FA Fluff and Other F…oul Ups
It’s a running joke on English comedian John Oliver’s American cable TV show “Last Week Tonight.”
Footage of Trump telling consecutive lies, with Oliver declaring “WE GOT HIM!” to cue huge celebrations. But…they hadn’t “got him.” Trump lies don’t matter. “He didn’t know what he was talking about. I thought that was meaningful,” Oliver concluded, his voice tailing-off in near-despair. I was as near-despairing when England’s Football Association hierarchy received the backing of their board, despite their woeful showing in parliament on October 18th.
FA chairman Greg Clarke, chief executive Martin Glenn, technical director Dan Ashworth and human resources director Rachel Brace were giving evidence, to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee’s Sports Governance inquiry, “on how the FA carries out internal investigations,” if “the FA acted adequately (on) internal complaints” and “whether the FA’s governance structures and the attitudes of senior officials enable players to report instances of abuse,”
The issues arose after Chelsea and England striker Eniola (Eni) Aluko complained about the handling of her allegations of bullying and harassment “by figures in the England camp.” A 2016 internal FA investigation erroneously cleared key “figure in the England camp,” manager Mark Sampson, of wrong-doing, having ignored key witnesses and evidence. The Professional Footballers Association (PFA) called this investigation “a sham…intended to protect Sampson.” And an FA-commissioned inquiry under barrister Katharine Newton repeated the errors.
Sampson, the committee noted, was only “fired following different allegations at a previous club.“ And committee chair, Conservative MP Damian Collins, insisted the FA “explain why it took so long to look into issues raised about the coach’s past,” why he was “appointed in the first place,” why “senior officials” overlooked “this information when a player stepped forward with serious allegations” and why “senior leadership…failed to act without prompting from external organisations.”
Media accounts pilloried the FA quartet’s performance, alongside assured performances by articulate first-class law degree graduate Aluko and lively, combative Lianne Sanderson, an England ex-team-mate of Aluko, who corroborated her “best friend’s” key allegations.
The hearing’s conduct unfairly pressurised them. Exchanges with the players were inquisitorial, those with the “FA Four” were adversarial, with Collins vigorously “playing” a prosecution barrister grilling “the accused,” often to the point of abuse of process. But, ultimately, the FA Four were, individually and collectively, dismal. Their objective was to demonstrate their ability to learn from past and present errors. They failed.
They were deservedly undermined, too, by Newton’s second report into Aluko’s allegations, published hours before the hearing. Her conclusion, read out with detectable satisfaction by Collins, was that Sampson “on two separate occasions made ill-judged attempts at humour, which as a matter of law were discriminatory on grounds of race within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010.”
Aluko felt “relief” and vindication. And she profusely thanked the PFA for their “unwavering support,” adding: “I would very much like to endorse and recommend (to) any other players going through difficult situations…to use the PFA.” Much of her evidence was already public, from August interviews with the Guardian’s Daniel Taylor and BBC sports editor Dan Roan. But she added telling detail here.
For instance, the FA claimed Aluko told them “Drew Spence did not want to be involved” in investigations of racist comments Sampson made to the young Chelsea midfielder in October 2015. Aluko “categorically” denied this, calling it “an attempt by the FA to blame me for their shortcomings in their investigation.” She was “astonished” at Clarke’s response to a PFA e-mail in November 2016, detailing Aluko’s complaints. She “felt that sending it to the FA chairman would lead to a better process.” But “it was the opposite,” (see below).
Aluko wondered if Clarke “would respond like that” if “a male player with 102 caps were to send a complaint like that, itemised, written by a leading QC” and whether “female players are taken seriously enough at all levels of the FA.” And she said Clarke’s “disrespectful” dismissiveness “made up my mind” that “my only option” was “an employment tribunal.”
She also detailed a two-part financial “settlement agreement” with the FA, “based on loss of earnings, loss of future earnings” and her “potential” employment tribunal award. She added twice that the FA were “very keen for me to speak freely about the facts of the case.” However, the FA withheld the second part, due on August 31st, because Aluko “was defamatory in a tweet.”
Aluko found this “contradictory to its intention for me to speak freely, to contradict accusations of it being hush money.” And Glenn “effectively suggested that if I wrote a favourable statement saying that the FA is not institutionally racist,” the FA would “think about releasing that money. I felt that was bordering on blackmail” and that “I was being asked to do something I would not have ordinarily done in exchange for a payment that was contractually agreed.”
Her “issues with the FA” were “limited to certain individuals,” including FA strategy and communications director “Robert Sullivan…who I know has been leaking documents to the media.” This was an especially stunning revelation…that FA “strategy and communications” are directed.
Some of Sanderson’s evidence, in an adversarial setting, might have crumbled. For instance, she declared “I could tell you every minute I have played for England, because it means so much to me.” Yet she left the England set-up in 2010 after disagreements with then-manager Hope Powell.
Sanderson frequently finished her contributions by asking “if that makes sense.” And it didn’t always. But she would have been a key, credible witness in any remotely-credible FA investigation. Yet she was only contacted “the day after” they told Aluko they had decided “there was no wrongdoing” by Sampson.
When contacted, she raised “some pretty not-so-great things” and suspected she was dropped by England because she complained. Her “first year under Mark was fantastic.” But, she noted accusingly: “Literally since they forgot about my 50th cap, I have not been selected.” She was as cynical about Sampson’s sacking. It “needed to happen.” But “that does not mean everything goes on like nothing has happened.”
The contrast between “pretty straight-up” Sanderson and “straight-shooter” Clarke was painful. Glenn was psychologically incapable of accepting blame. Ashworth resembled a football man over-promoted to a management role. Brace was an archetypal HR director, feigning neutrality between employee and employer. And while the MPs focussed excessively on individual remarks by Clarke and Glenn, the FA’s defences were utterly dismantled.
Clarke was castigated for his response to Aluko’s detailed allegations: “I have no idea why you are sending me this. Perhaps you could enlighten me?” He offered a transparently pre-prepared explanation, Sport England’s Conduct Code in-hand for visual impact:
“On page 24, 1.1(c), you will be aware, as the people who drove this” (he sneered), he was “clearly mandated and directed” to avoid management processes or decisions because I would become conflicted if the board had to take a governance view.” And three “conversations” with a PFA “executive” failed to convince him that Clarke wasn’t “spinning him a line.” Clarke correctly noted: “My job is to make sure governance is good, not to run the FA.”
But, rather than attempts to get a PFA exec to “cease and desist,” his response sounded like part of a different conversation. As Collins noted that Clarke’s “governance code does not dictate that you frame an e-mail in that way.” Unfortunately, this got Clarke “thinking” attack was his best defence. He accused the PFA of “some really bad governance.” And despite Collins reminding him that the hearing was about “the governance of the FA not the PFA,” Clarke let rip.
After relating a harrowing tale of an abuse victim who said “the PFA will not pay for my counselling anymore,” Clarke declared: “The PFA spends millions of pounds a year on the CEO salary and pension fund” and claimed they “walked away” from “alcoholics,” “addicted gamblers” and abuse victims. “I will never look up to their governance.” It was a jarring piece of “whataboutery.”
Then, for reasons which defy rational analysis, he referenced “the fluff about institutional racism.” This came with valid points about “not jumping to conclusions” in his governance role, and institutional racism not being a “material issue” for Aluko.
He “mischaracterised” the issue. He meant that he “could get distracted by the irrelevant” (almost as bad a word) and stated, correctly, that “twice an England player with 100 caps was exposed to a situation where racist abuse happened. That is a fundamental breach of our duty of care for that person, I feel very bad about that.”
It was one word among 180 he said. But Labour MP Julie Elliott, like most observers, heard it loudest. “The fact you describe that as fluff speaks volumes about the organisation,” she declared, as Clarke begged her not to “take it out of context.” Too late. “You have said it in evidence to a Committee of the House of Commons,” Elliott added. “Language matters…and you have just said fluff.”
Glenn “believed” Aluko’s allegations were “honestly and diligently dealt with…with decency and openness.” He characterised the FA decision to go “further” when their internal process failed as “pretty good going.” He dismissed Newton’s criticisms as “a holistic view” which merely referenced “the possibility of a slight conflict of interest on one aspect.” And he invited Brace “to add comments,” keen that the buck stopped…elsewhere
Collins wasn’t fooled: “Believe me, we will come to other members of the panel.” He said Newton was “clear that…there is no grievance procedure for players in Eniola’s position.” And he cited other “very poor example of due process.”
On Newton’s appointment, Glenn admitted telling the Guardian: “‘I want an independent look at this and, to be blunt, I want it to be an employment expert, I want it to be female and I’d like it to be of a different ethnicity to us.” But he ‘meant’: “(Newton’s CV) was terrific and she was “exactly the right kind of person.”
Labour’s Chris Matheson noted: “That is completely at odds with” the Guardian quote. Glenn ‘explained,’ without irony, that it was at “the end of a long day” after “a full briefing on media issues.” And when asked if he knew “it would have been unlawful,” Glenn replied: “If it were, I apologise.” Matheson’s stunned reaction makes me laugh, even now.
Glenn gave politicians’ answers to the politicians’ questions. “That is not what I said,” “I would like you to answer the question,” “that is not the question I asked,” Collins pleaded, morphing from prosecution barrister into Jeremy Paxman, in an often-entertaining role-reversal.
When asked why Aluko didn’t get “line-by-line” responses to her allegations. Glenn ‘answered’: “I’d like Rachel to respond,” “I will not admit that she did not get a response,” “Eniola had a fulsome response in terms of dialogue,” and “in the spirit of what was asked for, she was fully engaged.”
Glenn claimed that Aluko breached her “settlement agreement” by tweeting: “We know the FA’s stance on derogatory racial remarks by an England manager. Ignore, deny, endorse.” But when asked if “you will make that payment immediately,” his ‘answers’ included: “it is important that you have Katharine Newton’s report,” “to be proportionate, there were a number of complaints” and “we will reflect on it.” Collins sneered, accurately: “The FA’s interest in that single tweet stands in pretty stark contrast with 18 months of ineffective action” over Aluko’s “serious” allegations.
Elliott later asked if the FA failed in its duty of care to players. Here, his ‘answers’ included: “There have clearly been failings,“ “could we have done things better? For sure,” and “we have clearly made mistakes.” But he didn’t “want to say” the FA was “failing in the way you have described it.” Elliott sighed: “You cannot even say you have failed in your duty of care, which quite clearly you have. I think that speaks volumes as well.”
Brace was terrible. She said her investigation “needed to be kept tight, it needed to be contained,” which Labour’s Ian Lucas translated as “That was your priority. Keeping it tight, covering it up.” An incredulous Collins said it was “an investigation into a specific allegation, to which there are eyewitnesses, and no one approached any of the eyewitnesses to ask them if they could corroborate what had been said.”
But, as if mentored by Glenn, she refused to accept any inadequacies, claiming Newton “did not say (it) was not adequate.” Collins disagreed: “She says: ‘the original investigation’ was not ‘carried out in accordance with best practice’ and ‘areas were not initially fully investigated/’ That is not a statement of adequacy, is it?”
Brace replied, semi-nonsensically: “I am happy. I took the question as it was said in terms of adequate. There is a difference between adequate and best practice.” Collins found her “present representation of that extraordinary, given what is in the report.” And when Glenn intervened, Collins declared: “I do not think you understand what is being said to you.”
Ashworth was as uncomprehending. Newton directly criticised him for “co-leading” yet “supplying evidence to” the internal review, which Collins called “a clear breach of best practice.” Collins asked Brace why she hadn’t told Ashworth to “step back from the process.” She insisted they “absolutely did have that conversation (but) he wasn’t giving evidence,” just “a point of view.” Otherwise “I would absolutely have asked him to step away.” Absolutely.
Collins asked Ashworth: “What was the point that you needed to give?” And Ashworth didn’t argue when Collins aggressively portrayed his “point” as “a material attempt to steer the inquiry” by claiming Sampson was “doing a good job.” Ashworth was “entitled” to that view, Collins acknowledged, but “people would question whether you should also be arbitrating over the way in which the allegations are examined.”
Ashworth pleaded that he was “not an HR expert,” and had merely offered “a measured and balanced view.” Collins went further: “You are prejudging your own investigation (by) saying, ‘I think he is a good guy and other people should know that too. Rather than just looking at the evidence, I am going to make my own submission to my own inquiry.’ Newton is absolutely right to say that was completely wrong.”
You could almost sympathise with Ashworth here, as Collins barely let him speak. But Ashworth, like Glenn, couldn’t grasp the enormity, or the very fact, of his mistakes. For instance, he thought Aluko being dropped the day before her allegations were first published could be passed off as co-incidence.
There was largely unreported mitigation for the FA Four. Many issues pre-dated them. Yet their collective, total ignorance of the “Lucy Ward” case dwarfed that. In 2016, Ward won £290,000 from an employment tribunal when Leeds United sacked her for being sacked manager Neil Redfearn’s partner. She sought FA support when Leeds didn’t pay. “When did this happen?” Clarke asked.
Slammed for inaction on another discrimination case, Clarke cited statutory limitations on FA powers and thought it wise to give a “pertinent” example. “I battled with Mr Cellino,” he said, in the same exchange in which he pleaded ignorance of Ward’s case at Leeds, then-owned by Massimo…Cellino.
Their evidence is a fortnight old, but has not aged well. Lord Herman Ouseley, chair of anti-racism campaigners Kick It Out, disputed Clarke’s claim to have contacted him “early in the process.” PFA CEO Gordon Taylor labelled Clarke’s PFA rant “classic diversionary tactics.” And Daniel Taylor, no fan of his namesake, noted in one case which matched Clarke’s tale of the PFA abandoning an abuse victim, “that Taylor, to give him his due, offered to pay for extra counselling out of his own pocket when he found out.”
Having helped expose the FA’s conduct, Daniel Taylor was especially unforgiving. He labelled Ashworth the “Director of Co-Incidence,” despairing that he would be compiling the shortlist for Sampson’s successor, despite having “his fingerprints all over this debacle.” And Glenn’s claims that “the FA’s media department” contacted the Guardian to clarify his remarks about Newton? “Maybe he was feeling jaded again when he said that. No conversation of that nature ever took place.”
The select committee will report early next year. And if its findings were being written-up now, recommendation one would surely be “dump those clowns.” For once, however, Clarke’s usually-tiresome flaunting of his footballing credentials was relevant. He was chairman BECAUSE of his fandom. The role, he noted, had a reputation as “career death.” Almost no-one else wanted it when he applied. And who would currently want the others’ jobs?
So, with no threat to their places, the FA Four will carry on regardless; complacent, incompetent and lacking self-awareness. It doesn’t matter how often the DCMS select committee could have shouted “WE GOT ‘EM.” The fact that the FA Four didn’t know what they were talking about just wasn’t meaningful.