Interview: Football and politics

Clive Betts:' The FA is still opaque. Hardly anyone in the FA knows what's going on.'
Clive Betts:' The FA is still opaque. Hardly anyone in the FA knows what's going on.'
Ian Dunt By

As we sit down and order coffee, Clive Betts has the enviable air of a man enjoying football success. There's a little smile playing on the edge of his mouth which never quite goes away. Smiles are a rare commodity in Westminster. They always look weird here. The chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on football has just watched his team win.

"Good weekend?" I ask.

"Sheffield Wednesday got promotion last Saturday," he says smugly. "38,000 fans for a league one game. Not bad."

At this point, Chelsea (sorry) are yet to win the Champions League. I'm still a bundle of nerves. His relaxation is irritating, so I move onto a matter of mutual doom: England. The ultimate equaliser. Roy Hodgson, the new manager, has recently been unveiled to the surprise of pretty much everyone, especially the press, who wanted Spurs boss Harry Redknapp.

"It was strange," he says. "I suppose it's difficult. The FA has got a time table and they've got to make a decision. But the Harry Redknapp story was allowed to carry on…"

"And breathe so much."

"Yeah, without any attempt to kill it. It could have been killed behind the scenes. It could have been dampened down slightly, they could have said: 'We've not made any decision at all, 'we're considering several people, so don’t speculate on anyone in particular'. They could have dealt with it more appropriately, even without a formal announcement."

This is his first criticism of the FA. There will be many more. You might want to start counting.

"If you're a Spurs supporters, you'd have pretty good reason to feel aggrieved, wouldn't you?" I say. "There's that much destabilisation of the club and there wasn't even a reason for it."

"I still think most Spurs fans would be happy he's staying."

We both laugh. "Do you think it's because they changed their mind behind the scenes or they just messed up the PR?" I ask.

"Probably they just messed up the PR. The FA is still opaque. Hardly anyone in the FA knows what's going on."

"Do you find the FA quite shadowy? I mean, when they try to take on Fifa, it's not really clear they have any right to act as a moral arbiter."

"That is a problem. Very often they have moral right on their side when they raise arguments about how Fifa makes decisions, but they need to look in-house as well. Have you seen the football bodies' report on future governance in response to the select committee? I read it and I didn’t understand it. I think perhaps it was written for that purpose. The FA is being held up as the governing body but then you look at where the strings are attached. Perhaps they're just rubber stamping what the Premier League asks them to do."

The document Betts is referring to was prepared as a response to a select committee report raising serious issues about English football governance. In a rare example of government and parliament working together, the sports minister took the report and issued a thinly veiled threat to the FA and – by implication – the Premier League.

"Are we still talking about lobbying the FA to change, or have we reached the point where it needs stronger action?" I ask, trying to get a firm idea of how far the government is willing to take the issue.

"We've got to be tougher on the FA," Betts says. "There is a role for government to say: if you don’t change we'll do something about it."

"We'll legislate, you mean?"

"Yes. I don't think government wants to do that. No government wants to get into that sticky business of legislating around football. It's the gun in the draw that hasn't been pulled out yet. It's saying: we might do something if you don't. That's the threat."

I start reading Betts questions from our followers on Twitter and Facebook.

Tom Colborne asks: Can you tell us more about the current restructuring at the FA? What is this intended to achieve, and what does the all-party group currently think of the FA's performance in governing football - particularly grass-roots football and youth development - in the UK?

"The Premier League has its money and it uses it," Betts says. "They throw crumbs from the table – sometimes more, sometimes a cake – but that's all. Everyone wants better training for young people so they can challenge for major international honours. Local councils don't have the money. Why can't football find the money to do it? There isn't an answer when you're paying players an astronomical amount of money and they're not delivering the goods in terms of achievement in Europe."

Money casts a long shadow over the conversation. There is a sense that English football is becoming ungovernable because of the financial imbalance between the FA and the Premier League. The body charged with making all the decisions has none of the cash. But the money issue permeates deeper, from training young players to failing clubs north of the border.

Cameron Foster asked: "What broader lessons can be learnt regarding corporate responsibility and competitive marketplaces from the current state of Scottish football?

"The need for transparency," Betts says simply. "Football clubs are often far too closed in what they're doing. Things right now only come out when it's all gone very badly wrong and then people wonder how they got into that mess in the first place."

