FA's Greg Dyke: The Premier League needs more English players

The MT Interview: Greg Dyke is as forthright as ever. Only 30% of Premier League players are English, he says, and we need more.

by Andrew Davidson
Last Updated: 14 Nov 2014

With age comes circumspection. Sometimes.

'So a couple of years ago,' says Greg Dyke, well into our chat and leaning over, almost conspiratorially, 'I went cycling with my old mates for my 65th birthday. Six of us, all been at school together in Hayes and as teenagers we'd cycled round Devon and Cornwall, staying in youth hostels.'

He wants to do the same ride again so he has the T-shirts printed - '50 years on' - and sorts out the same hostels and raises sponsorship for the tour and cracks jokes about how hopeless they were, never even managing to find any girlfriends for the original trip.

'So this guy says, right, he'll pledge me £1,000 sponsorship, but double it if we pull any women this time round!'

The upshot being Dyke, a former director-general of the BBC and the current chairman of the Football Association (FA), the British Film Institute and the Ambassador Theatre Group, spends the whole ride desperately trying to persuade any woman he meets to pose for pictures with him.

'£40,000 raised for a project in Uganda,' he grins. 'Mind you, one woman told us: "Look, loves, if you couldn't pull at 15, you really haven't got much chance at 65 ..."'

Cue the guffaws. Of course, whatever could attract anyone to a short, bald, garrulous, hard-swearing multimillionaire? 'Damn, you're right. I never told her I was rich!'

Cue even more laughter. Don't even ask what his wife thought. The way Dyke tells it, his long-suffering companion, Sue, has always been his shrewdest counsellor.

And he gets away with it simply because the joke is always on him, which is why so many enjoy his company. He's sharp and impulsive and rarely dodges a question, even if finishing whole sentences is often a struggle, as new strands hijack old ones in mid-course. It makes him fun to be with, but also regularly drops him into trouble, making him rather a dangerous chairman to have.

Hence no surprises when, three months into his new job as at the Football Association, he is photographed drawing a finger across his throat as England's World Cup draw for Brazil is announced. Combine that with a jittery start to his commission investigating the lack of home-grown talent in English football - a topic on which he speaks passionately - and you can see that sometimes the desire to be one of the lads just gets in the way. One newspaper described Dyke's first three months at the FA, the world's oldest football association, as 'a car crash'.

He rubs his face when I put it to him. 'Look, every newspaper in Britain is full of more sports pages than there are stories.' And it's a different kind of journalism from any elsewhere else.

'You ask them why didn't they check something and they laugh and say: "Well, you might have knocked it down." Dyke's accent switches to rough-edged London with exasperation. Then he trots out his life lesson: 'But you mustn't let what the press say interfere with what you're trying to do. You just get on with it.'

We are sitting in a bar in a swanky hotel where Dyke has left a morning of FA meetings. He strolls in alone, nodding "Allo' to those who turn and stare. He wears a dark suit that slims him and, when talking, he looks a decade younger than his 66 years. In repose, his face becomes senatorial. But much of the time he beams like a naughty cherub.

'Tap water,' he says, on offer of a drink. 'I don't drink alcohol for January and we're already into February and I'm still not drinking.' He laughs. 'Hey, I'm doing well.'

Not according to some. The issue on which he has pinned his FA chairmanship, developing home-grown talent, immediately became a row when Heather Rabbatts, one of the FA's own independent directors, decried the lack of diversity on Dyke's new commission, writing to fellow directors to criticise the way it had been set up. 'The FA should be leading by example not reinforcing entrenched attitudes,' she wrote.

Dyke gives me a look. 'Yes, but she knew Rio Ferdinand was joining, it was a game.' What game? He starts a response, thinks better of it, then moves to a generality. 'The issue of ethnic minority representation on the committee is not a big deal. The issue of ethnic minority representation inside football is a big deal. Football is still unbelievably male and white at the highest levels.'

Why? 'God knows. But, remember, I was the guy who accused the BBC of being hideously white, and that was a good thing to say, as it meant while I was there, everyone knew I was taking it seriously.'

