James Lawton: How can football's men in suits best serve the game? By staying out of the limelight
Saturday 27 March 2010
This was the football week dominated by the men who never kicked a ball professionally and did not even manage a pub team but who presume to shape the future of the national sport. Wouldn't it be wonderful if they re-entered the woodwork?
Such a fate is self-elected in the case of former Football Association chief executive Ian Watmore – and for this reason, among others, is less worthy of celebration than if his decision to resign office had been taken by some of the other non-combatants who are regularly given attention utterly out of proportion to their achievements.
Watmore left overwrought to a point which suggested he was ill-suited to the infighting and bitchery which is so commonplace in the football corridors, and the catalyst of his decision, a leaked email, was bewilderingly trivial.
But at least he did seem, like his less than universally admired superior at the FA, Lord Triesman, to have been fighting on the right side of the trenches.
Both men pitted themselves against the corrosive travesty of having the Premier League so powerful in the affairs of an FA that is supposed to function on behalf of the whole game and not just a bloated, economically illiterate section of it.
The grass roots of football, we are told, have to be nurtured by an organisation motivated by care for more than power and profit, a notional idea that has become quite risible with the rise in influence of a Premier League whose current portfolio includes an ever-burgeoning debt load, the abandonment of Portsmouth, mass fan protests at Manchester United and the forlorn sight of Liverpool, historically England's most successful club, scrabbling around the world for new and viable ownership.
These are credentials as dubious as those owned by the Premier League's chairman and member of the FA board, Sir Dave Richards. Back in his hometown of Sheffield, some have still to recover from the shock of his knighthood for services to sport.
They are mostly supporters of Sheffield Wednesday, who were left in the middle of a vertiginous dive down the divisions when his spell as chairman came to a close. Nor was his record as a private businessman too inspiring, his engineering firm going into administration with more than £1m debts at a time when he was enjoying a Premier League salary of £177,000.
Yet Richards remains a big man in football administration, even after his resignation from the bidding committee for the 2018 World Cup. He is the Premier League's frontman and a powerful voice in the FA.
Meanwhile Garry Cook, chief executive of Manchester City, remains ensconced in a forest of headlines, the latest concerning allegations that he involved himself in a "verbal altercation" with a wealthy supporter of Everton in the directors' box during City's home defeat by the Merseyside team.
Cook was fiercely defended by club officials yesterday but their difficulty was that the former star of sports-shirt salesmanship has some very worrying antecedents indeed.
He has, after all, variously claimed that City, sloshing around in their oil money, will be (without doubt) the biggest and best club in the world, that Silvio Berlusconi, the man who had the nerve to rewrite the Italian constitution according to his own needs, had lost his "bottle" when City tried to sign Kaka, and that it was a formality Manchester United would be beaten on the way to this season's Carling Cup final.
None of that, however, came within a hard day's camel ride of his assessment of former City owner Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister of Thailand who passed the Premier League's fit and proper persons test half a stride ahead of the protests of various human rights organisations. "Whether he was guilty of something over in Thailand, I can't worry too much about. Morally, I feel comfortable in this environment."
After such a statement, it was obviously no challenge at all for him to emerge unabashed from the criticism that came when he explained that Richard Dunne, who had just been voted the fans' player of the year, was so disposable because he had nothing to offer the club's global sales strategy in places like Beijing.
If Dunne felt sore before going off to achieve brilliant vindication under Martin O'Neill at Aston Villa, we can only imagine the feelings of Gianfranco Zola when his West Ham chairman David Sullivan insisted on addressing a meeting the manager had called with his players. Zola, no doubt filled with anguish following the potentially disastrous defeat by relegation rivals Wolves, managed to fend off this ultimate humiliation but he cannot have been under any illusion that he was probably writing his own death sentence.
Sullivan says that it hurts to be both an owner and a fan, the latter status new to him after his years at Birmingham City. It may also be true that his suspicion that Zola, a player of beautiful talent and competitive nature, is not cut out for management, is, sadly, correct. But in the meantime Sullivan displays a crass ignorance of the basic challenge facing any manager. It is to win the respect if not the affection of the players.
Sullivan, whose vocation in the porn trade brought huge profit, compounded the insult to a professional once described by Sir Alex Ferguson as "the most honest player I have ever seen" by publishing on the club's website: "I am writing this on Wednesday morning. I had no sleep last night, after watching the shambolic performance by the team."
There it is, the most heroic image of another week in the life of English football; a sleepless chairman tapping away at a computer in the oak-panelled office in his mansion as the first pale sunlight plays through the leaves of Epping Forest.
What could be more inspiring? Maybe a short walk into the woodwork rather than the trees.
Bellamy could be next to face fiery side of Mancini
One authentic football man who did steal a few column inches was Roberto Mancini, enraged by what he perceived to be time-wasting by Everton's David Moyes.
This may have been reckless behaviour by the Manchester City manager, the Glaswegian Moyes not exactly being most people's idea of a pushover. However, if his judgement was in question, his nerve wasn't. He once, it turns out, went nose to nose with Fabio Capello when Il Capo was coach at Roma.
Who's next? It could be Craig Bellamy, alleged to have taken the side of Moyes rather than his own manager in the tunnel after the match. If it happens, no one can accuse Mancini of unchallenging preparation.
Alonso's challenge risks TV turn-off
Fernando Alonso's reaction to the cool reception to the opening of the Formula One season in Bahrain, which the Ferrari driver won in circumstances that might have brought on a coma in the Lord's Long Room, is worryingly complacent going into the second race in Melbourne.
He declared, "To those people who want extra, I say either wait or else consider watching something other than F1."
Alonso also said that everyone needs to be calm. This, he might reflect, may not be the hardest of challenges in the small hours of tomorrow morning, when the people who ultimately pay his wages have to decide whether it is quite worth getting out of bed.
Poulter could dress up Tiger's return
Ian Poulter, he who once said that in the battle for long-term supremacy it was an issue between just him and the Tiger, declares that he is sick of all the speculation about the latter's return to golf in Augusta next month. "I just hate all the chit-chat," he says. "I'm bored of it."
One possible remedy could be for Poulter to delve into his wardrobe and come up with something really spectacular, maybe a fluorescent shirt and multi-coloured trousers. It could work as a distraction.
But then it may also be true that a Ludgate bottle-washer wrote The Merchant of Venice.
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