Lord Triesman: 'Clubs could have gone bust. I can't be indifferent to it'

A year ago, Lord Triesman, the FA chairman, caused a major stir by questioning debt levels in the Premier League. Now, he tells Sam Wallace, events have vindicated his stance and the English game is starting to listen

As an economist by trade, Lord Triesman, the chairman of the Football Association, has identified a major change in attitude in English football in the last 12 months towards debt, the most crucial financial factor in the game. That, finally, the clubs with vast borrowings, or leveraged buyouts are starting to discuss how they will protect their futures.

"It is no longer something that can't be talked about properly and that's good and it is a great credit to the clubs, I take my hat off to them," Triesman says. "Leaders of English football like [Chelsea's] Peter Kenyon and David Gill [of Manchester United] are taking part in these big European discussions." To the extent that when Michel Platini, the president of Uefa, last month floated new stringent measures to punish clubs with excessive borrowing by banning them from the Champions League, he could even claim the backing of Roman Abramovich.

The question of debt in English football has been a major factor in the 20-month reign of Lord Triesman of Tottenham as the FA's first independent chairman. In October last year he delivered his keynote speech at a football conference at Stamford Bridge. He talked of the £3bn debt that English clubs were saddled with, and the contention that, as far as the probity of accounting was concerned, "transparency lies in an unmarked grave".

The temptation was to call it football's "rivers of blood" speech but as a former member of the Communist Party – latterly a New Labour convert – Triesman is at the other end of the political spectrum to Enoch Powell. The speech blindsided the Premier League and their chief executive Richard Scudamore and you get the impression that certain people in that organisation have never forgiven Triesman.

Of course, the worst did not come to pass. The global recession is yet to claim a Premier League club, although it came perilously close with Portsmouth. Triesman, 65, did deliver some pretty unpalatable truths which, 11 months on, have not gone away. Manchester United's debt to the banks for the Glazer takeover is £699m; Chelsea owe Abramovich £701m; Liverpool under their American ownership owe £280m and Arsenal £410m.

"It is important that with big clubs in Europe, let alone in England, a new assessment is being made of the level of risk and that's got to be healthy," Triesman says. "I am an economist and I thought we were getting into a difficult period economically. I expressed that view. I think there is now a wider appreciation of just how difficult the economic world is. If you go back [to the time of the speech] curiously enough some people in the City said there was not going to be any kind of a problem or a crisis. Well, two months later they were saying something very different.

"We should share an objective to shore up the financial stability of the whole of the game. When I said that at Stamford Bridge I was quite concerned with some of the clubs further down the pyramid; I had the likes of Rotherham in mind. This is a club that has been in existence 139 years, very central to the life of the town. Does a vast amount of stuff with local kids. It could have gone out of existence altogether and I cannot be indifferent to that. The circumstances have made people more cautious."

In fact, when Triesman made the speech in October he underestimated how deep English football clubs were in the red. He put football's entire debt, including the FA's, at £3bn; accounts for the year ending July 2008 that were released this year showed that Premier League clubs alone owe £3.1bn.

"In all periods where there is less financial stability, a couple of people start the debate and it is a matter of chance as to who it is and when it is," Triesman says. "What's most important is that everyone is much more careful about risk and although I don't take any credit for it I think I was right to say it.

"I do know from my political time, particularly in the Foreign Office, it was necessary to say things I felt over some troubled places in Africa. I tried to do it as judiciously as I could. Not everyone agreed immediately and I wasn't always right but if you think something is significant and you sit on it and say afterwards 'I always knew that was an issue, I don't think people take you seriously."

Platini, who is a friend of Triesman, has proposed some radical measures for financial fair play. These include a ban from the Champions League for those clubs whose debt is disproportionate to income. "I don't know whether we are close to it," Triesman adds. "What I do know is that he has started a dialogue which the clubs have responded to very well. That's great. That is very important."

Is Platini as anti-English as the perception suggests? "He is not hostile to English football. He is like other people you meet in the world of football, he would like to think that we are taking part in the international football family. He is entitled to have that kind of expectation with a big football nation [England]. It's not a bad expectation."

A former London senior referee, who officiated in games in the preliminary rounds of the FA Cup, Triesman can claim an affiliation with the grass-roots of football. He is also proud of the FA's "Respect" campaign to improve behaviour at all levels of the game but it is the thorny issue of debt in football that he is determined not to back down on.

"I would far rather take part in these discussions and have some impact on them than sit outside, it is like Bonnie Prince Charlie sitting on a foreign shore waiting for a missive he might not like," he says. "What we now have are big clubs engaged and I would rather be engaged in the discussion than a recipient of the news."

Different ball game: Lord's life before football

*Born 30 October, 1943

*Education Attended Stationers' Company School in London before joining the University of Essex. Suspended in 1968 after disrupting a meeting addressed by a defence industry scientist, later reinstated. Attended King's College, Cambridge. Became lecturer and visiting fellow.

*Politics Resigned from Labour in 1970, 10 years after joining at the age of 17. Joined Communist Party, before returning to Labour in 1977.

*Became union official at NATFHE in 1984. General secretary of Association of University Teachers in 1993 and then of the Labour Party in 2001. Made Life Peer in January 2004 as Baron Triesman of Tottenham.

*Made Parliamentary Under Secretary in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office before taking post of Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

*Appointed first independent chairman of the FA in 2008.

Comrade Dave: Triesman's Communist past

Lord Triesman's seven-year membership of the Communist Party between 1970 and 1977 is an unusual feature on the CV of a man appointed to run the intensely conservative, 146-year-old Football Association. Of that period of his life Triesman said: "At the time the people on the radical side of life – Jack Straw, me, Charles Clarke, John Reid – were interested in what was needed to make changes rather than make speeches. Most of us came to be involved in Tony Blair's [New Labour] project.

"Then if you had asked them why, they would have said: 'Well, actually it's the mainstream. Go and ask someone who is doing something very different'. It is hard to convey the feeling of an age. People were very interested in experimental theatre, new wave film, design and cultural changes. There were revolutionary breakthroughs in science. It was a period in which there were monumental changes."

Triesman said he has never discussed politics with the England manager, Fabio Capello, whose views are thought to be rather further to the right. ......... Sam Wallace

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