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.

Daily Mail
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Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle