FA In The “No Confidence” Vote In The FA

by | Feb 13, 2017

The debate on the House of Commons’ lack of confidence in the English Football Association (FA) took me back to some grim trade union conference days.

In conference halls dominated by a Trotskyist political far-left, debates were repetitively tedious. Delegate-after-delegate would rail against “this vicious Tory government,” (even after Labour’s 1997 election victory, in the more deranged cases). The first speech would make ALL the required points in support of a motion and the subsequent dozens would offer nothing new, merely allowing the speakers to report to their branches (Socialist Workers’ Party, not union) that they had played their part in “building the fightback,” or some such nonsense.

Trotsky didn’t get a look-in when 17 (SEVENTEEN!) MPs debated and agreed: That this House has no confidence in the ability of the FA to comply fully with its duties as a governing body, as the current governance structures of the FA make it impossible for the organisation to reform itself; and calls on the Government to bring forward legislative proposals to reform the governance of the FA. (As the Guardian newspaper’s Marina Hyde noted, this was “not a motion of no confidence (but) a backbench debate where the motion craftily contains the words ‘no confidence’”).

Six hundred and thirty-two abstentions, then. Department of Culture Media and Sport’s (DCMS) Commons Select Committee meetings, chaired by mover of the motion, Folkestone and Hythe Tory MP Damian Collins, have been better attended. And those in the Commons included the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Sports Minister to her mates) Tracey Crouch, Labour shadow Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, who kind of had to be there, and Keith Vaz who used debate procedure to speak what felt like every ten minutes.

Vaz is Labour MP for Leicester (among other less-savoury things in recent times). So he kind of had to be there too, representing the constituency of what he awkwardly called “the English Premier champions” (“not for long,” shouted someone from the government benches, possibly a non-political True Blue too).

It was a dismal attendance, even if the Commons chamber is often largely empty for the “bread-and-butter” issues which fill most parliamentary time. Initially, the idea of a vote of no confidence in the FA felt almost historic. This feeling wore off long before the realisation that actual parliamentary motions of no confidence are internal, raised by the opposition against specific government policy and/or whole governments. And it wore off long before the 80-minute debate, on a motion without legal force.

As frustratingly, the debate itself too often drifted away from the terms of the motion, towards re-hashes of sub-committee discussions. Yes, the FA does great work, as was emphasised by numerous speakers…and by the FA itself, which undertook an orgy of self-publicising tweets throughout the debate, rather than answering any points made during it. But none of that was relevant to its failure to be a governing body which actually governs.

Collins made the key point. “We are making progress, albeit slowly,” he said, quoting sports minister Denis Howell in…October…1969. He admitted that “some people may suggest that this debate is a few weeks early,” because government consultation on an all-sports “governance code” ends in April, but confidently suggested that “others may say it is 50 years too late.” And he wasn’t shy of the eye-and-ear-catching soundbite. The £22m FA facilities fund investment was “a lot of money for a lot of sports” but “would not buy a quarter share in Paul Pogba.”

However, his list of ineffective past parliamentary action was a dispiriting reminder of the enormity of the task ahead. As was his reference to “Barry Taylor, a life vice-president of the FA and life president of Barnsley,” who said of the blindingly-obvious need for FA Council reform that it “would be great” to have more women involved, “but not just for its own sake.” As Collins concluded: “Hearing that, I do not think that he has any serious commitment to the idea of more women on the council, or that he even understands why it is necessary.”

(In a recent letter to fellow FA Councillors, Taylor combined mass “whataboutery” targeted at Collins, the DCMS Committee and parliament with a breathtaking lack of self-awareness. The Government should “concentrate on running the country,” as if football was a separate nation, “therefore allowing the FA to run football.” Yes, he really wrote that. AND he added: “We have the power. We have the money.” He and his ilk make the case for FA reform simply by breathing out).

After lengthy plugs for her local league, non-league and RUGBY league clubs, Bradford South’s Labour MP Judith Cummings called the need for “fundamental” FA reform a “settled point,” citing the FA leadership’s “gross ineffectiveness” in introducing it. And she started a trend for speakers to show off their credentials as what Harrow East Tory MP Bob Blackman called “football fanatics,” although Blackman himself (“I grew up in the shadow of Wembley stadium and its twin towers”) was coy about the actual team he supported. More likely Arsenal than Harrow Borough, I’m guessing.

Jason McCartney, listed in Hansard as “Colne Valley Con” (presumably not a nickname), boasted of having reported “in a previous life” on Bradford City playing at Zenit St. Petersburg in the Inter Toto Cup. And, as a Huddersfield Town fan, he was “slightly perplexed that the television companies have not picked our mouth-watering fifth-round (FA Cup) tie at home to Manchester City for live broadcast,” which could have been a criticism of the FA but did not appear to be offered as one.

