Brian Viner: FA mandarins leave sour taste in mouth again

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The Independent Online

It has been a bad week for the mandarins of the Football Association. Almost as bad as the week in which the papers were signed which obliged them to continue paying Sven Goran Eriksson £13,000 a day for months after he had, in his stacked shoes, stepped down as England manager. Almost as bad as the week in which Eriksson's hapless successor Steve McClaren became, in red-top parlance, the "wally with the brolly". Almost as bad as the week in which Luiz Felipe Scolari played footsie with them, then kicked them sharply in what we might euphemistically call the six-yard box.

At least this was not one of those weeks. The firm set of Fabio Capello's jaw appears to have convinced everyone that at long last, the FA might have chosen the best man to manage England. But getting its most important job right, if indeed it has, leaves plenty of scope for the FA to cock-up its lesser responsibilities. And this has been a week of cock-ups.

First, there was the Justin Gregory imbroglio, to use one of the few English words with which Mr Capello is familiar.

A week ago, Gregory was about as anonymous as a sportsman can be.

Left-backs for non-league Havant & Waterlooville do not expect to make headlines in the national press, nor take up air time on national radio stations, but that was before the FA decreed that Gregory would be left back in Havant, or perhaps Waterlooville, for today's fourth-round FA Cup tie at Anfield. Gregory had accumulated five yellow cards, leading to a one-match suspension.

Then Havant brought forward their Blue Square South fixture against Thurrock Town to Wednesday night, partly to ease fixture congestion, but also, they admitted, so that Gregory could serve his suspension and be free to play against Liverpool. The FA deemed this contrary to the spirit of the game, or in less poetic terms, abuse of the system. Gregory was told that he would have to miss both the match at Thurrock and the Cup tie. So is it Havant & Waterlooville who have polluted the spirit of the game, or is it the FA? As any sentient being can see, it's the FA, which begs the question: how much sentience is there at Soho Square?

Here's another question: by slotting in a fixture before the Liverpool match were Havant abusing the system or shrewdly exploiting a loophole?

One might easily have asked the same of David Beckham who, in October 2004, deliberately fouled Ben Thatcher of Wales in a World Cup qualifier. The England captain courted a booking so that he would be suspended for the game against Azerbaijan four days later, a tie he'd have to miss anyway because he'd just sustained a fractured rib. Beckham cheerfully admitted his ruse – "some people think I haven't got the brains to be that clever," he said proudly – just as the FA insists that the Havant & Waterlooville club secretary admitted his.

Yet the men in blazers grinned toothlessly at Beckham; they showed their fangs to Gregory. They are what is known in another sport as flat-track bullies, exerting muscle only when their prey is feeble. After all, nobody at Soho Square seems remotely affronted by the fact that Chelsea's John Obi Mikel, sent off against Everton in the first leg of the Carling Cup semi-final, sustained a four-match ban rendered meaningless by his absence at the African Nations Cup.

The FA chief executive, Brian Barwick, can at least claim the Beckham business was before his time, but this week has produced another fine example of rank toothlessness: the decision not to punish Arsenal's Emmanuel Adebayor for attacking his team-mate Nicklas Bendtner during Tuesday evening's Carling Cup humbling by Spurs. The bookmaker Paddy Power is offering odds on which Premier League club will next produce a bust-up between team-mates. And it is a 1-1,000 certainty that somewhere on the nation's playing fields this weekend one youngster will square up to another on the same side, having seen it done at the highest level.

Meanwhile, what has the FA done? It has written to Adebayor and Bendtner, limply "reminding them of their responsibilities as professional footballers".

Someone should write to the officials of the FA, reminding them of their responsibilities as professional administrators.

One of these is to punish unequivocally all cases of violent indiscipline, especially those in front of huge TV audiences. Another is to protect and cherish the romance of the FA Cup, not to sully it with pettiness.

As it happened, Havant's game at Thurrock was abandoned after floodlight failure, so Gregory's suspension would have counted against Liverpool in any case. The player himself found an admirable sense of perspective. "I'm absolutely gutted," he said, "but ... nobody died and it gives someone else the chance to play at Anfield." Would that the FA had shown such common sense.