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F.A. in free fall as Premier League clubs make play for power

by Christopher Davies

LONDON — It was Ron Saunders, the former Aston Villa manager, who once said: “If you’re going to commit suicide, do it yourself.”

Christopher Davies

English football seems to have made an art form of self-destructing over the last dozen or so years with Adam Crozier, the chief executive of the Football Association, the latest casualty.

By general media consensus — if that is a reliable yardstick — Crozier did a good job during his three years. Too good, perhaps.

Crozier joins a growing list of those who have been forced out for no apparent reason other than politics and greed. Oh, and incompetence. Not necessarily in that order, though.

In 1990 the F.A. refused to extend Bobby Robson’s contract as manager of England until it had seen how the national team fared at Italia ’90. OK, said Robson who, not wishing to be possibly unemployed, arranged to join PSV Eindhoven after the World Cup finals when England went on to lose to Germany on penalty kicks in the semifinals.

Robson, PSV’s gain and England’s loss, was replaced by Graham Taylor who failed to take the national team to the 1994 finals, so in came Terry Venables who suffered the same fate as Robson. There are those who learn from mistakes and there is also the F.A.

Before Euro ’96, hosted by England, Venables and the F.A. had talks about a new contract. The F.A., as it does, wanted to see what happened during the finals before committing, but Venables said he did not like auditions and did not want to find himself looking for a job after the tournament had finished.

Venables, like Robson, took England to within a kick of a major final when Germany (again) won on penalty kicks but had announced he would be leaving after Euro ’96 because there was nothing on the table from the F.A.

Glenn Hoddle was next in the revolving door marked “England manager” and David Beckham and company seemed to be making progress under one of the classiest midfielders of his era.

However, Hoddle was made to walk the plank after upsetting too many people with comments implying the disabled were paying for sins of a previous life.

When Hoddle said virtually the same thing on national radio months previously no one reacted, yet his downfall was repeating the sentiments in an interview with The Times — ironically the F.A. had arranged the feature because relationships between it and the newspaper needed improvement.

The journalist who wrote the article used the disabled remark as a throwaway line toward the end of the piece. A senior executive on the sports desk, who has a disabled child and understandably feels strongly about such issues, moved Hoddle’s quotes up to the opening paragraphs of the interview, unknown to the author.

At the paper’s editorial meeting on the Friday night it was decided to “blurb” the interview on the front page. The next morning when the writer picked up his paper he was livid his copy had been tampered with in such a way and was about to complain to the sports editor when his telephone rang. It was the editor congratulating him on such a fine article, which was the lead item on radio and television.

Having gotten away with the comments on radio, this time there was no hiding place for Hoddle who was replaced by Kevin Keegan, who in turn couldn’t stand the heat and got out of the England kitchen after Germany (why is it always Germany?) beat England in the last game at Wembley Stadium in 2000.

Next was Sven-Goran Eriksson, appointed by Crozier and the Swede’s record in competitive games is one defeat in 13, England losing to eventual winner Brazil in the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup finals.

That, apparently, isn’t good enough for some and when the unmarried Eriksson’s affair with Swedish television presenter Ulrika Jonsson was made public — well, he definitely must go it was said in certain quarters.

What English football needs, of course, is a fine upstanding citizen, happily married to his one and only wife and who has never had so much as a parking ticket.

Eriksson is staying (for now), but Crozier has left as have David Burns and Keith Harris, chief executive and chairman respectively of the Football League in the wake of the collapse of the deal with ITV Digital.

Neither Burns nor Harris was in the job when the contract was signed (or rather, not signed as it turned out) but they were leading the Football League when the whole thing went belly-up and were the convenient scapegoats. They have yet to be replaced.

Crozier fell on his sword because he upset influential Premier League chairmen who want to form the Professional Game Board, giving them virtual control of the F.A., leaving the controlling body of English football, in effect, to oversee the England team, the F.A. Cup, disciplinary matters and grass roots football.

Meanwhile, Premier League clubs would have a much bigger slice of the F.A.’s money because they supply the players to England and to hell with all this grass roots football or what have you.

Ken Bates, the Chelsea chairman, called Crozier’s style autocratic — the noise from the pots and kettles is deafening. Bates and Peter Ridsdale of Leeds are said to be prime movers in forcing Crozier to resign and coincidentally Chelsea and Leeds have some of the biggest debts in English football.

Crozier was brought in because his predecessor Graham Kelly was perceived to be too dour and reactive rather than proactive. Under Crozier, the F.A.’s income has tripled but he was, in the words of Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein “exceeding the speed limit” — which means he failed to tell everyone what he was doing. In English football proactive means making things happen but also getting the nod from everybody involved — and there are a lot of bodies involved.

The man who is accused of stabbing Crozier in the back is F.A. chairman Geoff Thompson, a man whose personality is so anonymous the joke goes: “An empty taxi pulled up and out got Geoff Thompson.”

The day after Crozier resigned, Steve McClaren, the Middlesbrough manager who works with Eriksson on a part-time basis, handed in his notice. Howard Wilkinson, formerly the F.A.’s technical director, left to join Sunderland last month.

Last Monday, the exodus from the F.A. continued when Frank Pattison, vice chairman of the F.A., resigned “because of concerns at recent developments in relation to the running of the association’s affairs in the future.”

The F.A. and Football League deny they are rudderless ships but with so many key positions vacant — and no doubt more to come — one wonders in which direction English football is going, though taking a paddle seems advisable.

In the meantime, all parties are on suicide watch.