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.

Pexel
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This week, a top tip to save on washing powder (just don’t stand too near the window)

I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

Well, in the end I didn’t have to go to Ikea (see last week’s column). I got out of it on the grounds that I was obviously on the verge of a tantrum, always distressing to witness in a man in his early-to-mid-fifties, and because I am going to Switzerland.

“Why Switzerland?” I hear you ask. For the usual reason: because someone is paying for me. I don’t think I’m going to be earning any money there, but at least I’ll be getting a flight to Zurich and a scenic train ride to Bellinzona, which I learn is virtually in Italy, and has three castles that, according to one website, are considered to be “amongst the finest examples of medieval fortification in Switzerland”.

I’m not sure what I’m meant to be doing there. It’s all about a literary festival generally devoted to literature in translation, and specifically this year to London-based writers. The organiser, who rejoices in the first name of Nausikaa, says that all I have to do is “attend a short meeting . . . and be part of the festival”. Does this mean I can go off on a stroll around an Alp and when someone asks me what I’m doing, I can say “Oh, I’m part of the festival”? Or do I have to stay within the fortifications, wearing a lanyard or something?

It’s all rather worrying, if I think about it too hard, but then I can plausibly claim to be from London and, moreover, it’ll give me a couple of days in which to shake off my creditors, who are making the city a bit hot for me at the moment.

And gosh, as I write, the city is hot. When I worked at British Telecom in the late Eighties, there was a rudimentary interoffice communication system on which people could relay one-line messages from their own computer terminal to another’s, or everyone else’s at once. (This was cutting-edge tech at the time.) The snag with this – or the opportunity, if you will – was that if you were not at your desk and someone mischievous, such as Gideon from Accounts (he didn’t work in Accounts; I’m protecting his true identity), walked past he would pause briefly to type in the message “I’m naked” on your machine and fire it off to everyone in the building.

For some reason, the news that either Geoff, the senior team leader, or Helen, the unloved HR manager, was working in the nude – even if we knew, deep down, that they weren’t, and that this was another one of Gideon’s jeux d’esprit – never failed to break the monotony.

It always amused us, though we were once treated to a terrifying mise en abîme moment when a message, again pertaining to personal nudity, came from Gideon’s very own terminal, and, for one awful moment, for it was a very warm day, about 200 white-collar employees of BT’s Ebury Bridge Road direct marketing division suddenly entertained the appalling possibility, and the vision it summoned, that Gideon had indeed removed every stitch of his clothing, and fired off his status quo update while genuinely in the nip. He was, after all, entirely capable of it. (We still meet up from time to time, we BT stalwarts, and Gideon is largely unchanged, except that he’s now a history lecturer.)

I digress in this fashion in order to build up to the declaration – whose veracity you can judge for yourselves – that as I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, I, too, am in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

There are practical reasons for this. For one thing, it is punishingly hot, and I am beginning, even after a morning shower, to smell like a tin of oxtail soup (to borrow an unforgettable phrase first coined by Julie Burchill). I am also anxious not to transfer any of this odour to any of my clothes, for I will be needing them in Switzerland, and I am running low on washing powder, as well as money to buy more washing powder.

For another thing, I am fairly sure that I am alone in the Hovel. I am not certain. To be certain, I would have to call out my housemate’s name, and that would only be the beginning of our problems. “Yes, I’m here,” she would reply from her room. “Why?” “Um . . .” You see?

So here I lie on my bed, laptop in lap, every window as wide open as can be, and looking for all the world like a hog roast with glasses.

If I step too near the window I could get arrested. At least they don’t mind that kind of thing in Switzerland: they strip off at the drop of a hat. Oh no, wait, that’s Germany.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times