Executive stress

Brian Barwick is just getting settled at the FA HQ, so John Morgan has decided to find a little bit more about the man charged with managing English football

After the tabloid mishaps of Mark Palios’s tenure and the glitzy extravagance of Adam Crozier’s reign, the Football Association will hope that the appointment of Brian Barwick as chief executive heralds an era of quiet competence. But when Barwick moves into his office at Soho Square, the last thing he will find is quiet. As the FA come under increasing pressure over the next year, he may find that his main task is to justify the organisation’s very existence.

Barwick’s basic biography reveals a thorough grounding in football and its infighting. He has been a Liverpool supporter from an early age, committed enough to write a book on the history of the club’s rivalry with Everton. He rose to become head of television sport at the BBC before taking up the same post at ITV. Sir Alex Ferguson touchingly refers to him as “that bastard”, a legacy of Barwick’s supposed bias against Manchester United during his time at the BBC.

No doubt the FA reasoned that Barwick’s wealth of high-level experience in the media would enable him to avoid the disastrous mishandling of the press that led to the downfall of his predecessor Palios. But the new chief executive will also need all his acumen in responding to the findings of the independent structural review of the FA.

In the wake of Fariagate, the organisation agreed to submit to an independent review of its management, which is scheduled to begin in January. One of the proposals before the review will be put forward by Southampton chairman Rupert Lowe. Under his other guise as a member of the FA’s board, Lowe has come up with a blueprint that argues that the Premier League should take control of the England team, the FA Cup and the new Wembley Stadium. The FA would be reduced to the status of a rules and regulations body. This power struggle was evident even in the decision to hand the job to Barwick. Four members of the FA board – Lowe, Bolton’s Phil Gartside, Ipswich’s David Sheepshanks and Premier League chairman Dave Richards – were reported to have opposed his appointment.

After a period of turmoil, the arrival of Barwick represents a chance for the FA to define a new role for itself. When the FA joined the top clubs in launching the Premier League, the new elite division was justified as a boost to the England side. Since then, the clubs have steadily undermined the primacy of the national team. In 1992, the FA missed the opportunity to establish itself as a strong body that acts for the good of the English game as a whole. If the organisation wants to stave off the threat of a Government regulator for football, then it now needs to provide authoritative leadership on the key issues.

That Barwick is a friend of Trevor Brooking, the FA’s director of football development, bodes well. Brooking has called on the Premiership and Football League clubs to work with the FA in investing in grass-roots football; an approach that would improve standards of coaching in schools and amateur clubs for the collective benefit of the professional game and the national team. He has also spoken of a “wider social agenda”, suggesting that by involving local children, football can build a sense of community and help to improve standards of health.

If the FA under Barwick were to introduce regulation on ticket pricing, that would represent a commitment to maintaining football’s place in the fabric of society. It would be heartening to see the clubs led into considering the example of their counterparts in Germany. Last season, the average cost of a ticket for a Bundesliga game was half that for a Premiership game. Attendances in the German top flight are the highest in Europe.

Before taking over as chief executive on January 31, Barwick will have time to mull over the words offered by another of his predecessors, Graham Kelly, who has bluntly warned him to be wary of the restructuring: “It’s a Trojan horse driven by the Premier League and he should be careful.” The evidence of Lowe’s blueprint, along with the recent comments from Newcastle chairman Freddy Shepherd, suggests that Barwick will find himself having to shield the international and domestic games from the self-interest of the chairmen.

If he wants to make progress with Brooking’s ideas on building from the base upwards, Barwick will have to perform a delicate balancing act between the different interests within the game. Let’s hope he can get on with powerful club chairmen better than he does with Alex Ferguson.

From WSC 216 February 2005. What was happening this month