All of England is still worrying: Will we, won't we reach the World Cup? And whether we do or don't, isn't it time to take a close look at soccer's unwieldy, leaden-footed manager, the FA - 130 this month.
Graham Kelly, immaculate in a black tuxedo, steps forward to the front of the stage, his glasses glinting in the spotlight, his face fixed in a grin. In his left hand he clutches a small brass trophy, in his right a sheaf of notes. Before and below him are several hundred football fans, mostly male, mostly in their twenties. They greet his appearance with a chorus of boos. Undeterred, he approaches the microphone. 'This', he begins, holding up his award, 'has taken me completely by surprise. I feel very humble. It's so undeserved.' He goes on to thank all those without whom it would not have been possible, dabs away a mock tear, tells the crowd that he loves them all and eventually retreats to the back of the stage. This time, however, he's trailed by a round of applause. Meet Graham Kelly, chief executive of the Football Association, stand-up comedian and, according to his award, 'the man who has done most damage to football in the recent past'.
For a man known neither for his humour nor his ability to please crowds - least of all, those with a love of football - it is a peculiar and oddly compelling performance. Is this the spectacle of someone slyly confounding their critics or revelling in their own unpopularity? Whatever his motives, there are those in the audience who remain implacable, who take the flippancy with which he greets his rebuke as a further insult. Yet the fact that Kelly should appear in person to collect the award - bestowed upon him by readers of the football magazine, When Saturday Comes - would seem to say much for a new-found concern for both his image and that of the FA. As Kelly must himself know only too well, neither could be much worse.
So what is Kelly's offence? In part it comes down to a simple matter of personal style, the feeling that in a game of outsize personalities the figure that heads its ruling body should display a certain force of character. On the contrary, such notoriety as Kelly does enjoy appears based on his very anonymity. When he is visible he fares little better. Several graceless performances in front of the cameras and a dour manner have left him with the reputation of a colourless, remote and seemingly arrogant administrator. Even those who are ready with compliments are quick to concede that he is not a 'natural' in front of the media. His more acerbic critics, citing his first job at Barclays, prefer the label 'ex-bank clerk'.
Yet criticism of Kelly goes beyond issues of personality and the routine contempt with which many fans seem to regard the administrators of any large and fervently followed sport. It is an ire directed at the public face of a body that appears and frequently acts as a self-regulating and self-perpetuating oligarchy; that, if judged as most businesses currently are, in terms of customer satisfaction, would surely disappear. Examples of the FA's high-handedness abound, from its reluctance to accommodate supporters' organisations to the declaration of itself as English football's supreme authority, 'and properly so'. Yet few of its actions have proved as divisive as that which, two years ago, wrested control of the old First Division from the Football League and reconstituted it as a 22-club Premier League under the FA's governance. Not so many people might have doubted its motives if it had not been for the unprecedented amounts of money which flowed into the game in the following years. Last year those doubts reached a peak when a £304-million, five-year deal gave BSkyB exclusive rights to live Premier League football (with the BBC picking up the recorded highlights), followed a few months later by a similar BSkyB/BBC deal for £72 million for coverage of the FA Cup and all international games.
Yet far from benefiting football, as was first suggested, many feel that the effect has been wholly negative. The removal of live, top-level football from terrestrial television, it is claimed, has denied access to all but a dish-owning minority and endangers the sport's long term popularity; the formation of a 'superleague' has narrowed the base of the game and concentrated money in the hands of too few clubs; and, perhaps most critically, control of the way in which football is played has been handed over to television. Under this scenario the only beneficiaries are the Premier League clubs and the FA itself. Indeed, in the space of five years the FA's annual income has nearly doubled - from £14.3 million to £28.7 million - and its television revenue has almost tripled.
The vision of English football put forward in the FA's original proposal, the 1991 Blueprint for the Future of Football, was somewhat different. It was a conception of the game based on 'a pyramid of playing excellence with the England team at the apex'. The cornerstone was to be an elite 18-member league, the idea being that a smaller division would mean fewer matches, less wear and tear on players and a better chance of success for the national side. So far, however, the Premier League clubs, anticipating the fall in income from fewer fixtures, have blocked any move to reduce their number. According to Alex Fynn, a sports consultant at Saatchi and Saatchi who worked on the original plan for a Premier League, the FA's mistake was not to hold out for 18 clubs. 'It didn't have the guts or the wit to follow it through. It approved the idea in principal and then handed it over to the clubs, so automatically you started with a league of 22 clubs. Nothing had changed except the name. You had the same teams playing the same number of games, but it was even worse because they had sold their souls to television.' Kelly also originally recommended that there should be no title sponsorship, that 'the integrity and the name of the FA Premier League should be sacrosanct'. In February, however, the Premier League agreed a £12-million title sponsorship deal with Bass. 'We've now got the situation', observes Fynn, 'that in the FA Carling Premiership, Liverpool, sponsored by Carlsberg, play Spurs, sponsored by Holsten, which is brought to you on television by Ford in association with Fosters. It's absurd. It's merely taking money from any source'.
One of the Blueprint's recommendations that was carried through was the appointment of a commercial director to 'protect and exploit the inherent values' of the FA's major properties - the FA Cup, the as yet unformed Premier League and the England team. The successful applicant was Trevor Phillips, who like Kelly, came across to the FA from the Football League. Just as Kelly had, as League secretary, opposed the formation of a breakaway superleague, so Phillips's move to the other camp was not without irony. On the Blueprint's publication, Phillips termed it a 'considerable setback' to the commercial future of the League. A year later he had been hired to implement its proposals.
