Powers that be

Alan Tomlinson looks at the avoidable mistakes, inherent problems and myriad challenges faced by the FA and its incoming chairman

“The highest parliament in English football… the mother of football parliaments,” football writer and former Cambridge Blue Geoffrey Green called the FA in 1959. And despite the power on the field of South American national sides and the legendary Real Madrid team, Green could also laud the FA as “an authority in every land”. 

At the time Green was writing, Sir Stanley Rous was FA secretary, a position he held for another few years before becoming FIFA president in 1962. Rous had been at the FA since 1934, when he succeeded the bowler-hatted, pin-striped, umbrella-wielding Sir Frederick Wall, who had held the post for 39 years. That level of continuity in football administration is barely imaginable in the game of musical chairs that the governance of the modern English game has become.

After several short-term secretaries (three in seven years from its formation in 1863), the FA’s six succeeding secretaries served for 128 years (the final of these, Graham Kelly, took the title of chief executive). Since Kelly’s resignation in 1998, six people have held the post. FA chairmen have been similarly short-term in recent years, though Sir Bert Millichip held the position for 15 years to 1996 and Geoff Thompson from 1999-2008.

But Keith Wiseman’s three-year tenure (1996-99) and former Labour Party general secretary Lord Triesman’s two-year stint (2008-10) have hardly been the stuff of stability. The nomination to the FA council’s January 2011 meeting to become Triesman’s successor is 67-year-old David Bernstein; rules will have to be amended if he is to serve more than the two and a bit years that will take him to the normal retirement age.

Bernstein has a strong business profile and administrative pedigree. His nine years on the board of Manchester City included the club’s relocation to Eastlands and five years as chairman. He is clearly a man of principle, resigning as chairman over differences of opinion on financial matters. From there he became a director of Wembley Stadium, of which he has been chairman since 2008. Bernstein has already made it clear that he will be a hands-on chairman, reviewing the ways in which the FA works at its various levels. But like many of his predecessors – Triesman observed that the FA was not conducive to progressive change or self-generated reform – Bernstein will have to cope with an altogether different beast than he’s been used to in his business dealings.

The FA remains a cumbersome body. Its brief covers the regulation of the game from grass-roots to the elite, and international development in the likes of the Solomon Islands and Botswana. Its 115-strong council has 52 association representatives, mostly from English counties, but also including Oxford and Cambridge universities, the Army and the independent schools. Its board was streamlined a decade ago with the chairman and general secretary were joined by just ten members, five from the upper tiers of the game and five “national game” representatives. Tales of the Premier League tail wagging the FA dog are legion.

And the current strategy, “The FA’s Vision 2008-12: A world-class organisation with a winning mentality”, lies in shreds after woeful performances in South Africa and the misdirected campaign for the 2018 World Cup. That vision will have to be torn up by Bernstein – or at least quietly revised and updated, a nice job for the man credited with the initially controversial and always eye-catching FCUK marketing initiative.

Its first strategic goal is “trusted to lead” – Lord Triesman’s resignation in May 2010 after alleging that Russia and Spain were shaping up to bribe referees still leaves much leadership and trust to be rebuilt. The second goal – “England teams winning” – was blasted to bits by the young German players at Bloemfontein. And the third goal, anchored in the recognition of football as “the nation’s favourite game” concentrated on the 2018 World Cup bid, as well as looking to grow the game at all its levels. The bid was premised on showing FIFA what England could do for world football, and any balanced observer of the dynamics of World Cup hosting bids and votes could see that this was a doomed, as well as patronising, strategy.

General secretary Alex Horne is, like his incoming chairman, a chartered accountant. The FA has a harmonious-looking team at the top for the immediate future; moneymen with principles. It is a switch back towards business after the political pairing of Triesman and Ian Watmore. It is a necessary move too, bringing in the accountants to cope with the Wembley debt and expenditure excesses, such as Fabio Capello’s contract.

The FA is a bloated beast, responsible for reining in the Premier League, creating successful for the national teams, enhancing football expertise at the new St George’s Park national centre at Burton, and making a go of the new Women’s Super League. From Wembley to local schools football, it looks to improve facilities and coaching skills. Whether this behemoth can be focused sufficiently to accomplish these goals is Horne and Bernstein’s biggest challenge.

From WSC 288 February 2011