The Battle Is Over And The FA Deserves Only Our Contempt
It was the thirty-first of May 1984 and Keith Burkinshaw, the manager of Tottenham Hotspur for the previous eight years and the man that had just brought the UEFA Cup back to White Hart Lane, was leaving the club as manager for the last time. As he greeted the asembled press outside the entrance to the ground, he gesticulated in the direction of the stadium that he had called home since 1976 and said, “There used to be a football club there.” It is possible that Burkinshaw didn’t know how prescient he was being.
The money men had arrived at Tottenham Hotspur two years earlier and herein lay sewn the seeds of the moral and spiritual death of football in England. Twenty-eight years on, the final act of their coup d’etat played out with the supine abdication of responsibility on the part of the Football Association for anything to do with English football apart from its bare bones.
The Department for Media, Culture and Sport select committee’s report into the governance of football in England had the potential to be a watershed moment for the way that football is managed in England. Mountains of debt, disenfranchisement on the part of many supporters and the slow, inexorable slide of the fortunes of the national team had prompted the involvement of the government into a subject that they have seldom previously involved themselves, and the submissions given to them by various contributers have regularly punctuated the columns of our newspapers over the last few months. The select committee praised Supporters Direct as, “absolutely vital to nearly all supporters’ trust success stories” and criticised the Premier League for, “reluctance to devise a formula” for the organisation’s “long-term future”, but sport minister Hugh Robertson may well be wondering why they even bothered in the first place, when we consider the spineless response that they got from those within the game itself.
The only conclusions that we can reach from the response is that those that run the game in England – and this is not just the Premier League, but the FA itself – have chosen to ignore or reject the recommendations that the select committee made. They make it clear that they no longer wish to fund Supporters Direct, in stating that the organisation should “primarily rely on funding raised from their membership or their own initiatives”, and have a list of matters relating to the governance of the game that are “outside the scope of the FA”. This list includes: “Club and league commercial and financial matters; club business and operating issues, stadium, customer/fan issues; club/league relationship with other competition organisers including Uefa; club ticket prices; club distributions and parachute payments.” Anybody sane reading this response could only draw the conclusion that perhaps it is time to disband the FA, pack it up and leave the game to the rapacious speculators that have made our game their home for the last two or three decades or so.
What is perhaps the most startling aspect of the response to the recommendations is the extent to which it ignores the principles of regulation in the first place. Regulation has to be imposed upon the game because those running it have demonstrated time and again that they are not fit to be its custodians. If they could be trusted, other parties wouldn’t need to get involved and attempt to make them change their ways. Attempts to address the absurd situation in which a game with more money flowing through it has become more indebted and more unbalanced than ever before have been rebuffed by those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, and there are plenty of anecdotes to back this up. Robertson should now refer this response back to the select committee itself, and they should dismiss it with the contempt that it deserves. Whether this will happen or not, however, is a different matter altogether.
It is possible – just about possible – that this abdication of responsibility on the part of the FA might just about have been forgivable if we had any cause to believe that we could end up better off as a result of it, but it is impossible to do. Even in the case of the few dregs that the FA will retain control of, there is little inspire any belief that they can administer it with any less of the haplessness that they have shown in recent years. After all, this is the organisation that mortgaged itself to the hilt for a stadium which it presumed would form the centrepiece of a World Cup final one day without keeping the Premier League and its hostility to the international game in check, meaning that the World Cup finals bid that was submitted was hopelessly discredited by the time that voting took place to decide who would host the 2018 finals at the hands of the very people that are now running the show.
It is the organisation which spent so much money on its white elephant that it had to sell corporate tickets which strangled the idea of FA Cup semi-finals or England matches being held anywhere other than at the national stadium for the foreseeable, which has led to a dislocation of interest in the national team outside of London and the south-east and the further debasement of the world’s oldest cup competition. This is the same Football Association that managed to somehow lose its manager four months before the start of a major tournament. It is the same organisation that rubber stamped the franchising one of its clubs by sixty miles, in contradiction of its own regulations on the geographical location of clubs. It stood by and allowed EPPP rules that were explicitly written to the benefit of the biggest clubs and no-one else to be waved through, and for the Premier League to nakedly bully the Football League into making this so.
And here’s the thing. We supported the FA, by and large, because we needed them. Portsmouth and Port Vale may be in the news at the moment, but the list of English – and Welsh – clubs in dire financial straits over the last ten years or so is almost an all-encompassing one. They were supposed to be the bulwark against the asset strippers, the venture capitalists, the property developers and those that otherwise don’t give a toss about anything that doesn’t involve the Premier League. The FA was supposed to have represent the conscience, the soul and the custodian of the best traditions of football in this country. They have absolved themselves of this responsibility and they deserve nothing now but our contempt. We, as football supporters have been sold out by all concerned. We might have expected it from the Premier League. We expected better from the Football Association itself. They have sold us all down the river.
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