straight into the fray.

The current deals are at the high end of the market and next time the rights fees will probably come in lower in the absence of any added value by the rights holders. In advance of the negotiations proper, the FA has issued tender documents which indicate that its "properties", the FA Cup and England matches, may be shown exclusively live on satellite. In other words, there is no commitment to free-to-air terrestrial partners. It is an invitation to Sky to bid for home England matches and FA Cup ties.

However, Sky, which has already signed a joint contract with ITV to cover European Champions' League matches from 2004, is awaiting the outcome of the Premier League's current discussions with the European Commission before it makes any move on the domestic front.

Sky is in a superb position. Despite an increase in prices this year, the company shows no sign of a downturn in business and can afford to be selective when it comes to negotiating with football. Palios will discover, if the FA does sell its matches "live and exclusive" on satellite to boost its flagging finances, that he will quickly have to add some sharp public-relations skills to his portfolio.

grahamkelly@btinternet.com

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