The FA’s recent history is just one long club versus country row, as the new chief executive has soon discovered. Simon Tindall wonders if Mark Palios can ever bring peace

One year on from the resignation of Adam Crozier, the new Football Association chief executive, Mark Palios, is en­snared in the same eternal triangle that besets English football – the relationship between the top clubs, the top players and the England team.

Crozier resigned over two key matters – the FA’s “right” to create sponsorship deals for the England team (which could conflict with the clubs’ own deals) and the setting up of a Professional Game Board which would give the top clubs more control over the game as a whole. In short, how powerful should the clubs be and how clean is the game?

A year on and the two separate issues coalesce in the Rio Ferdinand missed-drugs-test affair, the point at which the goodwill to Palios within the game begins to evaporate. Add in the Alan Smith mess, watch out for the incoming demand from G14 clubs for wage subsidies when players are on international duty and we’re back in the heart of the club v country war. And it’s getting more and more serious.

Palios, like Crozier but unlike Graham Kelly, is hav­ing to play the hard-cop role. However, being less flam­boyant and fashionable than his predecessor, he will not get up people’s noses so quickly. His formative experiences are financial rectitude and Fourth Div­ision football. FA HQ at Soho Square is full (or possibly half-full after budget cuts) of eager young folk responsible for all manner of “positive issues” – schools, women’s football, the grass-roots game and the county FAs, the new Wembley and the Football Foundation. There would seem to be a good fit between the new chief exec, the organisation and the needs of much of the game.

But the crux of it, as always, is the England team. The FA’s Blueprint for Football, produced a year after England’s run to the semi-finals of the 1990 World Cup, made the national team the number-one priority, to be the ultimate beneficiary of what was soon to become the Premiership. It did not take long for the clubs to reverse the order of priorities. Suddenly the Prem­iership became a quasi-international club com­petition, bringing in players and television viewers from across the world rather than a strong support oriented to the national game.

Crozier aggressively reasserted the importance of the England national team as a commercial force at a time when the clubs were not expecting it. Palios is having to push in a different area – not exactly for greater morality, but certainly for better behaviour. The fans were effectively banned from going to Macedonia and Turkey and now the players – be it through drug-testing, arrests or pressure-group activity – are the centre of attention. Palios was on reasonably strong ground in the early stages of the Ferdinand affair and played his cards carefully. However, the delay in com­ing to a verdict, though not all of the FA’s doing, does not bode well. Then the confusion over the status of Alan Smith, Nicky Butt and James Beattie as potential picks for England embarrassingly undermined the FA’s stance and showed the lack of an underlying strategy. Perhaps it would be more helpful if the Sky Sports Football Yearbook, in future, listed players’ arrests and convictions, deleted when spent, rather than height, weight and birthplace.

Suddenly, there seemed to be many more hands picking the England team – not just Sven and Mark Palios, but the Police National Computer, the media and, even, the England players’ pool spokesmen. Play­ers often show an ambivalent attitude to international football: very keen to get their first cap and to play in the finals of major tournaments, more interested in, say, a hernia operation during the boring bits in between. But the England players were strongly mo­tivated in defence of Ferdinand and the players’ pool gave the impression of a near-permanent organisation, one not dependent on team selection for its life­blood. One wonders how long it will be before the pool, as an entity, employs its own people and agents.

International football, thankfully, still offers the top players something that club football cannot. But the pressure is on. The primary loyalty is, more than ever, with the club. An international fixture is often more of a burden than an honour and Roy Keane is not joking when he says Paul Scholes plays with better players at club level than at international level. Strategically, Palios is fighting an uphill battle. It was Ferdinand’s forgetfulness (or otherwise), rather than Palios’s design, that brought forward the biggest of all conflicts – via the most expensive player at the most powerful club run by the most powerful man in English football, Sir Alex Ferguson. Never before has the English game had to accommodate a club of the scale of Manchester United who claim to have as many supporters worldwide as England do. Between the FA and Ferguson there is much history – Neil Webb, Paul Scholes, World Club Cup, Gary Lewin and David Dein to mention but a few names. Ferguson will soon be enjoying the freedom of having a new contract, little to lose and nothing to prove. Who knows what he might do next?

Palios is the one to worry. Besides new Wembley and the prospect of 25,000 Eng­­land fans boozing it up in the Port­uguese sunshine, the big question is the future status of the national team. How clean and perfect its players? And which clubs will they come from?

The most unlikely outcome of the intensifying club v country conflict is that the needs of the country will dominate. More likely is that the antagonism will continue, possibly to the point that the England team virtually exists as a tournament-only phenomenon. If England had not qualified for Euro 2004 these would be very tricky times indeed for Palios. More than anyone he needs the national team to keep winning.

From WSC 203 January 2004. What was happening this month

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