Betts likes the idea of putting a fan on the board, similar to what Labour is demanding at corporate remuneration committees.

"They wouldn't have a controlling stakes," he says, "but they'd have a vote, ensuring there's light of day cast on what are often very small boards. We are not dealing with a brand of washing powder where if the firm goes bust you can buy another brand next week. Football isn't like that. But nevertheless it has to conform to the basic rules of finance."

The money issue is one being addressed head-on by the new 'financial fair play' rules coming into force next season, but some users believe that could actually hinder those smaller clubs lucky enough to bag themselves a wealthy benefactor.

Phil Scullion asks: "Do you think there is a risk that the new financial fair play rules will just entrench the position of the bigger clubs? It seems to make it unlikely we'll ever see a repeat of the fairytale success enjoyed by provincial clubs such as Ipswich, Derby County, Nottingham Forest or, more recently, Blackburn Rovers."

Betts admits that might be the case, with the huge multiple income streams of big name international brands like Chelsea and Manchester United towering above the ambitions of smaller clubs.

"But look back to Ipswich - that was a long time ago. Blackburn Rovers was one wealthy benefactor and yes, I suppose that isn't open anymore. But then it did mean no other team of a similar nature could compete with them. Most people support the fair play rules. The likelihood is a Blackburn now with a Jack Warner couldn't compete with Man U anyway. It was possible years ago because Man U weren't the size they are now. But to compete with them nowadays you need the wealth of the sheiks at Man City."

"This is the process by which clubs turned into global brands isn't it?" I say. "It leaves everyone behind."

"It's a product of the TV deals. When you go on holiday you see the Chelsea shirts, the Man U shirts. To them, football is a handful of clubs. I think that's sad. I'm not sure how you come back from that. You can start, very radically, to alter the dispersal of money within the Premier League. At the moment, the better you do, the more money you get. Why not give an equal amount? The Premier League's argument against that is always that our clubs won't do so well in Europe. But if you check how well English clubs have done in terms of winning the European Championships since the Premier League was formed - we actually did better before it was born."

James Taylor asks: "Could the proposal of an IMF for football be an option? It would force the big teams to give something back to the league to ensure the smaller teams don't fall into administration.

"They do give some money but not enough," Betts says. "The thing is you have to be careful. You can't just reward clubs for going into administration. That's like saying: 'get yourself into more trouble and we'll bail you out'. If you look at clubs who have failed - and there have been a lot more failures in the last 20 years than historically – many of them came out the Premier League and just couldn't adjust. They've got players on big contracts they can't afford or they've kept going with the same wages trying to get back into that holy grail of the Premier League. And they failed. You can see what a mess they got into. That arrangement which allows clubs to get into that position must be wrong. We need to round the slope off so the fall isn’t so dramatic."

Lewis Bazley asks: "Will a wage cap be introduced to level the Premier League playing field?"

"I don't think you can," Betts says, shaking his head as if he'd rather like to. "I don't think the law allows you to do that. We all look at some of their salaries and think they're obscene. It's like bankers' bonuses. The public hate it. And we start to wonder the extent to which we're excluding whole parts of our community from watching Premier League games. Watch a League One game and you'll pay 20 quid for yourself and ten quid for the kids. That's manageable. If you have to pay 50 quid for yourself and 30 quid for your kids, it isn't manageable."

Kevin Thomas Davies asks: "What role could parliament play in implementing an FA review panel to review incorrect decisions, like the recent Balotelli foul on Alex Song which usually would have brought a red card?"

"The likelihood is if you have three parliamentarians looking at this as a panel you'd come up with four different views," Betts says instantly. "We're fans. We support our clubs. We have our own views on referees' decision. We shouldn't have any role."

And that's about as plainly spoken as anything you'll get from a parliamentarian. Betts has the luxury of focusing on an issue where there are no party-political faultlines, and a role where he doesn't have to hold his tongue.

The FA and the Premier League should sensibly take note of that. Very reluctantly, very slowly, there is a growing sense of irritation in politics at the way football is managed in England. There is no appetite for a fight. David Cameron himself swore never to get enmeshed in football again after the World Cup bid debacle. But there is an impressive unity in the political response: all three parties agree. Parliament, through the select committee, has expressed its view. And government, through the sports minister, backed it. If Betts feels no hesitancy when criticising the FA, it's because no-one in Westminster disagrees with him.


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