A Century and a Half of Sweet Fa

A Century and a Half of Not So Sweet FA, by Mark Perryman

Throughout 2013 the Football Association will be celebrating its 150th Anniversary. Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman reflects on the organisation’s failings.

26th October 1863 was when the great and the good of nineteenth century English Football gathered at the Freemasons’ Arms in Covent Garden to codify their sport. The rest is history, as will be frequently pointed out over the next twelve months as the organisation founded in this Central London pub, The Football Association , loudly celebrates its 150th anniversary year. Particularly in the high-profile Wembley friendlies against Brazil, the Republic of Ireland and Scotland. Not that there’s anything resembling friendliness in any footballing encounter with the latter.

Following England’s most recent hapless exit from a World Cup in 201 it was pointed out by Matt Scott here that in Germany at the time there were 34,790 Uefa B, A and Pro qualified coaches, in Spain 23,995 and Italy 29,420. England? In comparison a paltry 2769. The figures tell us all that we should need to know about the FA’s inability to act as a governing body, indeed arguably the FA as it celebrates its longevity will also be revealing itself as the sole FA in the world incapable of governing its own sport.

The FA effectively abdicated that role, its reason for existence, when it sub-let the top division to first the FA Premiership , and subsequently lost even the fig-leaf of that prefix, sold off to the highest bidder, under the control of the big clubs’ moneymen. The one major competition it still runs, the FA Cup, has become an also-ran as the top Premiership clubs ruthlessly prioritise Champions League qualification over the silverware of the Cup while in the Championship reaching the moneyed uplands of the Premiership easily outweighs the appeal of the Cup. With few exceptions FA Cup attendances have progressively fallen. A training ground for second elevens and youth players doesn’t have the appeal that this self-proclaimed ‘greatest cup competition in the world’ could once boast.

The FA’s decline and fall is what has characterised at least the last twenty years of its existence, the game compared to 1963, its centenary year, is almost unrecognisable. Not entirely for the worse of course, but not as much for the better as the FA would like to claim either. At Philosophy Football we have a neat way of putting this, on a T-shirt of course, Against Mod£rn Football.

By accident in the early noughties the FA did discover some kind of role. With the old Wembley closed for rebuilding from 2000 -2007 England Internationals were taken ‘on the road’. Not just to the big grounds, Old Trafford, St James’ Park and Anfield but also the likes of Southampton’s St Marys, Ipswich’s Portman Road and Derby County’s Pride Park. For seven years the FA became the cheerleaders for the greatest, and hugely popular, experiment in devolution in English sporting history. For the first time an England international became a local match for large parts of the country outside London and the south-east. And then at a cost of over £750 million the ‘new’ Wembley was completed and opened to great fanfare. All England internationals for the first 30 years are contracted to be played here. Plus FA Cup semi-finals, in a single money-making blow destroying any remaining ‘magic’ of the FA Cup Final. An unholy competition between the capital’s 4 60,000 plus capacity stadiums has also ensued to host the concerts, the NFL and other huge stadium shows which keep these arenas financially viable. Meanwhile virtually no England internationals are played on a family and travel friendly Saturday afternoon, weekday evenings only.

Of course the FA does some good work, and has some kind of role but the 150th Anniversary instead of being a cause for great self-congratulatory backslapping should initiate a serious and creative consideration of how it might affect the game it is supposed to govern. In Scotland a recently published book, Saving Scottish Football, has set out some far-reaching and well-resesearched ideas for the future of the game Norh of the Border. All fans of the game in England should forget the old rivalries and easy pot-shots and give this excellent book a good read. The book is full of practical suggestions, here are my three New Year ideas to help set a similar process in motion for English football.

First, now the FA is lumbered with the New Wembley use it as a platform to promote a sport that is both participative and inclusive. When I was a teenager the annual England vs Scotland schoolboys international was a major event. Schools up and own the country would fill coaches for what was a great day out. What better way to fill Wembley, at next-to-nothing ticket prices, with the fans of tomorrow. With the greatest respect to Scotland, how about an ambitious programme of opponents with the likes of Brazil and Argentina’s schoolkids, the Germans and Dutch, and others. Make a day of it with a double-header, combining Schoolboy and Schoolgirls’ internationals.

