THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Mike Ticher talks to Graham Kelly about the formation of the Premier League, England's World Cup bid and the possibility of a future breakaway

When the Premier League began, you maintained it would benefit football as a whole. How successful has it been?
I think in two respects it’s been very successful. Firstly, commercially. The Premier League wasn’t set up in exactly the way that I envisaged at the start. We didn’t set up the Premier League within the structure of the FA, it was set up as an autonomous company, with its own board of directors and, not unnaturally, it was jealous of its own commercial properties. So to that extent the pattern isn’t as we envisaged. But nonetheless, helped by other factors, such as the Taylor Report and the emergence of satellite television, commercially the FA Premier League, standing alone, has been spectacularly successful. The second respect is the impetus it gave to the development of players. We argued for a number of years about getting the best young players more time with the best coaches, without a great deal of success. The Football League tended to operate at the pace of the slowest club rather than the fastest. Setting up the Premier League has led indirectly to the formation of the academies, and in time, hopefully, we will see more good English players coming through.

At the time one of the main justifications for sanctioning the new league was that it would benefit the England team. Has that happened in practice?
I think it’s worked out reasonably well. Where the England team manager had two free Saturdays a season before the Premier League, now he has four. When they were playing on Saturday, or even Sunday, with an important international match on the Wednesday, you always got cry-offs. So to that extent, the environment of the Premier League has helped the England manager. It helped Glenn Hoddle qualify for the World Cup in 1998 and it helped Terry Venables in preparation for Euro 96. What isn’t helping is the explosion in European club football at the moment. We’ve already seen Kevin Keegan abandon any plans for a friendly in April 2000. Now that’s a key date in the lead-up to the European finals, if we’re there. The scope for fitting those games in is becoming increasingly limited because of the expansion of the Champions League.

When the Premier League began, the FA lost the battle to reduce it to 18 teams. Would you agree that set the stage for the clubs to increase their power at the expense of the FA ever since? It was a significant battle that the FA lost at the time, yes. Having said that, I’ve modified my views slightly, because I don’t think the fans want any more blank Saturdays. They don’t want their teams to lose four fixtures. When I was in my last year at the FA we were pledging to support the Premier League if there was any threat by UEFA to bring in 18 clubs by legislation. And we supported the Football League strongly in maintaining the European place for the winners of the League Cup when UEFA tried to persuade the Premier League to come down to 18 clubs by taking it away.

Is it inevitable that the clubs will get their way more and more?
I hope it’s not inevitable, because the interests of the FA and the interests of the Premier League are very different. The FA has a duty to the wider game and specifically to the international teams, whereas the Premier League have a duty to the clubs, the shareholders and the fans. There will always be a conflict of interest, but then there have always been with club versus country. What the FA must not do is cede that sort of power to anybody. They must always be able to play a reasonable number of internationals, because that’s how they generate a lot of interest in football and that’s how they finance their programmes for grassroots development. Yet the Premier League clubs also have a legitimate argument, they say it’s our players they’re using for the England team, it’s our academies that are developing the young players. So there’s got to be a recognition of those two very different interests.

Do you believe the goals of setting up the Premier League could have been achieved in co-operation with the Football League, rather than through a breakaway?
Well it couldn’t happen, realistically, because the management committe of the Football League could never countenance giving so much autonomy to the big clubs. They were hidebound by the structure and I would argue that you ­couldn’t continue to operate successfully with Manchester United and Halifax being governed by the same structure.

But they’re both still governed by the FA. Did it not compromise the FA to be involved with one group of the richest clubs?
Originally it was alleged that it would compromise the FA, it was one of the arguments of the Football League against the Premier League in the very early days. In fact I can’t see that it’s happened in any way whatsoever. All leagues are under the jurisdiction of the FA, and the FA have a duty to apply the rules. I would challenge you to point to any issue or instance where there’s been discrimination against the Football League clubs or against the Football League because it is the FA Premier League.

Has the Premier League in your view caused the gap between the richer and poorer clubs to grow?

It’s a never-ending argument really and I can see all sides of it. If you were a big club chairman sitting here you would say that’s fine, help the smaller clubs and siphon money off, as we do, for ground improvements or for youth development – we pay £10 million a year. You could argue that it should be more. But those clubs are competing with the super clubs in Spain, who have done their own TV deal. Barcelona have got a five-year deal for £254 million. So Barcelona take £50 million a year from television, Man Utd take £11 million. You can sit in the Bury boardroom as I did on Saturday and cast envious eyes at Old Trafford, but Old Trafford can look at the Nou Camp and say, well, we’re competing with one hand tied behind our back.

