James Lawton: The recurring fault line within English football is its failure to produce leaders

There is surely a point when a national game which ... is so erratically administered becomes a suitable case for government inspection
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The Independent Online

The latest inquest into the chronic failure of English football to produce grown-up, worldly-wise leadership of the game it somehow exported to every corner of the planet will no doubt visit all the familiar places.

But will it engage the basic problem, the enduring fault line which yesterday saw the brief and, in some ways, not unpromising reign of Football Association chairman Lord Triesman descend into the terminal derision heaped upon so many of his predecessors?

It is not likely – and nor will it be until it is accepted that the great failure of English football has been its inability to create a culture of leadership from within.

Last Friday, David Beckham handed the book of England's 2018 World Cup bid to Sepp Blatter, president of the game's world authority, Fifa, and made a trite little speech about the multi-layered strength of the English game.

Beckham, everyone agreed, and Lord Triesman with a special warmth, was a perfect celebrity ambassador for the cause. Yet here we saw a basic weakness in the English approach. It was one of glitz above substance and, inevitably, a reminder of how another English bid, the one for the World Cup of 2006, was outflanked by Germany, who were winning the prize for a second time since England's hosting of the tournament in 1966.

How did the Germans do it? It was with impeccably discreet diplomacy and also with the inherent authority provided by their football frontman, Franz Beckenbauer.

The man known as "Der Kaiser" was presented not only for his image, but his meaning; his growth from a superb, World Cup-winning captain to an administrator of great knowledge and experience.

We do not have such growth in English football. We have an uneasy alliance between businessmen and careerist committee men; we have a celebration of the largesse of TV money and commercial potential which can produce such a scandal as a pitch at the national stadium of Wembley not, as we saw on the showpiece occasion of Saturday's FA Cup final, not remotely fit for purpose.

Arsenal's manager, Arsene Wenger, so esteemed internationally for his ability to nurture young talent, said with great exasperation recently: "If you wonder about problems in English football, just look at the pitch at Wembley. That it should be allowed to happen in a serious football nation is unbelievable."

A detail, you may say, but a fundamental one. The fall of Lord Triesman, the sheer embarrassment which it created for the FA yesterday as news of his claims over a romantic dinner that Spain and Russia were conspiring to corrupt referees and shape the voting for 2018 swept through the football world, is just one of a series of gaffes committed in the high places of English football.

It was hard to imagine anything could have been worse than the FA's botched deal with a newspaper to provide details of the love life of the then England coach Sven Goran Eriksson in exchange for silence on the romantic entanglement of the chief executive Mark Palios.

Yet Lord Triesman's demise is doubly confounding in that if he had no real background in football, if he was another to be parachuted into the endemic crisis of the game's administration, he was supposed to have the sharpest of political instincts after his stint as a government minister. He also seemed prepared to properly engage some vital issues like the disturbing lack of control over club ownership (some of the consequences of which were given a national stage with the plight of Cup finalists Portsmouth at the weekend), and the need for more opportunities for young English players in the face of increasing numbers of foreign imports.

The tape recording of his private musings now make a lurid mess of such good intentions, and we can be sure they will be raked over with some relish by those who maybe saw in his instincts for reform the stirrings of a serious debate.

Hugh Robertson, the new sports minister, was reluctant to immerse more than his toes in a familiar maelstrom yesterday, but there is surely a point when a national game which generates so much interest and wealth, and is so erratically administered becomes a suitable case for government inspection.

Robertson said that Lord Triesman's immediate resignation as the head of the World Cup bid was sad but appropriate. At what stage, though, is it proper to raise the question of whether English football is equipped to handle its affairs with the required degree of leadership and foresight?

Certainly when you look into the development of the English game it is easy to see why it should be so plagued by the recurring fault of poor direction. For so long it was the realm of local businessmen, who saw the opportunities of enhanced prestige in the community and from whom respect for the professionals was always granted reluctantly, if at all. When Sir Bobby Charlton was appointed to the board of Manchester United in the Eighties he was the rarest of English professionals, one to whom the inner sanctum of influence and decision had been granted. Yet some time later, when he was voted on to an FA committee, he was told sharply that his place at his first meeting was at the back of the room.

Here is to be found some of the terrible separation that exists between the reality of football as it is seen by those who know it, and have lived it, and the others who believe it is a mere extension of business or, in the case of Lord Triesman, politics.

It also happens to be true that before Lord Coe, the track hero honoured in the high councils of the Olympic movement, London's successful bid was in great disarray. Coe, as Franz Beckenbauer did some years earlier, spoke of realities, good and bad, of the sport he knew so well.

Once again, English football suffers cruelly from its failure to produce such a figure.