Secondly, Football’s Governing Body should be the first to treat the Womens’ game on an equal basis with the Mens’. The huge success of the Olympic Women’s Football tournament is testament to the potential. Nothing sums up the FA’s chauvinism better tha the fact the England Women’s team are yet to be ‘allowed’ to play a game at Wembley. But it isn’t just on an equal opportunities basis that the FA should be prioritising the women’s game. It makes good political sense too. This is one half of the game they still have some material influence over, compared to their marginalisation from the mens’ game. And their number one objective should be to bid to host the 2019 Women’s World Cup. The continuing lack of any such bid remains an absolute scandal.

Thirdly, a huge investment in coaching. The newly opened St George’s Park centre is a start but it isn’t so much the resources that are the problem it is a wholesale culture of neglect. How on earth did we end up in a situation where Germany has ten times the number of qualified coaches compared to England? Every German town of a reasonable size has a centre of excellence, with facilities match, those coaches working with children from the earliest age. The FA would have to change its focus almost entirely and plan long-term, not something it has proved particularly good at to date.

England likes to boast the ‘best league in the world’. No doubt this will be the centrepiece of 2013’s celebrations, after all celebrating the achievements of a grossly underperforming England team would only spoil the party atmosphere. But what has the FA’s abdication from governing its top division amounted to? Compare Premiership ticket prices to the German Bundesliga where you can watch a top flight game for less than a tenner. Football in Germany doesn’t get everything right but broadly speaking the German FA governs the game to protect the traditions of access, locality and competition that we might have expected the FA to defend, David Conn has expertly set out the German alternative here. We now have a deeply uncompetitive race for the Premiership title with only three or four of the same serious contenders in the mix season, after season. It used to be easy to poke fun at Scottish football, absolutely dominated by two clubs from the same city. Now English football is perilouly close to the self-same situation. The top English Clubs owned for the most part by foreign oligarchs and multibillionaires. ‘Home’ ownership isn’t necessarily much better. The local butcher, baker and candle-stick maker could be just as crooked but at least they tended to have some kinds of roots in the localities the clubs are named after, more than anything else it was this localism that shaped the character of the English game. Abandoned almost wholesale under the FA’s watch, with none of the regulatory powers a governing body worth its name would fiercely insist upon. This has also resulted in a game in which the national team is anything but the pinnacle of the sport’s achievements, unlike any other footballing power which regardless of their clubs’ successes ensures and insists that their FA to gives the priority to the national team it deserves.

This is a sorry list, and unlikely to get much better in 2013. Sorry to spoil the party but after 150 years isn’t it time Football had a governing body that, governs.

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction, Philosophy Football


11 comments on “A Century and a Half of Sweet Fa

  1. daneil young on said:

    How can you renew a game that has blown and insults its supporters with capitals excess,for the supporters ridicule.Terraces full of venom and malice, not only for their own players,but also for the other terrace support,work mates on any other day.Imagine the violence venom in the car parks and in the terraces today.United socialism screams not for this barbarism.Best left to old school bread and circuses.

  2. The local butcher, baker and candle-stick maker could be just as crooked but at least they tended to have some kinds of roots in the localities the clubs are named after, more than anything else it was this localism that shaped the character of the English game.

    In a parallel development, we also see the disastrous effect of local newspaper ownership passing into the hands of corporaions like Newsquest, deskilling, loss of local knowledge, etc.

  3. With Sunderland’s current run of poor form its not clear what precisely they’re getting for their money? And anyway, I always thought the Miliband bros were both Gooners?

    Mark P

  4. Uncle Albert on said:

    5 – M.P: “With Sunderland’s current poor form…”

    Probably he’ll request an enhanced incentive, saying: “What do you expect if you pay peanuts?”

  5. One of 1997-2010 Labour achievemens was ensuring the launch and funding for Supporters Direct. Shame aboyt huge chunks of the rest of their programme but with this iniatiave they boldly mixed traditional values and a modern message. Supporters Direct’s continuing success has helped prove to a falterinf FA the art of the possible.

    Mark P

  6. Response here from Martin Ohr

    Martin wrote:

    Mark Perryman’s analysis of the history of the FA essentially boils down to this: the FA was formed 150 years ago and has ruled over a decline in english football ever since. Except for the period when Wembley was closed for rebuilding and England played outside the capital for 7 years.

