Mark Sampson, The FA & A Tale of Two Media

by | Oct 4, 2017

On 19th September, I watched England’s women players descending en masse towards their then-manager Mark Sampson after their opening goal in a World Cup qualifying victory over Russia. “**** off,” I cried. Harsh. But I can explain. The neatly-worked goal was neither hugely special against a hapless defence, nor vital to England’s qualification hopes…five more followed before the night was through. So, the dugout invasion was less a goal celebration than a show of solidarity with the under-pressure Sampson. BBC commentator Jonathan Pearce revealed what was happening (seconds before it happened…which we’ll leave for now). And he proclaimed, correctly (though surely not how he imagined): “That is significant.”

Aware of the gist of WHY Sampson was under pressure, I went expletive-deletive. And thanks hugely to a persistent football media, much more has emerged. Many more people will now think “**** off,” when they see this “show of solidarity.” The phrase “hapless defence” has applied to England’s FA each time a detail of the Sampson saga has been revealed by diligent reporting. And after frequent dismal experiences of Glasgow’s football hacks and their inability/refusal to perform the basic journalistic duty of holding authority to account, it was refreshing to see such, due, diligence.

It started with Sam Cunningham’s 6th August Daily Mail expose of bizarre “hush-money” payments to Chelsea and 102-cap England striker Eni Aluko; £80,000 not to reveal allegations already dismissed by internal AND independent investigations. The FA then admitted to many awkward facts of the case after Aluko’s revealing, extensive interview with the Guardian’s Daniel Taylor, published on 21st August. The Sampson shambles might have remained a “hush-money case.” Instead, the press exposed a four-year-old story the FA didn’t want told. It remains a racism story, despite Sampson being sacked for “other” reasons and football media subsequently exposing multi-faceted FA misdeeds and dismantling their PR, damage-limitation strategies at almost every turn.

Aluko told Taylor that in May 2016, FA technical director, Dan Ashworth, asked her to participate in an internal “culture review,” because she was an ‘iconic England player’. “They felt I was in a position, after 11 years on the England team, to speak about the culture.” She was. Just not how the FA imagined. Cunningham revealed the details of her eight-page email response, which included “seven specific accounts” of behaviour during Sampson’s England tenure. She called these “the basis of a culture of bullying and harassment.” Her complaints sparked internal FA inquiries and an independent external investigation, which ran from last December 15th until 2nd March, led by employment and discrimination law expert Katharine Newton of advocacy barristers Old Square Chambers.

The FA declared in August that the investigations “found no wrong-doing” by “the FA or others” and said Aluko could reveal “the facts” of her complaint. “Notwithstanding” the investigation’s findings, the FA had “agreed a mutual resolution” to avoid disrupting England’s Euro 2017 preparations. “It was not,” they insisted, “to prevent disclosure” of Aluko’s complaints but they didn’t specify what else could be so disruptive. Aluko had lodged an employment tribunal claim and told Taylor: “I didn’t settle on that basis (non-disclosure). I’d been advised by a leading QC, an expert in discrimination law, that my case was extremely strong.” And “settlement discussions began” because “the FA didn’t want to go to court” and didn’t want the claim “on public record.” However, “a week” after airing her grievances, she was dropped by Sampson for unspecified “unlioness behaviour.” She thought this “far more sinister” than mere co-incidence and believed being dropped was “retaliation.”

Ashworth denied this to her face. But she stressed: “I was an England player until I decided to be truthful. Some might think: ‘she was dropped by England, she’s going to say negative things.’ It came the other way around.” Ex-England keeper David James was among the “some,” tweeting: “Some wasted talent can’t deal with the fact they aren’t good enough #enialuko.” An expert on “wasted talent” speaks, you “might think.” Aluko was then told that “the (FA’s) anti-corruption unit was investigating my work as a sports lawyer,” even though it wasn’t “a secret to the FA” during her five years (!) in the role. She had to give this up because the FA said: “based on my submissions, I was breaking the rules.” She sensed “victimisation.”

Aluko made further allegations in her interview. During the October 2015 China Cup, Sampson asked “a mixed-race player: ‘Haven’t you been arrested before? Four times, isn’t it?’” An England staff member repeatedly addressed her in a mock-Caribbean accent, despite her being Nigerian-born. Because she was Nigerian-born, Sampson advised her to “make sure” her family didn’t “bring Ebola with them,” when they travelled to watch her at Wembley. And ex-teammate, Lianne Sanderson, had also complained about her 50th England cap going unacknowledged. Aluko said: “There is a presentation in front of the team and you have a special shirt with ‘50th cap’ written on it. She asked why she had been forgotten and she hasn’t been picked since.”

Aluko claimed there was a “pattern emerging here, as clear as day, these things are happening because it’s a conversation about race,” citing the seemingly-premature ends to Anita Asante and Danielle Carter’s England careers. “I’d hate to say we should be picked because we’re black or mixed race. But are we all bad characters? Are we all terrible players?” The Guardian revealed that the FA knew about the Ebola comment in November 2016, when the Professional Footballers’ Association wrote to them, calling their internal inquiry “a sham…intended to protect (Sampson)” rather than “search for the truth.” They further revealed that Aluko received the investigation’s initial findings before the FA even contacted Sanderson. The FA blamed “logistics.” Aluko blamed “farce.”

Taylor gave equally short shrift to the FA’s excuses. They claimed they didn’t know the mixed-race player’s identity and Aluko “refused” to tell them. But Aluko provided enough information to identify her instantly (it took me seconds). Taylor wrote: “A mixed-race midfielder from Chelsea…at the China Cup in October 2015. It didn’t need too much detective work.” And he said the FA cleared Sampson of the China Cup allegation “without watching the video of the relevant meeting.” The investigations, he concluded, were “a wretched, barely plausible sham.” It already appeared so.

On 5th September, Sampson spoke on the issue at last. He was anxious to “move on” (understandable, regardless of the allegations’ veracity). And the FA was as keen, restricting media access to “two hand-picked media outlets.” The wisdom of this was evident at an open press event a week later, when Sampson claimed not to remember “any particular conversation” with Aluko on Ebola. And, unaware that the Guardian knew this contradicted his inquiry evidence, he said he had “explained the exactness of the situation,” a phrase destined to be a euphemism for lying.
Press pressure for a re-opened inquiry proved irresistible. On 15th September, Taylor revealed the FA’s confirmation of “new information…for further investigation.” This included “contemporaneous text messages” from the China Cup “where players discuss what they heard.” And Drew Spence, who even the FA now realised was the “mixed-race player,” corroborated Aluko’s allegations.

However, the FA chose Newton “to begin a new process” specifically looking at “the fresh evidence.” Lord Herman Ouseley, chair of anti-racism-in-football organisation Kick It Out, labelled her re-appointment “an act of desperation” that would increase “confusion and injustice” and “get us no further to where we need to be.” England dismantled Russia. But Aluko thought the team’s support for Sampson was “selfish action” from players “who unanimously voted me as their representative to discuss central contracts with the FA.” Her anger made perfect sense. Striker Jodie Taylor said she couldn’t “comment on the investigation because I have no idea.” And scorer Nikita Parris “knew the situation” and thought it “important to get my point across,” although she “wasn’t in the squad at the time.”

Sanderson tweeted that she was “physically sickened by all of this. (The FA) successfully manipulated the players…against us.” She added: “See you October @ the House of Commons,” referring to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, which proactively pursues football governance issues under Conservative MP Damian Collins’ chairmanship. The Committee has summoned FA chief executive Martin Glenn, chairman Greg Clarke and Ashworth to an 18th October hearing to explain their treatment of Aluko’s allegations. Collins thought it “impossible” that a senior male figure “would have been treated” like her. “There would have been a lot more serious investigation into the allegations.”

Sampson was sacked, hours after receiving his squad’s embraces, amid what Taylor labelled “a flurry of buck-passing and confusion.” The FA said it was due to “allegations about his time with Bristol Academy.” These were made in 2014. Yet “the full report” into them “was only brought to the attention of the current FA leadership” a week earlier. And while it “revealed clear evidence of inappropriate and unacceptable behaviour by a coach,” Sampson was still coach against Russia. Glenn’s “explanation” under media scrutiny regurgitated this nonsense. He knew of the Sampson investigation in October 2015 and STILL needed unspecified others to make “the full report known to me.” Only then did he read it…and thought it reasonable that Sampson could coach another game despite having “overstepped the professional boundaries between player and coach.”

“Coaches are in a potential position of power (which) mustn’t be abused,” he continued. “We have to be really clear, and I think we are at the FA, about what we stand for in that respect.” Few observers are “really clear” about anything the FA stands for “in this respect,” bar hopes that the racism issues Aluko exposed would disappear with Sampson. They haven’t. It is almost clichéd to note during such tales that the “Watergate” scandal became far less about a botched robbery than the subsequent attempts to cover-up US president Richard Nixon’s direct involvement. And FA attempts at damage limitation here have been as disastrous as anything undertaken by Nixon’s acolytes.

Glenn has deservedly worn the most criticism. His position appears beyond untenable, having acted throughout as if reading from a series of “How not to…” guides. He has, at some stage, blamed everybody and everything else for everything. “You can deal only with complaints that get raised,” he whined. “If someone has had something said to them, you would expect them to raise a complaint.” Yet, Aluko raised complaints and the FA didn’t “deal” with them, for reasons far beyond credibility. “Our problem,” he said of the report on Sampson, was that “the grown-ups in the organisation” hadn’t seen it. However, it was hardly “grown-up” of him to again fall foul of diligent newspaper reporting, which caught him lying about Newton’s appointment. He claimed he “quite deliberately” said: ‘I want an independent look at this and…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.’ I feel good about doing that.”

However, FA solicitors, Farrer & Co, had already told the Guardian that any suggestion that they “deliberately” chose a black woman was “plainly false” and Newton’s ethnicity was “an issue for those who did not understand, or wished to undermine, the investigation.” Glenn was “feeling good about” someone else’s, non-existent, decision. And that same day, the Telegraph newspaper’s Ben Rumsby and Luke Edwards revealed that previous rumours of inappropriate Sampson behaviour had been investigated in 2012. While campaigning organisation Women in Football “understood questions over Sampson’s suitability” were “flagged to the FA (in) 2013 during the recruitment process.” Martin Samuel asked the key question in the Mail: “If Glenn knew what the FA had on Sampson two years ago, why has it only become a firing offence this week?”  Glenn’s answer was the “co-incidence” line that hardly excused their treatment of Aluko. The Guardian’s Barney Ronay suggested Glenn was “taking the public for fools.” If you lose the argument to Martin bloody Samuel, you should surely lose your job.

Ashworth is equally under-fire. He became FA “director of elite development” in 2013, to widespread approval. But his reputation has suffered from his role in his personal friend’s appointment and continued employment. Taylor last weekend claimed Sampson’s selection panel, including Ashworth, “changed the job specification to line up with Sampson’s CV, removing the stipulation that candidates must have a professional licence and international experience.” And Ashworth, Glenn and Clarke have until October 18th to get their currently limp stories straight. Clarke this week told the Telegraph’s Paul Hayward, in the first instalment of the FA’s pre-hearing PR strategy: “We’ll respectfully answer every question to the best of our ability.” His subsequent attempts to absolve all current FA people suggested otherwise and seemingly contradicted his annoyance that “senior people take as much credit as they can” while “some junior person gets all the blame.”

In Scotland, Sampson’s sacking was greeted by some as “An FA acts…never catch on.” However, the FA would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those pesky journalists, just as Scotland’s FA have got away with so many “its”, because of Glasgow’s defiantly NON-pesky football hacks.
I won’t bore regular readers with (much) more Rangers talk. Not here, anyway. But the contrast between the English and Glaswegian football press has been stark, despite demonstrable similarities between the chief executive haplessness of Glenn and Scotland’s Stewart Regan.
And one of many Rangers (mis)governance issues most instructively highlights that contrast: Rangers persistent breaches of player registration rules in the 2000s and the SFA’s, previously unheralded, “inability” to punish those breaches until their discovery.

Again, I won’t (and don’t need to) bore you with the details. But proof recently emerged, like Sampson’s Bristol… ahem… affairs emerged, that the SFA discovered Rangers’ registration rule breaches in 2009. However, instead of questioning the SFA on their inactivity, Glasgow’s football hacks actively excused it. Instead of holding authority to account – a major journalistic duty – they have been its PR lackeys. In Scotland, Sampson might have kept his job, despite his wholly inappropriate behaviour. And the FA’s “hush-money” payment would have remained unquestioned. English press persistence means it remains possible that “the right thing” will be done by all involved in the Sampson/Aluko/racism/hush-money/misgovernance case. Those who haven’t done their job might yet pay WITH their job. Glasgow’s football hacks should use the Sampson case as a case study. Until then, England’s football journalists will continue to shame those who have any shame.