Job impossibilities

The role of chief executive of the Football Association is a notoriously difficult one. So much so the FA have decided to open up applications to the general public

Anyone browsing the job sections in the broadsheet press of late may have noticed an advertisement for the post of chief executive of the Football Association. The current holder of the post, Brian Barwick, leaves officially at the end of the year, although he has had plenty of time to improve his putting technique since the summer, when he was relieved of most of his responsibilities by FA chairman Lord Triesman.

The deadline for applications was November 21, with the candidate-sifting being done by a headhunting firm called Nolan Partners, who offer “executive search and selection in sport”. In a doubtlessly doomed bid to forestall a postbag packed with unsuitable CVs, the advert stated: “It is unlikely that anyone without a track record of running a substantial business or organisation will have the necessary experience to take on this role.” Such caveats are unlikely to have put off delusional applicants, however, not least when they only appeared in the eighth of 12 paragraphs, in among babble about “complex multi-stakeholder environments”.

But relevant experience may not count for much in any case. Barwick, head of sport at both major terrestrial channels, negotiated the FA’s latest TV deal, worth £425 million. But many felt the FA should have opted for the BBC and Sky, who would have generated bigger audiences than ITV and Setanta. One might also wonder whether an executive committee of complete novices might have made a better job of selecting a replacement for Sven-Göran Eriksson as England coach in 2006, when Sven’s erstwhile assistant finally got the nod because the FA chief executive and his colleagues messed up an approach to Big Phil Scolari.

There has been a shortage of speculation about likely candidates for the post, which is no surprise given the curse that has affected previous holders. When ­Graham Kelly was undone by a loan to the Welsh FA in 1998, it took more than a year of David Davies holding a stand-in role before Adam Crozier arrived from Saatchi and Saatchi. Davies even got to appoint an England coach, after Glenn Hoddle’s spontaneous combustion.

Crozier was a football outsider and a Scot, which didn’t go down well with every­one, especially when he appointed England’s first foreign coach. But he was chosen because the FA had gone from being a sporting body to a sizeable business. When the power struggles became too much for him, an ex-player who had forged a career in accountancy seemed a safe pair of hands; until those hands, belonging to Mark Palios, wandered in the same direction as Sven’s. And Barwick’s reign, via the debacle of Steve McClaren’s appointment, has led to the partial eclipse of the role as Lord Triesman has assumed more power as FA chairman.

When Barwick was appointed, in 2004, the interviewed competition was Richard Bowker, formerly head of the Strategic Rail Authority, and an unnamed business executive. Perhaps the credit crunch will help, as there may be more executives out there scanning the jobs pages. But though the job offers a high profile, this just means a role with a habit of breaking its occupants does so very publicly.

The modern FA are blamed for the sins of their predecessors and for problems over which they have no control. This autumn they have received flak for selling the rights to England away games to Setanta, despite the fact that they belong to the host FAs and Soho Square has no power in the matter whatsoever. Whoever currently holds the post gets the blame for the form of the England team, even if – as Trevor Brooking’s focus on the skills of nine-to-13-year-olds, covered elsewhere in this issue, shows – a large proportion of their fate hangs on what happened when the current players were in short trousers, not just shorts.

Barwick bungled the succession in 2006, but his curtailing of Eriksson’s contract was popular with the press, who also reacted strongly against the idea of another foreigner. It was not Barwick’s fault that the standard of English coaches was so low: McClaren, with his experience as Sven’s assistant and as the only trophy winner, was the best qualified homegrown candidate. That did not stop the same papers berating the FA man for the consequences of their own desires.

Seventeen years ago, Graham Kelly unveiled the Blueprint for Football, designed to put the England team at the game’s pinnacle but which instead, by creating the FA Premier League, exulted the club game above everything else, handicapping himself and his successors. Barwick, at least, has been able to enjoy Fabio Capello’s excellent autumn as his tenure draws to a close. But the ­“£significant [sic] six figure salary” awaiting the successful applicant is likely to prove the chief consolation for whichever executive gets this new version of the impossible job.

From WSC 263 January 2009