    Mark goes onto outline three proposals to remedy this:

    1.schoolboy internationals to be played at wembley
    2.women’s football to be played at wembley
    3.huge investment in coaching
    OK, don’t laugh, that is really what he is suggesting. Along the way he decries the fact that the magic of wembley and the fa cup is spoiled by playing semi finals there, that football ticket prices are way too high and that clubs are owned by foreigners. Oh and he misses out any mention of crowd-trouble, bradford city fire, hillsborough etc a contributing factors to the state of the professional game.

    There is a tricky balancing act the FA governs english football from schools through grassroots, semi-pro right up to the premiership and the running of the national teams and then representing all those aspects of the game to UEFA and FIFA. In terms of participants, grassroots and schools football dwarf the professional leagues; although we are largely absent from Perryman’s analysis.

    In my opinion as a football referee, a spectator, parent of young players, sometime coach; if you get the grassroots sorted out then the rest begins to fall into place much easier. That is something which is more self-evidently true in terms of player development than other areas, so let me take a second to consider Perryman’s final proposal:

    How on earth did we end up in a situation where Germany has ten times the number of qualified coaches compared to England? Every German town of a reasonable size has a centre of excellence, with facilities match, those coaches working with children from the earliest age. The FA would have to change its focus almost entirely and plan long-term, not something it has proved particularly good at to date.

    Actually for boys football there are very many centre’s of excellence and academies. Similarly for girls football there is a CoE and a player development centre for every county FA all staffed by very high quality coaches. In the girls game, the struggle is to get players of sufficient quality into each tier of the development structure. Last year the FA completely restructured this area of football(http://www.thefa.com/GetIntoFootball/Players/PlayersPages/WomensAndGirls/FAGirlsCentresOfExcellence) largely based on best practice from Germany.

    In germany the bulk of the EUFA A and B coaches are not coaching centres of excellence, but grassroots teams. Every single team in england at every level has a qualified coach, most coaches at grassroots never make it further than that level 1 (there is a normal and quite logical reason for why this is the case, if anyone cares to ask I will explain further.) Level 2 is demanding and reasonably expensive, whereas B requires a level of dedication – as well as written exams it requires observations by tutors, evidence of player improvement etc. ( you can read more about it here: http://www.thefa.com/GetIntoFootball/FALearning/FALearningPages/~/media/Files/PDF/Get%20into%20Football/FA_Learning_YouthModule2/CoachingPathwayNov2011.ashx/CoachingPathwayNov2011.pdf)

    Perryman’s proposal – chuck some money at it, is vague enough to be the answer to almost every problem- apart from the question as to where the money should come from, short on specifics and long on thinly veiled anti-german rhetoric; we need to be provided with some details. The fact that every team in england has a qualified coach is down to the fact that it is a mandatory requirement for every team to at least a level 1 coach. Grassroots clubs gain status with the FA for having specific numbers and ratios of level 2 and B coaches per player, and those statuses entitle the club to benefits from the FA and to be able to bid for investment grants. So there is already some carrot and some stick in play. The FA could just announce that every club is required to have a B coach, but the effect would probably be to worsen the decline in grassroots clubs and the number of people playing. Even if the FA funded every current level 1 to be a level 2 and every current level 2 to be a B and every B to be an A, over a period of say 20 years it is not clear what effect this would have on the quality of football.

    The cynic in me suggests that Mark Perryman couldn’t care less about grassroots, and that the number of A and B coaches is simply a handy stick to beat the FA with about his real grievance; he doesn’t let the cat out of the bag by mentioning the failure of the national team to challenge for honours in our lifetime, but that is really what drives his anger at the FA.

    In any case, the coaching bottleneck in english football is something much more expensive than coaching. If Mark was really bothered about grassroots football then surely the biggest thing you can throw at the FA is that it has been slow to respond to the falling numbers of players, particularly a drop-off at 16-19 years old. The coaching bottleneck is largely the same as the cause of the number of players declining, that is lack of reasonably priced playing and training facilities, since the start of the recession in 2007 it has been particularly noticeable that teams are increasing trying to share fewer pitches at greater cost. Many local authorities scrapped their subsidies to football pitches, PFI schools are able to charge eye-watering costs to adult teams to train on their pitches. Mark should give coaching a squad of twenty players in a basketball sized school gym a try- while looking outside forlornly at the international sized 3G pitch, unlit and unused due to the hire costs, Ditto University pitches which we once used by clubs on the cheap on a weekend, are now charged out a premium prices.

