When I spoke to Hugh Robertson exactly 12 months ago he promised that, if the Tories won the election, football would have only a few months to put its house in order.
“If, by the end of the summer, the Football Association, the Premier League and the Football League have not come up with a proper plan to address [the game’s main] issues, then the Government will have to step in. One of the options would be an independent regulator to run the game,” he told Standard Sport.
Since then, if anything, he admits, things have got worse.
“Our national team are under-performing,” he tells me as we catch up this week. “The performance was very disappointing in South Africa and that needs correcting. We spent £15million trying to bring the 2018 World Cup home and got just two votes – and one of those from an Englishman.
“Football is the worst-governed sport in this country. The governance arrangements around the Football Association Board are so poor that they are a disgrace. There are 12 people on the Board, all of whom are conflicted to some extent or another, all of whom are white, late middle-aged males.
“There are no independent directors; there’s nobody on the Board who’s played the game to any great level; there are no women and no black and minority ethnic candidates. That is unsustainable for our national game.
“The FA are stuck in a time warp. The governance that surrounds the FA are clearly in need of radical reform.”
So why has he not fulfilled his promise? We are sitting in the 48-year-old Minister’s office in Portcullis House and he denies that he has watered down his promise.
“Yes, I did say that. But the timetable changed,” he insists. “We didn’t want to do anything that would distract from the World Cup bid. Once that was over [in December], it was clear to me that there was a strong body of feeling about this in Parliament. MPs were writing to me with petitions from fans. I thought that the best way of dealing with this was to have a proper investigation by a Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee.”
He only has to emerge from his office into the corridor to observe the Select Committee’s work as, for weeks, the great and the good of football have been hauled to the Thatcher Room – with one session taking place at Wembley.
The Select Committee report is due early in the summer and Robertson now promises a response from the Government by “late summer, early autumn”. So, if the Select Committee proposes a regulator, will Robertson act on that recommendation?
“I don’t want to be the Minister who has to legislate on football,” he maintains. “It is for football, not Government, to run the game. That said, there is wide recognition that football is simply not working. One thing is absolutely certain. I want to make sure that football is better governed. If, in order to get football to run itself properly, that requires legislation, then that’s something we would consider. I think there would be all-party support for it.”
This does not sound quite as firm a commitment as that of a year ago but Robertson does suggest that the controversial football creditors’ rule could go. At the moment clubs in administration have to pay their football debts – like transfer fees and players wages – in full but not their other creditors. HM Revenue and Customs has tried and failed to challenge the rule in the courts.
“The Select Committee is looking at it very carefully and I would be very surprised if some changes are not made,” Robertson says.
Now that he is a Government Minister, Robertson’s hedging about the issue of football regulation is in striking contrast with the way he deals with “safe standing”. A persistent demand of the Football Supporters’ Federation, this came back on the agenda when the Liberal Democrats asked for the matter to be re-examined.
He explains: “I wrote to all the governing bodies in football, to the police and the Football Licensing Authority. Not one came back in favour of what’s called safe standing. There is a small group of football fans who want safe standing, good luck to them. But the safety of fans in grounds, for me as a Minister, has to be paramount and when all the advice from the relevant authorities is that we should not go back to safe standing, that is the advice I’ll be following. I do not see any sign whatsoever that the safety advice is going to change.”
How Robertson must wish that the row over Olympic cash could be so easily dealt with. This is about the share out of any surplus the 2012 organisers may make. The British Olympic Association believe this surplus should be calculated before taking in the costs of the Paralympics, which is expected to make a loss. After months of wrangling, the BOA have now taken the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. This has so strained relations that Colin Moynihan, the BOA chairman, has been suspended from the Olympic Board that oversees the Games.
Robertson met Moynihan last week in an effort to resolve the row. They both may be Tories but Robertson could not conceal his frustration.
“It has become a crisis and it is entirely out of all proportion to its importance to the delivery of the Olympics,” he tells me. “It’s about the division of a profit that may or may not occur after the Olympics. It is a serious distraction and bad for sport to be seen to be squabbling over money, 18 months out from the greatest celebration we’re going to see in this country for many a long year. The whole thing is undignified.”
The row is all the more embarrassing as it overshadows this week’s Sport Accord conference which London is hosting for the first time. Described as “when sport talks to sport”, it is the Olympics of the “suits” – bringing together the great and good of world sport, including the executive board of the International Olympic Committee.
Yet, even without the distraction of the squabble between the BOA and LOCOG, surely the fuss over the future of the Games stadium suggests not everything in the Olympic Park is rosy?
Tottenham have written to Robertson raising questions about how the decision to award the stadium to West Ham had been made. They hinted they might challenge it through judicial review and that could mean the issue might not be decided before the Olympics are over. Robertson is unperturbed.
“I was not involved in taking the decision but I’m very pleased with the outcome and very relaxed about this. I’m entirely confident of the process we followed and I’m sure that will be proved in court.”
And, to emphasise that he is being fair to Tottenham, two weeks ago Robertson met Spurs chairman Daniel Levy and now lavishes praise on the north London outfit. He says: “They are a well run club financially and they do an enormous amount for the local community. If you look at the work the Spurs Foundation has done in and around the area of the ground, it’s fantastic. What I would now like to do is to get on and help Tottenham develop their new stadium. I hope they will be persuaded to stay inside the borough.
“All of us, Government, the Mayor, the local borough and the club, must do everything possible to try to bring that about. The local council is aware that the existing ground is a long way from transport links.”
To improve transport links would require a lot of money and Robertson has not much power to influence things directly. It would have helped if the borough had been classified as an enterprise zone in last month’s Budget but that status was only given to the Royal Docks. Ten more enterprise zones are due to be announced by the summer and Tottenham will have to hope it strikes lucky.
Robertson can work behind the scenes and says: “I want to do everything I can to help good football clubs, like Tottenham, prosper and succeed.”
The Chelsea fan in him, of course, will not harbour similar feelings should the two clubs meet in the Champions League Final next month at Wembley, a prospect he relishes.
“For all Chelsea fans, there’s a splendid south versus north fixture to enjoy over two legs [the quarter-final against Manchester United tomorrow] before we get there. But I could think of no better outcome for English football than to have two clubs in the Champions League Final, apart from winning a World Cup.”
An all-London final would mean a heavy demand for tickets and Robertson admits UEFA have priced them too highly. “The ticket prices are very high. As a comparison of how to price world-class events, look at the ticket prices for the Olympics. We spent months researching and refining the London 2012 ticketing model. I don’t want to criticise UEFA’s model. I’m just absolutely sure that our own model for London 2012 and the range of ticket prices is the way forward.”
Tickets should be no problem for Robertson. The political will to make English football work may be an entirely different matter.