Interview: David Mellor - A more mellow fellow? Mellor's not for turning

A force for good or a farce: The chairman of the Task Force presents his case to Nick Townsend

Nick Townsend
Sunday 17 January 1999 00:02 GMT

Strange, isn't it, that a man who has never played professional football, managed its players, refereed them, nor owned or been a director of a club, should provoke such extreme passions within the national game? Can 450,000 football supporters who tune in at some stage to his Radio 5 Live Six-O-Six Show for his "red-hot soccer chat" every Saturday be wrong, or is David Mellor little more than a figment of a great self-publicist whose views are an irrelevance?

Is the Force still with him? Or has it become the former man from Whitehall's farce? From "Minister of Fun", his epithet when Conservative Secretary of State for National Heritage, to chairman of the Football Task Force might have appeared to many, when he was appointed, as a pretty natural progression.

Yet, while the electors of Putney may have rejected him at the last election, he now wields a power through his fellow Chelsea fan and Minister for Sport Tony Banks and through him to the man with the Newcastle rattle, the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, that even his critics would not deny. Perhaps that is why he irritates them so much - and why the Task Force office was in a mood of caution, verging on paranoia.

Arranging to see him was rather like appearing before a McCarthy hearing. Nobody was taking any chances with the image of that New Labour-launched quango, which since its formation in July 1997 has provided something of a soft target for those who view it as a mere sop to an electorate seduced by the exploits of Beckham, Giggs, Shearer and company.

"Fan power" may be the rallying cry, but like "girl power" a concept used successfully to promote a pop group, do those words actually have any substance or, as one commentator put it, is the Task Force "a classic example of gesture politics by a Government long on feelgood, fluffy ideas"? Hence the interrogation and the positive vetting, I was informed, of my previous work. "Do you have an axe to grind with Mr Mellor?" Is it your intention to do a hatchet job? Do you intend to talk to him about Gordon Taylor's comments? - a reference to the PFA chairman and Task Force member's much-publicised row with Mellor over how much community work his members carry out.

In the event, there was no absence of candour at our meeting at his office in Savile Row because, if nothing else, he is the consummate politician, seemingly unfazed by the derision he receives. "I'm a controversial guy and was controversial before I was aware of what could happen to you if you were and I just ride those punches," said Mellor, 49, the former cabinet minister whose ascent towards the Premiership of football power began in 1992, after he resigned in the wake of a "sex scandal".

"But I don't have people spitting at me in the street, and saying 'what are you doing, you bastard?'" He adds: "I would prefer it if people thought I was a wonderful bloke, but it doesn't happen. Yet, I have to say that I've never had more invitations to speak at events and when I walked in here today a Scotsman said, 'Love your show'. You see, I don't have a problem with people. And it's them that matter, not journalists I've never met.

"I've come out of a very tough world of politics, one where you stand on the doorstep, and somebody will tell you that you're a complete tosser and you know nothing about their problems. I can't say to them, 'How dare you, madam.' This is a democracy and if someone thinks I'm a total berk, they're entitled to say so, but I'm allowed to have views about football."

Some of the criticism has been liberally splashed with vitriol. Perish the thought, but there are those who claim he has a lack of knowledge of the game. He laughs contemptuously. "Look, I've been in politics all my life, and the easiest thing in the world to say, when you don't agree with someone, is 'What the f*** do you know about it?'" He adds: "There's a tendency for people in football to consider themselves a part of the brotherhood and when you pass several tests you can join, a bit like Freemasonry, but I take the view that if players and managers were the only people allowed to have an opinion on the game football wouldn't occupy the position in society that it does."

Yet, the campaign against him is relentless. Just last Sunday, one of his arch critics, referred to his "prodigious vanity" and his "wholly uninformed public sniping at professional footballers". That detractor is not alone. Apart from a verbal clout from Harry Redknapp over comments about the discipline of his players, he has incurred the wrath of various referees, including David Elleray and the well-respected Taylor has distanced himself from the Task Force before the launch of its "football in the community" initiative last week. A considerable embarrassment, surely? Yet, if you expect a repentant, more mellow Mellor, you're disappointed. Like the Chelsea chairman, Ken Bates - a man he regards as "on the side of the angels" when it comes to radical reform of the FA and with whom he has a close affinity - Mellor is not at all comfortable carrying a diplomatic bag.

"I don't believe there is anything outlandish in saying that if footballers, paid huge amount of money, expect to do three hours of community service in their contract, it wouldn't be a bad idea if they did that," he says in that slightly condescending manner of his. "Our footballers don't work a full day, they are part-timers, just training in the morning, albeit that it is pretty exhausting. The question is, 'What are they going to do with that time?' Are they going to get involved with the community or are they going to be Mark I Tony Adams. Just because I make that point I don't believe it's a sensible idea for somebody who represents professional footballers to say he wants to boycott the Task Force."

Mellor adds: "We all know how bloody difficult it is, me not least, to be a role model. I don't expect some poor blighter at the age of 20 to behave like the Archangel Gabriel. When you look at the PFA figures they show that some players are doing a lot, but most of them aren't."

But why a Task Force in the first place? It is seemingly impossible not to trip over a Government- appointed tsar, task force, regulator, or watchdog surveying our lives. Isn't his organisation just another example of that plethora of bodies and individuals who are established to know what's good for us and the services we use, and worse, one where cronyism got him the job? "I do it because I have a commitment to the game and I was actually appointed by Tony Blair, not Tony Banks," Mellor stresses. "I was chosen because having been in Whitehall as minister I would hopefully know what is practical to carry out and what not.

"I've always loved football ever since I was a kid, and I know a lot of people in the game who speak very frankly to me. Because of my radio show it was thought I would presumably learn something from football fans. People who criticise me don't understand that my beliefs aren't shaped by my own arrogance. They are shaped by what intelligent and knowledgeable people say to me, people like Trevor Brooking, who is a member of my Task Force."

His organisation has produced three reports so far, on racism, disabled access, and the most recent on helping the grass roots of the game, where it has been agreed that five per cent of any future Premiership TV deal should be diverted to providing grass roots facilities. "If we continue to produce a good series of reports and help sort out problems I will be very happy with my role in that. The teeth we have are the teeth the Government have. If I give Tony Banks a report that he likes he'll do something about it."

He adds: "I'm trying to deal constructively with problems in football and the most difficult is yet to come... how can the guy on a council estate expect to take his kids to watch football when the game's going crazy financially."

So, is the implication that the Government could dictate such matter as pricing policy to clubs? "We can't tell clubs what to do but we can create a framework, to work in. If football decides to throw back in the Government's face sensible suggestions from a body that it has set up, then it's up to government to say 'You don't want to do this the soft way; let's do it the hard way'."

Of course, there are those who might mischievously submit that his present high profile will do the renaissance of his political career no harm whatsoever. But he insisted: "May I be struck dead if I'm lying to you, but I haven't made my mind up, although the chances are that I won't return to politics. There comes a point when life is sufficiently good in other ways that you wonder why you'd want to walk back into that sort of atmosphere or climate." Having resigned once, from government, the chances of him doing so this time, from a role he clearly relishes, are about on a par with Glenn Hoddle being serenaded by Ken Bates in his Italian restaurant. "When I was Treasury Minister, it used to be said that there were two kinds of chancellors, popular ones and good ones, and the same applies here."

There is absolutely no doubt about which category Mellor places himself. The problem is that those who condemn him are quite certain, too. Neither.

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