    Drive through Germany (or france or spain) and you’ll be staggered at the number of municipal football stadia, with their accompanying training pitches. In england the crush for pitch space, particularly on matchdays often crowds out those teams already at the margins- 2nd and 3rd teams, girls teams, women’s reserve teams.

    While clubs find attracting shirt sponsors achievable (although not nearly as easy as before the recession hit) they find investment in facilities nearly impossible. The football foundation gives out about £30M per year in grants for facilities and development but this barely scratches the surface of the facilities being constantly lost, and in the face of such grants, local councils have all but given up funding sports development themselves. Worse, the grants tend to go to the better organised clubs who are able to present neat bids rather than those in most need.

    Specifically I would propose a 50p levy on premiership tickets to fund another £30M being targeted directly by a dedicated facilities development officer in each county FA. With the aim to have 500 more 3G floodlit pitch with changing facilities sited either at or nearby to high-schools in order to maximise their day time use by the end of 2023. Giving 10,000 more hours of training facilities per week, and additional matchday facilities for nearly a hundred thousand players.

    A parallel initiative needs to be taken to shift traditional five a side into the 21st century as a route back into football for adults.

    For women’s football Perryman is so far wide of the mark it makes me wonder if he has ever been to a match. The issue isn’t that the FA treats women’s football unequally- far from it, in fact it is one of the jewels in the FAs crown that it takes it seriously enough to have dedicated structures rather than just copying the men’s game. One for sure it will be played at wembley for internationals and cup finals- but the demand for tickets is just not there. As it stands almost anyone involved in football can wangle a courtesy ticket to the cup final, and still the stadiums struggle to be filled. You can see a great match, but you’ll read little build up to it in your newspaper, it most certainly won’t be live on mainstream tv, and you’ll struggle to find the highlights anywhere when you get home. Again Mark is unspecific as to what the FA should do about that part of it. My opinion is that Women’s football is right to be unique and separate with the football family until sponsors and the media give it the seriousness and the money it needs to take off again. The most pressing issue for the FA on this is not the site for internationals but to nurture the grassroots otherwise we risk the sport dying out in future generations.

    As for schoolboy internationals; where to start unpicking this stupidity; first the FA doesn’t run the schoolboy national team- schools football is run by the ESFA via county SFAs. The FA has a governance, discipline and development role, but matches are run by the SFAs and national representative team is picked by their committee. Secondly these matches struggle to fill minor provincial club grounds, maybe the allure of wembley would be so great that schools would spent the best part of a thousand pounds bussing a couple of hundred kids each down there, but I think not; thirdly, playing for england at wembley should be a real achievement, earned by having made it to the full national team.

    I haven’t had change to touch on the problems at the top tier of british football. Sure tickets are expensive, but then players cost a lot of money and are paid huge sums. In terms of ownership, most clubs are still run as vanity projects by their owners, but you want find a city supporter in manchester who is unhappy with their owners, and the one major club run as a ruthless business currently occupy the top spot in the premiership and not by fluke either.

    As supporters of community run clubs will testify, supporter ownership in isolation is no guarantee of anything, and certainly ticket prices will go up rather than down when the good of the club as a whole is put to the fore. That subject alone merits a longer article of its own. I’m in favour of the FA helping supporters take over failing clubs, but it shouldn’t be considerer any sort of miracle cure.

    And a good debate on Left Futures on the same article:

  7. Thanks Andy for posting Martin’s response. Despite the occasional lapse into personal there is much in Martin’s ell informed argument that I agree with. In large measure he adds substance to my critique of a Governing body that has not only lost its way but its purpose, to govern and we both broadly argue that what is needed is a reveesal of priorities, refreshing the game from the bottom up. Martin adds the need for grasroots facilities to my main point about coaching.

    On Women’s Football and the uses that could be made of Wembley he differs on some of the detail and argues this with a rhetorical flourish (to put it politely) I would still hold that Wembley could be better used as a platform for an inclusive game and that Womens Football is seriously under-developed, with efforts put into it way below the kind of potential the Womens Olympic Football tournament revealed.

    Its a debate worth having, the kind of discussion sorely needed in this 150th anniversary year.

    Mark P