Do you believe to some extent the small clubs have brought their problems on themselves?
It’s too easy to say that. I think every club in football is afflicted by ambition. The biggest problem in football, at every level, is players’ wages. I never envisaged when the Premier League started and large TV contacts were floated – and I should have done – that immediately that money would fuel wage inflation. It’s so obvious that it’s going to happen, but both Rick Parry and I said that the last thing we want to do is pour it straight into the players’ pockets. But that’s happened, maybe because of my previous point about competing with clubs in other countries. Alan Sugar advocated a wage cap at the time. He brought a guy over from the States to explain how it might work and the Premier League chairmen said “oh, fine” – but 19 hands went up against it. And it’s had a trickle down effect. Clubs in every division attempt to pay as much as they can.

Wouldn’t a wage cap be impossible to reconcile with EU law?

Well that’s an interesting question, because you wouldn’t expect the legal system of the United States, where the anti-trust laws are ferocious, to allow such an anti-competitive practice, but they do. And they do it because they recognise that for successful competition to operate, there needs to be competition on the field. You don’t need to have one club 20 times bigger than another. And that’s something which European football has argued with the European Union since the early days of the Bosman case and longer. But there was never a meeting of minds between the hardline European commissioners who wanted absolute freedom of competition and the clubs, in the main, who wanted to maintain the restrictions that they had over a player’s contract. And the result was the Bosman case. The clubs, and UEFA as a whole, did too little, too late.

How do you see the conflict between the national associations and the big European clubs developing in the near future?
I think it’s going to be increasingly difficult. I think, relatively, English football has an easy time of it. People do live together and do rub along together, despite their different interests. Meeting some of these presidents of European clubs at first hand, you know, they don’t like to be balked. These are mega clubs being run by mega politicians. People think Ken Bates has an ego, but Ken Bates is a pussycat compared to some of these people, he really is. The fact is we’ve got more European football now, and it is threatening the wider balance. It’s a trite answer in a way, but the unity of UEFA and the associations is paramount. If the associations are picked off and don’t stand firm with UEFA – as they did stand firm against the Media Partners threat a year ago – I think there could be some very bloody power struggles. They’ve got to realise their allegiance to the governing bodies, to protect the structure of international football. Again, there are no easy answers. But changes to the European Champions League came about within the structure. Clubs qualify on merit – albeit the guidelines and criteria are a little shaky at times, as Manchester United fans won’t thank me for reminding them.

Doesn’t there come a point where you have to draw the line and stop accommodating the big clubs?

Well, we must have reached the limit. I was looking at the fixture list and writing the dates in my diary the other day – I’ve time to do these things now – and there simply are no free weeks left. So where are they going to go then? Are they going to go outside and play European super league football and not domestic football? I think that would be a very big step to take, and I hope it would be a daunting prospect.

Do you think the big clubs will try to break away if their further demands aren’t met?

No, not really. I do believe in the hierarchy of league, FA, UEFA, FIFA and if that happened the clubs would be going outside the recognised structure of football. Then we ­wouldn’t have an England team or international football as we know it. The irony of Manchester United being invited by the FA to stay out of the FA Cup this season lies in the fact that it was the FA themselves, when setting up the Premier League, who made a rule that all clubs have to remain loyal to the FA Cup. There are those rules and structures in place, which should protect both parties’ interests.

But wasn’t the formation of the Premier League itself a complete rupture of the existing structure?
Well, it wasn’t outside the structure of the FA. If you look at all leagues throughout football, it’s the clubs’ interests that are really paramount. There are managements of leagues who want to keep things as they are, and clubs that might want to change. Well if a club wants to move to another structure, provided it’s within the FA hierarchy, I don’t see any problem with that, and that’s what happened with the Premier League.

What was your reaction to Manchester United’s withdrawal from the FA Cup?
I find it very disappointing that they are not in the FA Cup. Let’s just say this, I would have moved heaven and earth to keep them in it. And if that meant playing a reserve team or a youth team, then so be it. If Man Utd’s youth team are drawn against Accrington Stanley or whoever in the fourth round of the Cup, I think it’s going to enhance the Cup. What’s happened is damaging to the competition in my view.

