Addressing the opening session of last weekend’s football fan summit at Wembley Stadium by video, Football Association chairman Greg Dyke said: “I like to mix with ordinary fans”. With exquisite timing, the camera shot cut away from Dyke in his armchair to show Dyke chatting to England star Wayne Rooney on a yacht.
It was pure Accidental Partridge – a concept whoever did the final viewing of the package before sending it to Supporters Direct, which organised the summit alongside the Football Supporters Federation, must be unfamiliar with.
It was another comment of Dyke’s, that the FA council is “overwhelmingly white and male” that attracted most attention from a mainstream media that has so far not reported much else from the supporter summit. He is not wrong. But if, for example, the FA’s much-criticised recent Commission report had been produced by a group of black women under the age of 55, its proposals to insert elite club B teams into the current league system would be no less wrong.
The argument here, of course, is that a more diverse governing body would produce a more representative report. But representative of what? It is the thinking behind what the FA is for, and what its priorities should be, that needs shaking up.
Dyke’s address combined the “I’m just an ordinary Joe” routine that those with knowledge of his back catalogue will be familiar with, with an entreaty to “come up with some better ideas if you don’t like mine”. He came across like a mildly irritated parent chastising a moody teenager for having plenty of criticism while expecting few constructive suggestions back. All of which showed he’s still not quite got it.
Supporters would love to have put forward the many ideas they have. But the FA commission chose not to ask a group of people it likes to describe as “key stakeholders” when it suits. The decision to beam Dyke into the fan summit, and to send FA head of corporate affairs Robert Sullivan along to cop the flak from irate delegates, shows at least that the FA recognises it dropped a ricket by not being seen to consult the fans. But the tone of much of what is coming out still suggests that we would be best off leaving the important decisions to the grown-ups.
Those attending the summit were not just the kind of disaffected professional oppositionists power likes to present its critics as. There were grassroots football campaigners, seasoned members of club supporters trusts, and fans who, for a variety of reasons, are now running their own clubs. In short, more real knowledge and expertise than the FA often appears willing to acknowledge.
Sure, there were a few set-piece speeches of the type you tend to get at plenary sessions. And some suggestions that illustrate the topsy-turviness of modern football’s current situation in England. One that stood out was a call for all local authority pitches to be handed to the FA, described as “nationalisation” when it would clearly be privatisation.
What also came through too frequently for comfort was a view that suggested it would be no bad thing if the elite Premier League detached itself completely from the rest of English football. It’s a view that is entirely understandable given the Premier League’s attitude to the rest of football, but if the pyramid system is key to what the game is in England, that means the top as well as the bottom.
Indeed, the Premier League might well want to detach itself from the rest of the game in this country. It is an extraordinarily successful business brand, and its growth shows no signs of slowing. Acknowledging this does not mean agreeing with everything about it, more an important recognition of reality. But all roads in this discussion lead back to the role of the FA.
It was another FA report, entitled The Blueprint for the Future of English Football, that proposed the establishment of a Premier League in 1992. It set the trend for justifying change by saying it would strengthen the England team. Most people didn’t believe the claim then, and they believe it even less every time it is wheeled out.
As David Conn pointed out in The Beautiful Game?, the FA’s Blueprint came in the wake of a wave of interest in English football that followed the national side reaching the World Cup semi-final in 1990. That team included players who had learned their football at lower league clubs such as Tow Law Town, Carlisle United, Oxford United, Wealdstone and Crewe Alexandra.
The England team has achieved nothing close to that since. The Blueprint was about the FA breaking the power of the Football League, and about the elite clubs securing more income for themselves.
Players union chief Gordon Taylor said at the time that the Blueprint was “a way for the leading clubs to seize virtually all the money, leaving the remaining clubs to wither”. The then-England manager Graham Taylor said: “I’m not totally convinced that this is for the betterment of the England team. I think a lot of this is based on greed.” And Graham Kelly, who was FA chief executive at the time of the Blueprint, said later: “We were guilty of a tremendous collective lack of vision.”
The Blueprint failed to do what it said it wanted to do, but succeeded in doing what it intended to do. The lack of vision Kelly refers to means the Premier League tail is now wagging the FA dog. So talk about helping the England national side is irrelevant to the foreign and domestic business interests that own the global brands that make up the Premier League. Their job is to grow their brand, not to improve the health of the national game. Those 20 club owners will not back anything that puts their interests behind those of the national side. It is ridiculous to expect them to. And yet ‘helping the England team’ is the argument that is being wheeled out again.
One contribution at the supporters summit made an important distinction. Not everyone wants the England team to succeed, for a variety of reasons. Including, incidentally, not being English, since diversity has been mentioned. But many more people would like to see kids born in this country get more of a chance to play football at an elite level.
One way to do that, suggested another fan at the summit, would be to stop the practice of elite clubs stockpiling young talent. Such is the pressure for immediate success, it takes a brave manager to let young players learn their trade through first team experience. Better to buy in the finished article. So young domestic talent often finds itself stockpiled at the elite clubs, signed to keep them from the clutches of rival clubs, but unable to get a game. If a rule was introduced that required clubs to use players on their books who are in a particular age band a minimum number of times or lose them on a free transfer, that could solve the problem.
The clubs will not vote for that, because it is not in their interest. But a body responsible for the health of the sport of football in England could. A body such as the FA.
That means the FA needs to start acting like a national football association, rather than as the executive of an elite group. Greg Dyke knows better than most the difference between what the FA should be and what it has allowed itself to become. Because he is the man who brokered the TV deal with the new Premier League back in 1992 that began the flood of money into the top half of the game.
To use language he might himself approve of, the top of the game is currently hideously self-interested, and the FA must govern in order to promote a greater diversity of interests.