As a footballer with Tranmere and Crewe Mark Palios probably thought, as most players do, that the Football Association was out of date and out of touch, staffed by buffoons and freeloaders. After his experience yesterday, in his new position as its chief executive, that opinion will not have changed.
As Palios attempted to defend the FA's appalling management of the Alan Smith affair, he gave every impression of a man out of his depth and drowning in public. This was partly due to his inexperience but also to poor briefing and inherited mismanagement. To the astonishment of the media he was unaware, before meeting the press, that Smith had been replaced in the squad by James Beattie, a man 14 months into a 30-month drink-driving sentence. Was Beattie to be sent home? He did not know. He would have to ascertain the facts and consult.
He was also forced to admit the FA had been unaware that Nicky Butt, the Manchester United midfielder, had played three internationals while on police bail following an allegation of assault. The FA's policy as it referred to England selection criteria, was, he admitted, being made up as they went along.
With such confusion affecting their governing body it was no wonder the players were, as Palios admitted, "angry". His own relationship with them was, he said, "extremely difficult". After meeting on Thursday night, the players pulled back from repeating the threat to strike made last month but the FA was, according to the chief executive of the Professional Footballers Association, Gordon Taylor, "testing the limits of the players - you wouldn't treat a dog like this".
Taylor added: "Alan Smith has been humiliated. The England team is like the hokey-cokey, you're in, then you're out. The team are upset when the very body which wants them to run through walls and qualify for Europe, as they have done, act like this. The match against Denmark [tomorrow] should have been a celebration of qualifying. Now it's been tarnished. The players love playing for England but I am wondering how far the FA can go before the players consider giving it [England] up."
Taylor, who initially welcomed the appointment of Palios, added of the former PFA member, "for someone who was in the game, things have been handled in an insensitive manner". Palios, who only took office in July, said he did not feel his job was under threat as he "had the confidence" of senior FA officials and committee men. This may be because they are also responsible for the chaos having been consulted by Palios over both Smith and Beattie.
It was finally decided that Beattie would stay. An unattributed FA statement said that Smith "is the subject of an ongoing police investigation whereas the case of Beattie has been disposed off by a court ... he has been punished under the laws of the land while we don't know the outcome of the Alan Smith case and he is on police bail". This is true but, as Palios himself said, "clearly the potential to do damage is greater if you drink-drive".
The inconsistency is highlighted by Butt playing three internationals, including last month's crucial qualifier in Istanbul, while on police bail. "If it had been known we would have deemed it inappropriate that he should play," Palios said. "No one at the FA knew. That is unacceptable." It is also, given the extensive media coverage, unbelievable.
Palios will now institute a study of the FA's internal communications, both to find out how the fiasco occurred and to prevent a repeat. This is likely to mean logging the progress of any remotely criminal event involving a potential England player and referring to it before squad selection.
He will also conduct a review of the FA's criteria for England selection, hopefully in conjunction with the PFA. Historically, the FA has always felt that England players should meet higher standards than the herd. Forty years ago, Stan Anderson, the Sunderland midfielder, did not play for the senior team for two years after being dismissed in a B international. More recently, players serving domestic suspensions for violent conduct offences were ruled ineligible for the national team.
Realpolitik ended those policies and the new puritanism is not entirely morally motivated. Concern about sponsorships is a factor. However, the lack of a consistent policy has had the FA tying itself in knots this week and again driving a wedge between the officials and the players. What happens if Michael Owen or David Beckham is made the subject of a spurious assault claim in the build up to the European Championship?
Palios said the FA was leaning towards framing a policy banning anyone on police bail. "How does it look if someone plays for England while on bail?" he asked. "At the England team level, the players are very much at the pinnacle of the game and have a responsibility to the shirt."
However, it was pointed out that, should an international be bailed over the recent Grosvenor House Hotel rape claim, the FA, by dropping him, would be outing him before his name was made public. When some considered perspective is applied, it may be that the final policy is one of banning players once charged, as used to be the case, while reserving the right to act earlier in serious cases. In the meantime, there is a lot of fence-building to be done.
* The FA yesterday confirmed that England will play Sweden in a friendly in Gothenburg on 31 March, providing the two teams are not drawn in the same Euro 2004 group.
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