“Was it not magnificent to be at Goodison on Saturday to see Romelu Lukaku score four, Mr. Speaker?” asked City of Chester Labour MP Chris Matheson, one of the more impressive debate speakers and DCMS Committee members. Mr. Speaker, unusually these days, didn’t offer an opinion. While the SNP’s Paisley and Renfrewshire North MP Gavin Newlands was a “good St. Johnstone fan.”

The only member clearly bluffing was Vaz, who expressed hopes that Leicester would “retain the Premier League and beat Sevilla to win the Champions League this season.” Yes, Keith, and win the World Cup in Russia in 2018?

The lack of diversity among football’s leading administrators and coaches was another oft-repeated “settled point.” Vaz forced both Collins and Allin-Khan to “give way” mid-speech so that he could make, repeat and re-iterate it. And, referencing one of Barry Taylor’s criticisms, Nigel Huddleston (Mid Worcestershire, Conservative) admitted that it was “a bit rich for a largely ‘pale, male and stale’ Select Committee to lecture another organisation about diversity (when) there are more gentlemen called Nigel on our Committee than there are women.”

The lack of diversity on the FA Council was illustrated by fractionally too much ageism, even if the “doddery old sod” stereotype resonates. But the abolitionist case was perfectly made by Clive Efford (Eltham, Labour) decrying the FA Council’s “representatives from the Army, Cambridge University, independent schools, Oxford University, the Air Force and the Royal Navy.”

It was an ultra-civilised debate, bar a momentary spat between Newlands and Hyndburn’s Labour MP Graham Jones, who dismally began his speech by offering “at least we are not Scotland” as consolation for “50 years of hurt in the English game.” But too many speakers went too far out of their way to be kind about the FA (“we should not belittle everything that the FA does. It has done some great things,” gushed Sheffield South East Labour member Clive Betts) and its chairman Greg Clarke.

Matheson said Clarke had “clarity of purpose and determination.” Betts suggested Clarke “wants to see reform and we ought to back him now.” While Huddleston had “a great deal of respect” for him and “a feeling that his hands are tied.” There was also time for a paean to the Premier League, (“It is a magnificent global brand,” Betts). But thankfully, as with references to “the beautiful game,” there was only one.

More relevant to the debate was the reference to the Premier League’s “insidious power in running the FA for their own purposes.” As Efford said, the FA “has been unable to wield any power over the influence of the Premier League and the Football League,” a ridiculous position for a body supposedly governing both. Efford, alongside Matheson as the best debate contributor, had earlier intervened to suggest “a further look at the whole issue of the power and money of the Premier League, and what governance changes could be brought in to get more control over it for the good of the game.”

But he and others emphasised the need “to be clear about what we are trying to achieve. Many of the problems we are highlighting are not caused by the unwieldy construction of the council, but the weak and feeble nature of the FA board (which) as currently constructed, is clearly too weak to deal with the English Football League and the Premier League.”

There was little opposition to the motion. However, that little opposition came from the two highest-ranked members in the chamber, Crouch and Allin-Khan, which overwhelmed any potential momentum from what Crouch semi-sneeringly but accurately called the “Backbench Business debate.”

However, their opposition based on timing rather than substance. After the by-now almost traditional interruption from Vaz, Allin-Khan reminded the chamber that “just as the (FA) has a duty, we have a duty to follow due process. All national governing bodies have been given until April to lay their plans before the Government and show their reforms. We cannot single out individual governing bodies (or) shift the goalpost for some, and leave them cemented in for others.”

However, while she insisted “legislation” was “a last resort,” Allin-Khan asked Crouch to “agree that if the FA’s plans are not sufficient, the only next step to take is legislation.” Instead, at the end of a speech excoriating the FA on many different levels, Crouch declared the motion “six weeks premature” but said the FA “and other governing bodies should be fully aware that failure to reform will lead to the withdrawal of public money (and) further consideration of legislative, regulatory and financial options to bring about the changes needed.” Hard-hitting stuff. Ish.

It is easy to be cynical about parliamentary attempts to impact upon football governance. But, as I always say, that shouldn’t stop you. Hyde and David Conn in the Guardian articulated this cynicism expertly. And while Collins’ motion was a worthy effort to break the cycle of parliamentary words leading to near-foxtrot alpha action by the FA, the debate needed more focus, more direct relevance to the precise terms of the motion. And have more than 17 attendees.

After all, the Speaker declared that the “ayes had it.” But the 632 “don’t-knows-don’t-cares-don’t-give-a-monkeys” will probably be the real winners.

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