Football Association chairman Greg Dyke. Photo: Getty
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The FA needs to start acting like a national football association

Until it promotes a greater diversity of interests, the FA will continue to function as the executive of an elite group.

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.

Martin Cloake is a writer and editor based in London. You can follow him on Twitter at @MartinCloake.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear