Eighty days before the World Cup finals and not more than a year after he took the job in the first place, Ian Watmore has quit as the Chief Executive of the Football Association. When Watmore spoke at the Supporters Direct annual conference in Birmingham last October, he didn’t inspire a great deal of confidence. His with the Premier League’s Richard Scudamore’s comment that, “You can’t bar people because you don’t like the cut of their jib” seemed ill-placed, considering the audience that he was addressing that he may even have already been in the pocket of the Premier League to some extent. That the rumours are that he is leaving because he has been unable to bridge the implacable gap in values between the FA and the Premier League comes both as something of a surprise and no surprise at all.
His referencing of Scudamore’s comment was certainly appropriate with the benefit of hindsight. The state of cold war between the Football Association and the Premier League has been getting hotter and hotter over the last couple of years. Lord Triesman’s attack on the league for allowing its clubs to sleepwalk their way into millions of pounds worth of debt would have been prescient were it not for the fact that it was so bleeding obvious to anaybody with so much as a cursory grasp of economics. The Premier League’s (and those that support them, in particular in the press) reaction was not to put tighter checks in place to ensure that Premier League clubs manage themselves – it was a concerted, orchestrated and largely unjustified media campaign against Triesman in the press.
Against this sort of background, it would be entirely understandable if Watmore felt that his role was that of being the peacemaker. By saying the right sort of thing to the Premier League (by nodding at Scudamore when he said that, “You can’t bar people because you don’t like the cut of their jib”, for example) whilst, on the other hand, turning out to give a speech at the Supporters Direct annual conference, perhaps he thought that he could build bridges. In that respect, his lack of previous football experience became glaringly apparent. Those running the Premier League may consider themselves to be modernisers within the game (and at this point it is worth considering Phil Gartside’s idea of having a Premier League 2 by invite ony, Game 39 and play-offs for the fourth Champions League places – these are the ideas that they made public), but they are also steeped in the Machiavellian politics of football.
In 1992, the Premier League needed the Football Association’s blessing to break away from The Football League and kick start “a whole new ball game”. Keeping all of the television money for themselves needed that veneer of repsectability, and the FA were cowed enough to go along with it. However, throughout the 1990s they were quietly moved to one side as the league took control of itself and, to an increasingly disproportionate extent, the FA itself. It has become a Frankenstein’s monster, and the FA is no longer capable of appropriately controlling it. This much is obvious from what is now becoming more and more likely to be an ill-starred bid for the World Cup in 2018. We have gone from being in a position of the Premier League clubs needing the FA’s support to the almost inverse of that position in less than twenty years.
And herein lies the problem. Whereas the FA could be talked into supporting the formation of the Premier League, there is no way on earth that the Premier League is going to be talked into acting in a way that supports the FA. To the Premier League, the FA stands for regulation, international football tournaments and national teams, and the tighter control of finances of the game for the greater good. These are all things that the Premier League is institutionally and instinctively against. The Premier League won’t even speak out against the leveraged buy-outs of clubs. Why not? Well, the small matter of the fact that one-tenth of its members (and that one-tenth is the at the bigger end of the Premier League club scale rather than the smaller end) are owned by people that bought their clubs using exactly this procedure. Ultimately, the Premier League is the twenty clubs that are in it, and this will always inform their policy decisions.
Ian Watmore appears to have made the mistake of believing that he could reconcile the irreconcilable. The Times reports this evening that Ron Gourlay, the chief executive of Chelsea, and Keith Edelman, the former managing director of Arsenal, are the subject of “early speculation” over the new position, who exactly is doing this speculating and what their motives are remains unanswered, as does the question of whether it would be in the interests of a newspaper that is owned by News International to push these two, either of whose appointments would be likely to further strengthen the control that the Premier League has over the FA.
The Sun, meanwhile, claims that, “Watmore was continually frustrated in his attempts to do his job properly”, whilst only partially mentioning that the source of this frustration was Dave Richards, the chairman of the Premier League and an FA Council member, whose resignation from the 2018 World Cup team brought Lord Triesman so much bad publicity at the end of last year. Indeed, anyone skim-reading The Sun’s article could be forgiven for believing that the main cause of Watmore’s resignation was a “bust-up” with Triesman himself. Relations between Watmore and Triesman have been described as “cool”, but not completely unworkable.
The FA finds itself looking for its fifth chief executive in ten years, then, and whoever gets the job is going to find that he (or she) is going to have exactly the same problems as Watmore had. They are intractable, and they are related to power, money and control Yet, for all this, the FA remains more sinned against than sinning, with opposition and vested interests on all sides leaning on it and getting in the way of what are genuine attempts to modernise and streamline the way that the game in this country is run. They often don’t help themselves – consider the decision to give one of the places on the World Cup stadium shortlist to Milton Keynes – but they are all that we have got in opposition to the Premier League, seeking to stamp its face on English football forever.