Phillips currently faces a potential setback of a different kind - from the erratic performance of one of his key properties, the England team. With the still-imminent prospect of England failing to qualify for next year's World Cup, the current series of lacklustre draws and humiliating losses - and only occasional wins - might well translate into a sizeable dent in the FA's 1994 balance sheet. At the last World Cup, Italia '90, England finished in fourth place and netted the FA £2.1million from FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association) - the biggest merit payment in the tournament's history. Less easily quantified yet perhaps of greater value was the sudden renewal of interest in the game. Not only did the number of people playing at amateur level rise but match attendances and television audiences also soared.
Though Phillips has calculated the cost of failure this time around he demurs when it comes to discussing figures. Kelly, other than noting the 'serious implications', similarly refuses to be drawn. Most clearly at risk is the FA's £1-million sponsorship deal with sportswear manufacturers Umbro, the suppliers of the England strip. It also has agreements with Mars and Guinness. If the worst transpires and England spends next summer at home then all is not lost, claims Phillips. 'This business is cyclical', he muses. 'The only thing you can be sure of is that sooner or later a peak is going to be followed by a trough.' Until that next peak, Phillips must pursue income from other sources. His ability to do so, however, is currently hindered by a range of long-standing contracts, in which some of the terms are particularly unfavourable to the FA. He cites the example of the agreement with Wembley Stadium, the venue for all international matches, the FA Cup and the Charity Shield. Under the existing arrangement, scheduled to run until 2002, Wembley takes all of the advertising revenue, 32% of gate receipts and 25% of television revenue from the FA fixtures held at the ground. The fact, for example, that Wembley controls its perimeter advertising means that Phillips is unable to guarantee a potential sponsor of the FA Cup the sort of rights they would require. 'I cannot develop our income through a new commercial programme until we actually control the environment, from a marketing point of view, in which we play all our showpiece games', he claims. 'And that's one of the main problems with the Blueprint. It assumed you were starting with a blank sheet of paper.' There are firm hints that things are about to change; that, as Phillips puts it, 'the long association between the FA and Wembley could be coming to an end'. The attitude up until now, he notes, is that the FA has had nowhere else to go. Yet under the terms of the deal both parties can walk away from the contract within four years. If the FA does so and instead decides to rotate Cup and international fixtures between other grounds, it would have to balance the short-term fall in revenue from lower gate receipts - no other stadium comes close to Wembley's 80,000 capacity - with the longer term benefits of having total control over the commercial environment.
Elsewhere Phillips is seeking to extend the FA's influence through gaining control of the England players' pool, the fund that holds all the sponsorship and advertising earnings of the England internationals. If agreement is reached, the existing arrangement, whereby an agent acts on behalf of the players, would be replaced by one in which all earnings go directly to the FA, out of which it then pays the players a set fee. Again, World Cup qualification would greatly enhance the pool's value.
Yet while the FA adjusts to new commercial imperatives its structure readily betrays its amateur roots. Its principal decision-making body is the FA Council, a 92-member board that meets six times a year. In composition it is dominated by 43 county football associations, each of which send an elected official. Amateur representation also extends to a diverse range of bodies, from the armed forces to outposts of the Commonwealth - positions that appear little more than sinecures. The professional game, meanwhile, is represented by just five members of the Premier League, seven from the Football League and 13 area representatives. Beneath the Council is a network of committees, each of which handles a specific area of FA business. One Council member describes a near-farcical system of confused reporting and endless cross-referencing. 'The pace of progress', he notes, 'makes a snail look speedy.' Phillips also points to the unwieldiness of such an arrangement, one that 'in its own way is almost as archaic as the old Russian political system'. Even Kelly concedes that it is 'not the ideal way of running a business'. Yet, he counters, 'the fact is that the FA does run well. It probably does so despite the system, not because of it.' Why, if the system is so patently broken, will nobody fix it? Football managers and club chairmen, famously prone to talking in metaphor, readily murmur of turkeys, voting and Christmas. Other more eloquent observers point to the FA's inherent conservatism. 'In terms of its constitution and articles of association, the FA is structured with one thing and one thing only in mind,' notes Phillips, 'and that is to prevent change.' Some, however, have tried. In 1966 the Government launched a public inquiry 'into the state of Association Football at all levels, including the organisation, management, finance and administration'. Among its recom-mendations, published two years later as the Chester Report, was the proposal that FA Council members should retire at 70 - 'otherwise there is a danger of remoteness, of a game for young men being administered wholly by old men'. It also questioned the effectiveness of a policy-making body of more than 80 members. The FA's response was characteristically imperious: 'It is not expected that a body of this kind can understand the ramifications of the complex Football Association'. In 1986 the FA brought in management consultants PA Consulting to examine its workings, 'with particular considera-tion to the top structure of the Association, including salaried staff, and its various relationships to the Council'. Again, it recommended a lower retirement age for members, claiming that as a body it was 'out of touch with what is essentially a young person's game' and 'too large and unwieldy to operate effectively'. It also pointed to a lack of financial controls, of 'soundly formulated budgets and plans'. When the proposals were put to the Council they were dismissed as too radical. None was implemented.
Now, 130 years after its formation, the FA is again pondering its structure, this time under its own auspices. In the last few months a six-member restructuring committee has convened to study how the FA might better be shaped to the needs of the modern game. The committee, claims its chairman, has been given broad terms of reference and a 'blank sheet of paper'. It seems unlikely however that a committee that is itself headed by a county representative will seek to wrest power from the amateur base in the regions. As one club professional, who has had a long association with the FA, cautions, 'You mustn't forget that the council is made up of little men, of bakers and candlestick makers, whose one glory this is. They're not going to change a bloody thing.'