And he is taking it seriously at the FA, too. 'Trevor Phillips, an old mate, said to me that the issue today is not that people don't understand there is an issue, it is that they don't know how to change things. We're halfway there, but we've still got a long way to go.'

Dyke took the FA job because he has always been a football fan, both at Brentford, near where he grew up in west London, and Manchester United, where he was a director before 2000. He also had a role in the formation of the Premier League, the world's most valuable national football league, whose power now makes the FA's life infinitely more complicated.

Despite the FA's control over the rules of the game and the national team, it has revenues of only £318m. The 20 clubs in the Premier League have a combined income of closer to £3bn. Appointing Dyke, part of the Frankenstein team that created the monster, was either a mad, bad or very canny move by the FA.

'Yeah, I gave the dinner party (at the broadcaster LWT in 1991) where England's five big clubs had the idea for the Premier League, but I'd never really dealt with the FA before the headhunter approached me.'

Dyke, on a three-day-a-week contract, doesn't run the organisation - there is a team headed by chief executive Alex Horne to do that - but he now sets the strategy and oversees implementation.

Pinpointing the lack of good English players coming through is his decision, made doubly pertinent by this year's World Cup.

'How do we get more players of calibre playing for the national team? That's number one. Only 30% of Premier League players are English, which compares unfavourably with Germany, France, Italy and Spain. On top of that, they have players here and we have none there.'

Will sorting that require a change in the FA's relationship with the Premier League? 'I've known Richard Scudamore (Premier League chief executive) and Anthony Fry (Premier League chairman) for a long time, and you want an honest and proper and fair relationship. The Premier League has the money, and a lot of it is spent on football - you know the reason we have not got anything like HBO here, a pay-TV business based on quality drama?'

Because we have the BBC?

'No, because all that extra money was given to football. I'm not complaining, it was good for football and good for Sky, I'm just not sure if it was good for British drama ...'

Dyke has lost the thread. It's as if he's always got two answers jostling, and he cannot resist giving a bit of both. He admits he is not a detail man, he prefers to be a change agent, shaking things up with his bluntness, just as he did in his broadcasting career.

'I like going into meetings to throw a bomb,' he nods. But then he also says he enjoys complexity, cutting a careful path through it. 'If I think things are easy, there is a good chance I will screw it up.' It doesn't always make him easy to work with.

He sighs when I put it to him. 'Sometimes I think there are people in football who would rather you didn't do anything at all. But that's of no interest to me, I didn't do this for prestige or tickets or whatever.'

He does things because they interest him, full stop. It's been like that since Granada TV bought LWT in a hostile takeover 20 years ago, and Dyke stomped off with £7m in his pocket. Nice work?

'No. It was agony, that was my spiritual home. They wanted me to stay but I couldn't, they were the enemy.'

The money, however, gave him freedom. Dyke, the son of a salesman with East End family roots, had a typically direct description for his new fortune. He called it his 'fuck-off money' - cash that gave him the ability to say bollocks to anything he didn't enjoy, for ever more.

That bristly attitude is now overlaid with a more thoughtful approach to motivation. It's exactly a decade since he resigned from the BBC amid the furore over its reporting of Iraq.

His resignation, prompted by governors, brought BBC staffers onto the street in protest, and his subsequent book recounting the period, Inside Story, cast him as a martyr to many causes, battling the earnest Oxbridge elite that has always run the Beeb, and the perfidious spin-doctors of Tony Blair's Labour government, which Dyke had originally supported.


In truth, you can still find senior BBC figures who think Dyke was never more than a sound-bite king and lacked the intellectual rigour necessary to understand the corporation. He brushes that aside.

'Yeah, people in the BBC always said it was complicated, and I always said it looks pretty easy to me. You are given £3bn to spend - in most companies, it's the getting of £3bn that is hard.'

He does acknowledge that one reason he became so popular with employees was that he followed John Birt. 'He did so many good things but made no effort to sell it to staff - either made no effort or didn't know how to ...'

Dyke, by contrast, wooed the staff, always out and about, explaining and cajoling, in a way that was very different from the 'us and them' approach of previous DGs. A good leader, he says, should spend 25% of his time 'getting out'.

His belief that he was close to effecting real change meant the manner of his exit had a profound effect on him. You can sense the frustration in his book, published in 2005 - 'yeah, written in haste and anger'. It is a readable romp of anecdotes and management truisms, intercut with an in-depth dissection of the Blair government's position on weapons of mass destruction.

Inside Story is also revealing in its description of his feud with Baronesses Sarah Hogg and Pauline Neville-Jones, two BBC governors he caustically nicknames 'the posh ladies', and in his own unease around them. Sometimes he seems as surprised as any at how well he has done, but he won't tolerate others being sniffy.

Dyke used the book to launch himself on the lecture circuit. He had briefly studied under change management guru John Kotter at Harvard in 1989, bankrolled by LWT, and he built on that to become an accomplished speaker on leadership, leavening his talks with his own brand of humour.

He would start by citing the 6,000 emails he received from staff wishing him well when he left the BBC. 'Then just when the audience is thinking, oh you smug bastard, I'd point out that I also got one other one. It simply said: "Fuck off, Dyke, I never liked you."'

He still cracks up at it now. No regrets? 'Nah. After about 18 months, my daughter said: "Just get over it, will you?" And I thought she was dead right, so I got over it.'

But journalists will keep asking him questions. Is he still angry at Tony Blair? 'No, I am not angry, but if my son had been killed in Iraq, I could never forgive him.' Because? 'You can expect your prime minister to tell the truth. He didn't lie but he was selective in what he told us.'

And the legacy of what Dyke left at the BBC? He has already given evidence to Dame Janet Smith's inquiry into the Jimmy Savile scandal, which should report this summer. Did he have any whiff of Savile's misdoings a decade ago?

'I heard nothing about him while I was there. But I did tell the inquiry that presenters have always been protected in any medium. Always.'

Meaning? That history is littered with examples of blind eyes being turned to criminal behaviour for any number of reasons. 'It depends on Dame Janet finding out who knew. Did the head of entertainment know? The DG didn't, but I think she will probably find out.'

And the vast salaries given to Beeb executives in the past decade - his fault?

'No, I got two-thirds of what I got working for commercial TV. Mark Thompson got a lot to come back as DG from Channel 4, because Michael Grade offered him a lot. After I left, I told the first chairman of the BBC Trust (Sir Michael Lyons) he had to do something about it, you don't have to pay that much to get people.'

Nowadays, he is on less cordial terms with BBC Trust chairmen. 'No, I don't go out with Lord Patten, he is a busted flush. The system is flawed.' Dyke wants the BBC put under its own version of regulator Ofcom, and reconstituted with a board and non-executives along normal company lines. 'It's gotta happen.'

And was he responsible for depth-charging the British newspaper industry by piling the Beeb into online journalism?

He grins. He has always disliked Rupert Murdoch, and claimed in Inside Story to have pushed the BBC into Freeview primarily to stop Sky colonising digital TV. Was ramping up the Beeb's written output another way of squeezing News International?

'Nah, I think the newspaper industry would have gone the way it has whatever we did. I don't hate newspapers, I'm one of the people still buying and reading them. The newspaper industry should have worked out an online model, but it tried too late.'

Ever been offered a job by Murdoch?

He laughs again. 'Nope. Actually, I did get a call from a headhunter once, asking if I wanted to work for Sky, but why would I? I was at the BBC. I think Murdoch is a genius, he's done incredible things, but I have dedicated my life to stopping him. The way he went about his business was terribly damaging to our democracy.'

So is he enjoying the hacking trial?

He shakes his head. 'I knew Rebekah Wade a bit. I've even had dinner with Murdoch a couple of times. Why? He's Rupert Murdoch, isn't he?'

He admits he found it more difficult getting executive jobs after he published his book. He was keen to move outside media. 'If someone had asked me to do something in the NHS, I would have, but they never did.' It is, he thinks, the ultimate leadership challenge.

Where charisma has been in short supply? He won't agree to that, but says he always believed more power should be handed back to the doctors, because they have the credibility.

'At LWT we overcame similar problems by putting the creatives in charge. At the BBC, we put the change programme under the former head of drama, they have a credibility no one from HR ever has. At the NHS, they need to put the doctors in charge, no pissing about.'

Yet surely it isn't that simple? When GPs were given power to write their own contracts, they swiftly found ways to double their income. Dyke's broad-brush approach may be less easy to implement in practice.

He acknowledges that. He will be judged at the FA not on choosing to prioritise home-grown talent, but on implementing a strategy that improves the situation. Tantalisingly, he says there is a route. 'I can begin to see some ways of doing it.'

Imposing quotas? He winces. 'Difficult because of European law.' The answer, he says, will involve 'persuasion and relationships' and that 'will all come after we finish the commission'.

Likewise, financial fair play (FFP), increasingly an issue as competition holders such as Uefa try to stop sugar-daddy owners pumping cash into loss-making clubs via dodgy sponsorship deals and rights sales. Dyke firmly believes FFP will be enforced.

'Uefa has an independent bunch going round making recommendations and it will sort it.' Owners want a return from their money, so they will help push the overspenders out.

And when will he stop? He laughs. 'Well, I always said it would be 65, but now I'm 66, I'm saying it's 70.' Generally, when the year ends in a four, he gets kicked out of something - the BBC in 2004, LWT in 1994, TV-am in 1984. His wife once asked him, why is it always such a drama when he leaves a job?

He doesn't know. He just needs to stay busy. 'It's the adrenaline that keeps you going.' As well as chairing the FA, the BFI and ATG, he runs a hotel in Sheffield and three golf clubs, in Devon, Hampshire and Buckinghamshire. Why? 'Like most things, I bought the first and others followed. The hotel I bought with other investors then decided to run myself. I appoint managers, they get on with it.'

But he only plays golf twice a year and never as a business booster. 'I don't do that. Sue and I decided years ago we'd never invite people to our home in Twickenham for business purposes, because it's another part of our lives, and we only want people there we like. Sometimes you have to do business with people you don't like.'

He and Sue have four grown-up children, two from her first marriage. 'One's in the music business, another a journalist, another an academic and another in social fields - I love them all.' And, that's what counts, he says, family and friends.

By now, we're standing outside in London's dank rush hour, trying to say goodbye and for a moment I think Dyke is going to start walking to the Tube station with me.

'Actually, I'm off to the South Bank,' he says, 'going to see one of my favourite guys in sport, Barry Hearn. Do you know him? I love Barry ...' I point him towards the taxis. 'Nah, I've got a car waiting somewhere.' He peers into the rain before turning back with a smile. 'Ta-ta then.'

Later I email him with the question I forgot to ask. As FA chairman, accompanying the national team to Brazil this summer, does he think England can actually win the World Cup?

He writes back instantly: 'We got a tough draw and we'll do well to get out of the group but I am optimistic we will achieve that. After that it's in the lap of the gods.'

It's almost as if he's been practising.

THREE CHALLENGES FACING DYKE

  • Increase the number of English footballers in the Premier League
  • Help the England team avoid disaster in Brazil this summer
  • Try not to make a drama out of a job loss in 2014

DYKE IN A MINUTE

1947: Born 20 May in Hayes, Middlesex. Educated at Hayes Grammar and

York University, as a mature student

1965: M&S trainee

1966: reporter, Hillingdon Mirror

1975: Campaign organiser, Wandsworth Council for Community Relations

1977: Researcher, LWT

1983: Editor-in-chief, TV-am

1990: Managing director, LWT

2000: Director-general, BBC

2004: Chancellor, York University

2008: Chairman, British Film Institute

2009: Chairman, Ambassador Theatre Group

2013: Chairman, Football Association

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