MANCHESTER/LONDON: David Bernstein steps down in July as chairman of the Football Association – which made his closing address to the Soccerex European Forum particularly significant.
This was, as he said, “not quite my end of term report”, but he praised the dedication of his executive team as “a talented, motivated and creative group of people who have a difficult and sometimes unappreciated task running this multifaceted, complex, high profile organisation.”
Bernstein thanked everyone else working for the game and the football industry, especially for their ambassadorial work in the FA’s 150th anniversary year. He then entered the heart of his address, concerning progress to take the FA forward.
When I was appointed chairman I observed that the FA lacked stability and was an organisation short on confidence. I think and believe it is generally recognised that we have made real progress on both counts.
The greatest privilege of being chairman of the FA is the honour of leading the whole game and there is much to be proud of at every level.
Our national game, or amateur game as it is widely known, is the lifeblood of football in this country. In this 150th anniversary year, it is more important than ever we highlight the outstanding work at grassroots level.
There are 400,000 volunteers that ensure people of all abilities can enjoy their football every week. These are our unsung heroes and without them football would not function in England.
This is where football is such a powerful vehicle for good, keeping people fit, providing a social focus and also supporting our professional game as a crucial entry point into the sport we love.
In my time at the FA the women’s game has gone from strength to strength, and in its 20th anniversary of being run by the FA it stands on the verge of overtaking both cricket and rugby in terms of its levels of participation.
As president of Level Playing Field I am particularly passionate about the strong progress in our disability programme, as highlighted by the Paralympics.
Oldest in the world
More than 115,000 participants take part in some form of disability football every week, making it the seventh most popular team sport in the country.
The professional game is also something we should be very proud of. We have the oldest football league in the world, this year celebrating its 125th anniversary, where clubs remain at the heartbeat of many communities.
The Premier League meanwhile continues to grow as an incredible global competition. This is the league that is watched wherever you travel in the world, continually providing exciting high-octane football. Our leagues are tremendous assets to both English football and the nation as a whole.
We also have the FA Cup, the oldest, most famous domestic knock-out competition in world football.
As our landscape continues to evolve, we all have a duty to protect and treasure the unique traditions and heritage that the FA Cup provides.
This is a magical and democratic competition which year on year brings all parts of the game together, delivers inspiring giant-killing moments and incredible stories. Ask any Wigan or Millwall fans their views of the FA Cup and they will I’m sure proclaim its magic.
However, the professional game does not exist without the supporters who flock to our football stadia. They are our heartbeat. Without these passionate fans there is no football and we must ensure we treat them with care and respect, and make football accessible to all.
Football officials, players and managers change, the fans are a constant. At this significant time of year when we remember those who tragically lost their lives at Hillsborough, we must not lose sight of this.
Our match officials make football happen at every level. We have some of the best in the World, and rightly recognised as such. We have become too accustomed to criticising them, when technology means every decision is scrutinised more than ever before.
While there is always going to be debate, we must treat them with greater respect, focus on their sustained excellence and have trust in their abilities and integrity.
Youth development is an area which may have been neglected in the past, but this is now really taking off.
Our professional clubs deserve tremendous credit for the way in which they have developed their academies and the whole game is building on that with the Elite Player Performance Plan.
We do need to produce more and better players in this country and I believe this is happening. The challenge moving forward is for these players to be given the opportunity to perform at the highest level – Howard Wilkinson spoke eloquently about this at the FA Council yesterday.
The pool of English talent has to increase.
The opening of St George’s Park, the FA’s National Football Centre will also be of great benefit to the whole game. In just a few months we have already seen St George’s come to life as a real hub for our national teams.
The Club England setup is working extremely well. The ambition of having it operating in a similar manner to a successful football club is being achieved. We have a good level of mutual confidence and camaraderie which runs through this division embracing the managers, their staff and our teams.
Roy Hodgson has bought into the whole concept and is building for the future, introducing young talent whilst working flat out to qualify for the World Cup.
In my view we continue to move in the right direction as an efficient and well run organisation.
The FA operates extremely well. We distribute £100million per annum to the wider game, Wembley stadium can now justifiably claim to be one of the very best venues in the world. Wembley is now profitable and we expect it to be debt free within 10 years.
Meanwhile St George’s Park having been constructed on time and to budget is now moving into its operational phase.
Respect as a subject has risen to the top of my own agenda and today I will talk about this in its widest sense to include antidiscrimination and related matters.
My time as chairman has been accompanied by a background of individual, high profile issues and even in the last few weeks we have seen a string of challenging headlines.
Nevertheless the general progress we have made in dealing with discrimination has been significant. I believe the FA has handled these matters impartially and properly and at the same time enormous efforts have been made to educate, regulate and lead on this vital agenda.
I was particularly pleased that at the request of the Prime Minister we led football in producing a collective action plan on antidiscrimination with recommendations and there is a stream of actions in hand which will begin to be implemented later this month.
A new generation of players are growing up with respect as a code and these youngsters will consider it as a normal part of their football education.
This is vital as we all know the importance of players as role models. We need to be confident in ensuring that our own regulations and procedures are updated to deal with on-field matters as the game continues to develop.
I also hope and believe that the strong stand I took at the FIFA Congress in 2011 helped enhance our standing in the wider football world and I think that we have done well in developing relationships with Government, the media, the other football organisations of this country, FIFA and UEFA.
In the case of UEFA this is clearly evidenced by our hosting both their congress in London this year and a second Champions League Final in three years at Wembley.
Our representation on international committees is stronger and better organised. This is vital if we are to increase our influence across the world game.
We need to use that influence to promote progressive issues and change internationally. To do this effectively we need to work with our colleagues in UEFA as self evidently the unified voices of 53 nations will always carry more weight than England’s alone.
This clearly brings me to governance and the structure of our game.
This issue has been with me almost from my very first day, and through the work of Parliament, its select committee and Government itself, it remains high on our agenda.
I am not one of those who think politicians have no role in questioning how we run our game.
Whilst we are rightly very proud of the tremendous change that has taken place in our industry – commercially and financially we have experienced nothing short of a revolution in recent years – we are not unique, and like every major sector in society we have to expect external scrutiny and challenge as part of the process of renewal and adjustment to a game that has fundamentally changed over the last two decades.
Let me be quite clear. During my term we have made only limited progress in this area. I did manage to have two independent directors appointed to the FA Board and they have already proved to be of real value.
But otherwise changes in governance are still very much in the melting pot and being stirred very slowly.
Our governance reform process is working on the principle of ‘gradual change in due course’ and I think as a consequence the whole game is missing an opportunity to better itself.
I am frequently asked a crucial question: is the FA is a representative or a governing body?
I believe it is both but that the balance between representation and independence leading to the ability to govern strongly must continue to be examined.
In conclusion, I genuinely believe English football has so much to be positive about and so much potential for the future.
From youth development to women’s football, investment in the grassroots to the strength of our Leagues, we are thriving and looking ahead.
As a game we’ve been on quite a journey since 1863 – from a London tavern to a global billion pound industry played by millions – it has faced down many challenges and it has always been at its strongest when working together.
For me this is the most important point – strengthening relationships, furthering trust and approaching everything as a collective whole game will undoubtedly provide the best platform to achieve success across all areas at all levels.
As I step away from my present role I will watch the next stage of development with fascination with optimism.
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