Football In Parliament, A Right Pair Of Richards
In the second part of this afternoon on the subject of football governance, Mark Murphy watched Dave Richards and Richard Scudamore giving evidence to The Culture Media and Sport select committee inquiry on football governance, and found that the most impressive thing on display was Dave Richards’ hair.
The Culture Media and Sport select committee inquiry on football governance had all the evidence before it. But it remains to be seen whether its final report will address the key issue for many observers. Premier League chairman Sir Dave Richards’ hair… is it a wig, or is it dyed? There was ample opportunity for any toupee to fall off if the glue hadn’t been applied properly, as Richards shifted uncomfortably in his chair every time he was asked a question by the committee. His performance as a witness to the inquiry recalled a similar display from prehistory (i.e. before the Premier League was formed).
In 1989, the then Football League chairman, Blackburn’s Bill Fox, showed himself (up) as the Richards of his day in more than just job description, with a stilted, uncomfortable display during Football Crazy, a Channel 4 effort – from the days when the channel at least made an effort – to examine football’s governance. After Fox’s appearance, When Saturday Comes magazine was moved to say: “We really had no idea he was like… that… whenever someone starts a sentence by saying “there are 92 league clubs,” you know they are floundering helplessly…never has anyone so richly deserved the audible booing he received at the end.”
Richards’ almost caricature-style northern-ness and rambling, shambling answers were something of a remake, with a plaintive “can I just say this?” being his version of Fox’s “there are 92 league clubs” entree. By about the ninth “can I just say this?” committee chair John Whittingdale must have wanted to say: “Well, actually, no. Just answer the question.” But old school Tory MP Whittingdale was altogether too nice a ‘chap’ for such directness. Alas. Richards was possibly just giving a performance, designed to make on-lookers ask: “How can this doddery old sod bully anyone?” after former FA Chairman Lord Triesman accused him of bullying behaviour in his evidence to the inquiry. But Labour MP Jim Sheridan was unconvinced: “I can almost feel a lump in my throat,” he noted, sarcasm oozing from every syllable, “when you speak of the sincerity you feel and passion you feel about being hurt by Lord Triesman.”
Passion might have explained away Richards’ claim that the RSPCC, of which he has “been one of the chairmen for 12 years,” had raised “a quarter of a billion pounds for children for bullying.” (Richards’ work for the charity over the years has been immense – he wasn’t knighted for his services to Sheffield Wednesday Football Club. But he has also been a failed football club chairman and failed businessman. And this was the persona the select committee saw before it). His appearance alongside Premier League Chief Executive Richard Scudamore and Triesman’s appearance back in February have topped and tailed the committee’s ‘oral sessions.’ For the purposes for which the committee was set up, the sessions in-between were more valuable.
Much of the first half-hour of the two Richards’ session was taken up with “who said what to whom” arguments, which might have provided mild comedy if they hadn’t been at taxpayers’ expense. Yet if the committee wanted a compelling argument for the FA being the game’s governing body and the Premier League to just mind its own business, the session provided it, if you could pore over the transcript – or make liberal use of the pause button on Parliament TV’s coverage. Sheridan’s questioning revealed the conflict of interest between Richards’ roles at the FA and the Premier League.
The FA’s response to former Culture Secretary Andy Burnham’s famous ‘seven questions’ about football’s “relationship with money” in October 2008 was a lame duck referral to the Premier and Football Leagues responses. Triesman claimed his more detailed, relevant response was dismissed by the FA board. Burnham set a deadline for responses of 31st March 2009. Triesman’s paper only surfaced in May. Sheridan suggested Triesman’s submission had simply been “time-barred”, and received possibly the longest reply of “yes” ever recorded in parliament. So far, so reasonable. So Sheridan “put on record” his “surprise” that “in the run-up to the 31st March there wasn’t a submission from the FA and yet no-one bothered to ask the question why there wasn’t.” Sheridan’s implication was that it wasn’t in the Premier League’s interest for the FA to submit a paper claiming for itself all sorts of regulatory authority. So the Premier League chairman, Sir Dave Richards, didn’t want the FA Board vice-chairman, Sir Dave Richards, to push for an FA submission.
He thus exposed how Richards’ interests were conflicted, as previous FA witnesses had suggested, without allowing Scudamore a response. Clever, eh? The sort of smart ‘operating’ you suspect Scudamore would have appreciated in other circumstances. Scudamore’s main ‘operation’ in front of the committee was cut into Richards’ contributions before any proverbial cats could be let out of bags. “Let me add some facts to that,” Scudamore interjected on one occasion, with unintended irony. And by the end of the proceedings, even the patient Tory MP Therese Coffey was moved to say “I’d be really interested in Sir David’s view” as Scudamore tried to bulldoze in for the umpteenth time.
Richards wasn’t always interesting. “It’s a lovely story and a lovely anecdote,” noted Farrelly after one Richards ramble, “but it doesn’t respond to the central question.” And Scudamore couldn’t interrupt every time. Momentarily unguarded, Richards revealed that he “had always wondered about inclusion and what that means.” He then suggested the FA Board needed its professional game and national game constitution “because each person brings something a bit special to it… accountants, club chairmen, club chief executives, professional game chairmen, secretaries from the national game”; administrators all, professionals none. He also revealed that in 16 years on the FA Board, “we’ve only had, to my knowledge, four votes.” This was a democracy record which would only shame Cold War communist leaders and, we’ve suddenly discovered in recent months, most of the Arab world.
