Structural faults

As you’re reading this, a report on the future of the FA is being debated, no doubt in a secret chamber a mile under Soho Square. Roger Titford analyses the proposals made by Lord Burns and wonders if they will be acted upon or shelved

In 1884 the thoroughbred amateurs of Upton Park FC successfully appealed to the Football Association for Preston North End’s expulsion from the FA Cup for fielding professional players. This started an argument about the soul of English football that never has and never will cease. Lord Burns’ structural review of the FA is another episode in the long saga, one that its author all too readily acknowledges may well gather dust on the shelf. The seeds of significant change, however, lie within.

Burns was charged with reviewing the labyrinthine, archaic, frustrating but nevertheless still functioning structures and processes of the FA. He implies there is not too much wrong with the roles of the 19th century-originated FA but that it does not look “appropriate” for the 21st century. So he has taken some basic 18th-century political science and mixed it with 20th-century management speak to provide a review that has received a muted reception, thus far. The Premier League appears quite on-side, while Supporters Direct speak vociferously about missed opportunities. The broadsheets’ coverage each led with a different angle, so there was not much clarity there, either.

Burns main proposals are: 1) to change the make-up of the FA Board (their executive arm) by introducing independent directors and reducing the representation of the professional game; 2) to make the FA Council, to which the board should be answerable, more representative of football today (less armed forces, Oxbridge, more women, five-a-side, fans); 3) to set up an arms-length “regulation and compliance unit” to oversee the disciplinary side of the game.

Any student of politics will have recognised here the classic separation of powers – executive, legislative and judiciary. So, too, will David Dein, the Arsenal vice-chairman whose wearing of many hats this is designed to confound. Over time Burns proposes that the number of FAPL representatives on the board be reduced from four to two while the Football League will have only one. These three representatives of the professional game will be matched in numbers by three from the national (for which read “amateur” in old-speak) game and supplemented by independent or non-aligned directors. Where it gets interesting is in the task that Burns sets this board – “the strategic policy for the development of football” (for which read “the good of the game” in old-speak).

Of course there should be some such important and expert forum somewhere in football. The prospect of independent directors could soften the natural antagonism between professional and amateur sides. But what policies could the board debate? Except very indirectly, they cannot tackle issues such as excessive TV coverage, hooliganism or changes in the laws of the game.

The club versus country argument – which is a subset of the amateur versus professional argument – may soon become of massive importance to the FA. If our major clubs are under foreign ownership and contain many foreign players, the implications are not rosy for the England team, the FA’s main cash-cow. Can the FA Board formulate a policy to challenge this situation? Or, for instance, would it be appropriate for the FA to attack the development of rugby union in England? Or how comfortable should football be about its growing quasi-religious role (stadium marriages, two-minute silences, work in the community) in society? It is a bit of a pointy-headed question for club chairmen, but nevertheless something that is part of the strategic development of football in this country.

In Burns’ scheme the FA Board will become more obviously accountable to the FA Council, which he himself sub-titles, from time to time, a “parliament”. The use of this term is a door-opener for all kinds of radical thoughts. At present the FA Council represents the interests within the game as they might have been in about, say, 1910.

Quintessentially the ancient universities and armed forces (both of which, to be fair, have provided past FA Cup winners and promulgated the game to great effect) are represented while Burns observes that players, managers, supporters and the small-sided game are not.

Burns takes no risk of spoiling his whole report for a ha’p’orth of controversy here about how this transition would exactly take place, other than to suggest that various of the inappropriate sorts stand down for the good of the game and to offer the broadest guidelines on who might replace them. For example he suggests between one and three members should represent each of club supporters, players, managers etc on the reformed council. The detailed task of justifying why it might be, say, one supporter representative and three for managers is left for another day or, more like, decade. Supporters Direct’s own submission to the Burns review is the first step in addressing how football’s different interests may be represented in the same place, in effect a blueprint on how to create an electorate and a franchise for football’s parliament.

One other proposal is worth mentioning – the creation of a “Community Football Alliance” (a working title) – a self-contained body focusing on all aspects of the national (ie non-professional) game, which would get rid of all sorts of duplication of efforts in women’s and youth football.

At face value this review appears timid and practical and no doubt Burns would love it to be waved through as orthodox good bureaucratic sense before anyone spots the possibilities of significant political change.

Burns has not swallowed the business agenda wholesale and has been kind to the wider considerations of the game. In the eternal argument between the two sides of the game – professional and amateur – he has not attempted to force a winner, but to maintain a balanced creative tension between the two that would offer something to both Preston and Upton Park (were the latter still to exist). In itself this is good for the game and for the chances of his work living beyond the end of the year. In September the FA Council, who have the power to chuck it out, debate the report. They are unlikely to be presented with anything more palatable in the future.

From WSC 224 October 2005. What was happening this month