KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY
— What’s in a name? When it comes to the Football Association, the answer is: Everything.
The other home nations, indeed the rest of the world, identity themselves as the Scottish FA, the Irish FA, the FA of Wales and the like. But there is only one with the right to define itself as The Football Association. The first. English only in the understanding.
After all, when the FA was created this was the only one and had no need of geographical identification.
Mostly, it appears, the FA receives what is called a ‘bad press.’ But that is almost entirely in England or the United Kingdom. Despite a string of modernising developments it has struggled to shake off the ancient perception of a collection of old men who are not merely out of touch but deaf to the rest of the football world.
Abroad, however, the FA is perceived very differently. This is the single association which undertakes more ‘missionary’ development than any other national federation; indeed, probably more is invested selflessly abroad in terms of money, personnel and knowhow than by almost any other football organisation after FIFA.
This is one reason for the frustration abroad about the failure of England to pull its weight in the councils of the world game. The one recent occasion on which the FA did put its head above the parapet, at FIFA Congress last year, the intervention was ill-timed and badly-judged – prompting despair among friends and derision among antagonists.
To be fair, consideration of the FA as aloof and arrogant was not merely an image, it was, for many years, totally justified.
When Frenchman Robert Guerin dreamed up the idea of an international federation in 1904 he wrote to the FA, suggesting it should take a lead. The FA thought so little of the idea it was not until three months later that it managed the courtesy of a negative reply.
Eventually, it did deign to follow up the proposal and Daniel Woolfall became the second president of FIFA in 1906.
Arrogance and self-interest led the FA – and the other home countries – out of FIFA during the inter-war years. The FA stood up first against playing matches against the First World War enemy nations then in defence of the concept of true amateurism and against the foreign notion of broken-time payments.
This is the reason England did not compete in the first three World Cups. In 1938, though outside FIFA, the FA was invited to send the England team to the finals in France after a slot was opened up by Germany’s swallowing of Austria. The FA declined.
That arrogance, accompanied by ignorance of the progress of the game abroad, was punished by humilitation both at the 1950 World Cup and at the hands of Ferenc Puskas’s Hungary at Wembley in 1953.
England was still held in respect for its founding role, however, hence Arthur Drewry and then Sir Stanley Rous were successive presidents of FIFA through to 1974. But that proved a watershed year. Rous was ousted as FIFA boss by Joao Havelange and World Cup-winning boss Sir Alf Ramsey was sacked from the England manager’s job.
The ‘sacker’ was a new FA chairman, Professor Sir Harold Thompson. The Oxford chemistry don wanted a more scientifically dynamic approach but his managerial appointment of Don Revie proved disastrous for a reason which continues to be misunderstood: Revie had been an outstanding club manager at Leeds but his 24/7 approach did not translate to the national team context.
Harry Redknapp beware.
England were heading for the World Cup qualifying exit when Revie jumped ship in favour of a massive petrodollars offer from the United Arab Emirates. A further succession of managerial appointments mixed the good, the bad and the ugly while the FA, simultaneously, struggled to adapt to a brave new commercial world.
This was also a hooligan-scarred era. The FA earned itself no sympathy in high places when long-serving general secretary Ted Croker – with some justification – had the temerity to tell Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: “We don’t want your hooligans in our game.”
No surprise then that Croker was not gifted a knighthood on his retirement.
Successor Graham Kelly and the FA he served were permanently on the back foot over the next decade which brought the crowd disaster of Hillsborough and the near-financial disaster of redeveloping Wembley. Simultaneously the big clubs broke away from the Football League and created the Premier League.
The FA saw itself as leading the Premier revolution. In fact, the FA has been a prisoner of it. Money and power has passed from national association to the clubs and whatever strategies existed for investing in the grassroots game were left behind as the FA shifted offices from traditional Lancaster Gate to trendy Soho Square and then out to the long-awaited ‘new’ Wembley.
Along the way three bids to host the World Cup ended prematurely. One bid, for 1998, was dropped in exchange for European support for the hosting of Euro 96; a second bid, for 2006, was undermined by clever PR use by rivals Germany of an innocent handshake between the respective federations’ chairmen; the third bid, for 2018, ended in that two-vote humiliation in Zurich 14 months ago.
Along the way the FA went through rather too many general secretaries and/or chief executives than was healthy. From advertising executive Adam Crozier to TV director Brian Barwick to short-lived Mark Palios and the much-needed, ever-ready stand-in David Davies. Now it’s Alex Horne in the hot seat.
English football leads the way in terms of worldwide projection and commercial power. But that is all due to the Premier League. The FA, with an inadequate decision-making process, was left behind so badly it has taken last year’s parliamentary inquiry and subsequent recommendations to force it back on track.
The St George’s Park national football centre just opening up in the Midlands, at over-long last, is a sign of a brighter future. In the meantime, own goals such as the ill-judged anti-Sepp-Blatter intervention at FIFA Congress and the Capello debacle suggest that the lovable old FA will continue frustrating its many friends for a long time yet.
There is, indeed, only one Football Association.