These revelations unwittingly backed Triesman’s evidence of a non-inclusive world at the top of the FA, with the important work done away from the boardroom, in ‘corridors’ proverbial and otherwise. And Richards noted finally, after Sheridan listed his roles across domestic and European football that “these are elected positions; I didn’t go looking for them.” At which point most prosecutions in the land would happily have rested. When not digging Richards out of holes, or arranging Richards’ paperwork so he could read the right script, Scudamore was… Scudamore, with a command of his brief which sports administrators everywhere would do well to match, and his long-favoured interview trick of wilfully misrepresenting the question, usually to guide the conversation away from unwanted topics.
Alas, Scudamore could not prevent a picture emerging from his answers of an entirely reactive Premier League. He suggested the league’s governance was so good and its regulations so strong that there was no need for governmental concern or for FA involvement beyond a vague “over-arching” role which didn’t stop the league doing much as it pleased. And had the committee known its history, they would have realised Scudamore had opposed most of these regulatory advances at the time – ‘fit and proper persons’ tests’ et al – and that he and the Premier League only accepted them when it was too late. Portsmouth’s financial and ownership tribulations were the best example of how this had happened in the past. And Leeds United’s ownership disclosure difficulties are the best example of how it could happen again.
Scudamore asked the committee to “judge us by our journey,” claiming that “we will live by our track record of having evolved our rule book appropriately.” The discussion quickly focused on the prospect of Leeds winning promotion whilst being in breach of Premier League requirements on beneficial interest disclosures. Scudamore insisted that Premier League rules did not “bite” until their June AGM and he “cautioned” the committee “against… leaping to the end of our disciplinary process” even if Leeds still kept schtum about their beneficial owners.
Liberal Democrat Adrian Sanders, the quiet assassin of the committee, noted, correctly, that the Premier League “should at this juncture” be able to tell Leeds that it would “not be accepted” by the league. At which point Scudamore simply changed the subject, citing the differences of interpretation of the ownership disclosure rule (“the same rule”) between the Football and Premier Leagues. After Scudamore’s lengthy response to the issue only he had raised, Coffey suggested rule alignment might be in order. “The irony of this conversation,” Scudamore replied smugly, “where you might be suggesting that the Premier League should be imposing our power, is not lost.” His wilful misinterpretation of Coffey’s point was, hopefully, not lost either.
Meanwhile, back at Leeds, Farrelly was getting nowhere in his pursuit of Premier League foresight. And having established that the league would not force Leeds into compliance at the point of entry, he noted, probably correctly, that “people will come away from listening to this thinking the rule is about as much use as a chocolate fireguard.” Scudamore took the view, though, that “such is the attraction of playing in the Premier League, it is not unknown for people to relent their position in order to comply with our rules,” thus coming across, all at once, as arrogant, complacent and ignorant. A remarkable hat-trick, I’m sure you’ll agree. The Premier League had arguably put a chocolate fireguard in front of Portsmouth’s various owners last season, as Scudamore could say nothing more certain of Ali Al-Faraj than, “we believe he did exist, though,” 18 months after deeming him ‘fit and proper’ to own the club. Thankfully, the days of Portsmouth being taken over by foreign businessmen with colourful business backgrounds are long gone (ahem!).
Yet Scudamore was now in full-flow, producing seventy-five seconds of quotations which revealed, to an extent that may even have surprised his harshest critics, that he appears to have forgotten that the Premier League is only a league. “The members of the Premier League will take being moved along the regulatory curve more readily from their own executive and their own board than they will necessarily from people one stage removed,” he noted, without clarifying whether he’d tried that line with any of his bosses earlier in his working life. “I think the way it works now is good and the idea that we somehow need somebody external to come along and suddenly impose things upon us is not necessarily the way forward to make progress,” he added, warming to his theme of ‘mind your own business.’ He headed back into unintended irony with: “You can’t have a small minority interest group come along and set us off course,” clean forgetting how the Premier League came about in the first place.
And his big finish was: “We have to sit here and act as custodians of this game.” And by “we”, he unequivocally meant the Premier League. Scudamore later had time to launch his usual defences of the benefactor model of club ownership, the leveraged buy-out of clubs and the football creditors’ rule, all of which have been soooooo successful in recent years. And he also managed to define the essence of English football since 1888, which was “the buying and selling of players… the thing that gets most people excited.” Not that the game is all about money.
It was remarkable stuff. And if any of the committee felt it might be necessary to take this chap down a peg or two to remind him of his actual place in the game, it would be hard not to sympathise. After all, the first question of the session was “do you accept that the Football Association is the governing body of the English game?” And Richards answered, without the need for Scudamore to “add any facts” or turn his chairman’s script up the right way, “yes, absolutely.” Now all the committee has to do is enshrine it. Otherwise English football will continue to smell of smug, money-obsessed, arrogant, reactive self-satisfaction. And quite possibly hair dye and wig glue too.
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