Why amateurs should go to blazers

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The Independent Online
Alarm has been expressed about the sudden lack of leadership at the top of English football. The ousting of both the chairman and the chief executive of the Premier League on Thursday, coupled with the recent departure of their opposite numbers at the Football Association, does suggest a certain rudderlessness about the national game, especially when even the England team is under the temporary control of Kevin Keegan. The whole show is being run by caretakers.

We should fear not, however, and certainly not panic into calling for government intervention. I'm all for our sporting bodies being answerable to a higher authority, but this is not a situation that calls for the heavy hand of Whitehall. Besides, the Government is already involved in two big football issues - the Department of Trade and Industry is now studying the Monopolies and Mergers Commission report into BSkyB's takeover of Manchester United, and the Office of Fair Trading is battling against the Premiership in the Restrictive Practices Court.

Both matters are vital to the game's future and the fate of poor suckers like us who have to pay for it one way or another. It is not an ideal time for the FA and Premier League to be without properly appointed full- time executives, but it will be a problem only if the barons of the Premier League take too firm a grip on both organisations during the hiatus.

It is a long-held conviction that our major games are not going to develop properly until their affairs are prised from the ancient grip of the amateur administrators and placed in the control of highly qualified professionals.

It may take revolution for that to overtake the FA but we had high hopes of the Premiership. Losing their former chief executive Rick Parry to Liverpool was a blow but his replacement, Peter Leaver, and the chairman Sir John Quinton looked to be a strong partnership.

The way they were hustled out of office suggests they acquired too much strength and, on the face of it, the hiring of the television heavyweights Sam Chisholm and David Chance at astronomic fees to handle future television deals without informing the club chairmen was a touch arrogant. But we have yet to hear the other side of the argument, and when you consider for how long football undersold itself to crafty TV negotiators perhaps it was time football picked some bullies for their side, as expensive as they may have been.

What is important is that this experience does not obscure the great benefits of having our sports run by independent professionals. Attracting the right people may be difficult if they fear being thrown out whenever they upset the club chairmen, who are sack-happy by nature. We've come too far to accept being in the control of amateurs.

There was a time when we were loath to question the wisdom of those in charge. Just as we dutifully accepted that all politicians were intelligent, all Army officers knew what they were doing, all judges were immunised against fallibility and all aristocratic titles arrived with brains included, so we assumed that those who ran our sports did so with an acumen commensurate with their aldermanic airs.

If the expiring century has done nothing else, it has made a mockery of those misconceptions one by one, and spectacularly so in certain cases. But we should at least credit our sporting leaders with the tenacity, not to mention the cheek, to hang on to the myth longer than the other lot. It has been slightly easier for them because they are much less answerable and, for most of the past 100 years or so, didn't have as many opportunities to demonstrate their inadequacies.

Those of us who saw them at close hand, observed them when abroad and listened to their views have been signalling frantically for decades that the tillers of our major games are not in the hands of the directionally gifted. But journalistic judgement had its validity questioned long before any of the foregoing and it is only relatively recently that sporting administrators have had their cover blown.

As soon as commercialism and television mounted their twin assault on sport, these shortcomings were impossible to disguise. Since no superior body exists that could shift them from their places at the helm, they've stubbornly held on, but the sports they control are hurtling towards the millennium in various forms of disarray.

Another factor that saved their defects from earlier denouncement is that the century has been blessed with a succession of professional administrators who have been adept in saving them from the worst of their follies.

They used to be known as secretaries before the title of chief executive became fashionable, but they needed no fancy labels to maintain a firm but discreet grip on the more dangerous excesses of their supposed masters.

They were the equivalent of the clerks to the court, who keep the magistrates from committing worse breaches of the law than the wretches in the dock or, to stretch the point a little, the Speaker of the House of Commons who gamely attempts to stop members making fools of themselves. Our major sports owe much to the unsung control exercised by the secretaries, among whom Sir Stanley Rous looms large in the history of the Football Association.

Before the Football League was emasculated by the departure of the Premiership clubs it was run as a tight ship by Alan Hardaker. A secretary of gruff demeanour, he kept his charges in line. The four home rugby unions had a similar succession of strong men who guided the elected representatives away from the excesses of their misguided enthusiasm. But, as recent evidence proves, the amateurs have been running amok without any knowing hands to rein them in. We need real men in charge of all our sports, whether the old guard like it or not.

It's an unkind fate that couples the approach of spring with the beginning of the grand prix season. Some of us now wince at the first sight of a primrose. Not being one to question the sporting preferences of millions, I don't dwell on this affliction, but it was difficult not to notice the unfortunate start last weekend, if start is the correct word to describe the opening event in Australia. No offence to the winner, Eddie Irvine, but the reports of the race read more like a garage mechanics' refresher course.

With one haughty and imperious comment, the Minister for Sport, Tony Banks, sought to end all the fuss about the proposed destruction of the Twin Towers in the rebuilding of Wembley Stadium. "They are just a couple of add-ons," he said. "My commitment is concentrated on providing the finest football facilities, not worrying about two ferrous-concrete blocks."

When it comes to sporting debates, Banks makes so many errors in reading the pulse of the nation that we must be grateful that he is not the Minister for Health.

The depth of feeling for those towers is more than just maudlin sentimentality. They are symbols recognised across the world and give a damn sight better impression of strength and stability than any other aspect of English football at the moment. And if they are only tattily built, it shouldn't be beyond the wit and budget of the architects to incorporate replicas in the new design.

Without mentioning any names, I can think of a couple of more recent add-ons to the forefront of our game whose disappearance would be far less regrettable.