In retrospect, how well handled do you think England’s World Cup bid has been, particularly with regard to the so-called gentlemen’s agreement not to bid against Germany?
The position of the FA – which I support entirely, having helped to formulate that position – is that there was no gentlemen’s agreement with Germany. It just didn’t happen that way. For one thing, we were competing for Euro 96 with four other countries: Austria, Portugal, Greece and Holland. If there was some kind of stitch-up that said England would get it, then what would those four countries say about that?

That row and England voting for Sepp Blatter rather than Lennart Johansson as FIFA president have caused a lot of division in UEFA. Is that upheaval worth it to get the World Cup?
Divisions are soon healed. Lennart Johansson will vote for Germany for 2006, he’s on record as having promised that. The rest of the European representatives on FIFA may decide that they want a free vote. He won’t try to keep them to any party line. There were some harsh words said at the time, and also when we were perceived as turning turtle on Johansson and voting for Blatter, but as one president of a European FA said to me: we don’t agree with what you’ve done, but we understand it. I don’t think I can say whether it would be worth it – it’s part of a much bigger pattern.

Your own departure from the FA was also linked to the World Cup bid. But do you see it more as a product of the division between the big clubs and the rest of the FA?
To a certain extent. I’m not clear upon the whole of the story behind my departure. But certainly there was a factor whereby Keith Wiseman and I were perceived as middle of the road people who would argue for a fair deal for everybody and would, if necessary, argue with the Premier League. There must have been a number of factors, but that was one.

Do you have any regrets now about what you did?

No I don’t. I wouldn’t have had any part of it had I thought it was wrong. Let’s draw the analogy again of Manchester United being out of the FA Cup. What bigger issue is there, than the holders not defending their title? Why has that happened? Because of World Cup 2006. We were seeking to place the FA chairman in a position of influence within world football. I don’t need to apologise for that, it was something that was sadly lacking for years. I don’t see any shame in helping a neighbouring footballing country, quite honestly. I don’t see it as a scandal in any way whatsoever. I see it as more of a scandal the way the story was leaked to Keith Wiseman’s detriment. And it was very damaging to him. I am, or I was, a professional football administrator, I’ll take the rough with the smooth, but I think he was very badly dealt with.

Having presided over the bungs enquiry, which lasted four years for such meagre results, do you feel bitter that the consequences of your actions were so severe?
I don’t feel bitter in any way. I was angry at the time, I’m not bitter or angry now. Each thing stands or falls on its merits. And George Graham didn’t think it was a meagre result.

What do you feel about the work of the Task Force, a body set up to deal with issues that the FA might think are properly its own?
Well, I think it’s been constructive in certain areas: racism, disabled access, community activities. The fact remains that the most difficult area, commercialisastion, has taken longest to resolve. I think it would have been better had we conducted a similar exercise ourselves. I think we could have done it just as well, if not better. We possibly missed a trick there. But the FA could never get involved in regulation because the clubs are limited companies, they have to be able to run their business. What people sometimes overlook, and what gives the FA its difficulty sometimes, is that the FA is the clubs. The FA is not the game, it is an association of clubs. It doesn’t have referees, it doesn’t have players, it doesn’t have managers, it has clubs. So it’s very difficult to imbue the FA with what some might see as the necessary independence to regulate the game. By its very nature it is compromised. And I think that might be something that the FA could usefully consider while it’s restructuring itself.

Is th FA better or worse off after your term in office?

What I tried to do in my ten years was demonstrate some firmness of resolve. We did that with the Premier League, though it didn’t work out exactly as we planned, but we’ve also done it in international relations. Now that’s left the current people at the FA somewhat uncomfortable – they’ve had to make up with Lennart Johansson. But I think the profile of English football has been helped by the Premier League, and is stronger. Certainly there are a lot more people in positions of influence within FIFA and UEFA now than there were five years ago. I don’t claim the credit for that, it’s just a fact. I always say the FA does a good job despite the system, not because of it. You have this with any governing body in sport. You have it with the MCC or the Rugby Union. Until they discard their blazers and have one great bonfire, they are always going to be looked at askance and there will be a lot of people and a lot of committeees to deal with. But I used to think I could make it work. For ten and a half years anyway.

From WSC 152 October 1999. What was happening this month

More... Graham Kelly