David Bernstein cannot hide his regret that he is no longer chairman of the Football Association. We are meeting in a London hotel just as England are flying to Kiev for tonight’s World Cup qualifier with Ukraine and Bernstein says with real feeling: “It would have been nice to be with them. But you must ask the FA Council why I am not there.”
This is a pained reference to the FA Council refusing to amend their rules which force FA chairman to stand down when they reach 70.
“It would have been nice to carry on,” says Bernstein, who turned 70 in May and wanted to continue until the end of next summer’s World Cup. “But rules are rules and life goes on. I am comfortable with a lot of what we did.”
This note of satisfaction does seem odd given how his successor Greg Dyke has portrayed the state of the national game. In a dramatic speech last week Dyke said: “English football is a tanker that needs turning.” And, after announcing he had set up a commission to look at the ills of the game, Dyke set England two targets; to reach the semi-finals of the 2020 Euros and win the 2022 World Cup.
Bernstein is surprised Dyke should have set such specific goals. “I’ve never forecast a football result as a chairman of a club or as chairman of the FA,” he says. “I am cautious on targets. I don’t want to set them. But every new leader has his style. I would say Greg is not so much setting a target as trying to put a challenge up there to the England team.”
However, the fact Dyke is even able to pose this challenge is, says Bernstein, because his chairmanship cleared the way for Dyke to concentrate on turning the tanker.
“My successor”, says Bernstein, in a very measured but pointed tone, “has the advantage that a lot of stuff has been sorted. When I became chairman in February 2011, the FA were lacking a lot of things and at a low ebb. 2010 was a very difficult year, a bad World Cup and we had lost the bid to host the 2018 World Cup. The FA had had lots of changes with the departure not just of the chairman [Lord Triesman] but also the chief executive. I gave the FA confidence and stability. So Greg is able to come in with the organisation much better placed, able to build on the work that has been done. I didn’t make such a speech because I did not have time, my hands were extremely full.”
And then Bernstein quickly lists the things that kept him so busy and which now make Dyke’s life easier. “We brought Wembley into really good economic shape, making a £40million-a-year operating profit in line with its business plan. A big achievement. We got St George’s Park open on time, on budget. When I arrived at the FA it was an empty field. And we have mended the relationships with the Premier League, UEFA, FIFA and the government which were pretty fragmented.”
Bernstein: There is tension and a lack of confidence at Wembley. The crowd get edgy — there is a negative flowEven Dyke’s ideas about limiting non-English players and looking at work permit systems for non-EU players, says Bernstein, are not new. “Had I stayed on, that would have been very much on my agenda. A lot of work has already gone into this whole area.”
Bernstein even goes so far as to claim “the fabric has been put in place” for proper youth coaching.
“We all agree this should have been done many, many years ago but that work is now in place. The work done by Sir Trevor Booking, the youth development system where youngsters learn to play on smaller pitches, with smaller goals, a more skill-based football played for enjoyment not necessarily for winning; the work done by the Premier League in terms of their academy development; St George’s Park, whose prime objective is to produce many more good qualified coaches, all these things should produce a package. We are way ahead of where we were three or four years ago.
“However, we won’t see the results for a number of years. Obviously, with kids of 5, 6, 7 or 8, it’s will take the best part of a decade before we see a lot of this coming through. We must be patient.”
The problem for this call for patience is that, in the meantime, other countries keep pulling further away.
“We are way behind Germany and even further behind Spain. Something like 15 times,” admits Bernstein. “Spain’s success is phenomenal. I was at the Under-21 championship in Israel and the Spanish team were absolutely outstanding. It was like watching a version of Barcelona. They really were frighteningly good.
“Our teams are always well organised. Roy [Hodgson] is strong on organisation. But we need that creativity, I use the word arrogance, on the pitch. Look at Spain. Look at the confidence. The comfort on the ball. They are the ultimate in that sense. I am a great admirer of what Spain and Barcelona have done. We need to learn from Spain.”
So, in that case, why did the FA not appoint Pep Guardiola as England manager after Fabio Capello quit last year? Reports emerged at the weekend that an intermediary acting for Guardiola told Bernstein the Spaniard wanted to be interviewed for the job, however, the FA chairman did not follow that up because he was determined to have an English coach.
“I can’t comment on Guardiola,” says Bernstein. “We discussed various names. We definitely could have appointed a foreign manager and we looked at foreign managers. But Roy Hodgson was the only one we interviewed. He had both European and international experience.”
But whether it is a foreigner or an Englishman in charge there is one issue, says Bernstein, for which there seems no solution.
“They have all encountered the same problem: that very, very good English players who play extremely well for their clubs, play less well for their country. English players do not over-perform for their country. The whole is less than the sum of the parts. That is the conundrum, that really is a challenge. If there was a simple answer I would bottle it and sell it.
“What I do know is when you go to Wembley for an England match there is a feeling of tension, there is a lack of confidence about what is going to happen. Very quickly the crowd get edgy, the crowd affect players, they get tense, there is a negative flow instead of a positive flow. Where the crowd has got confidence in their team, the positive flow goes backwards and forwards as we see in successful club sides. That is a big challenge going forward. The answer is success.”
But could football here not learn from English cricket which, after years of failure, has discovered how to win?
“At the moment we are doing well in cricket,” says Bernstein. “But cricket is not the world game. It is played by a handful of countries. Football is the world game, played extremely well by most countries in the world. The general level of international football has risen. Okay, San Marino are not very strong and maybe Moldova aren’t but there are a huge number of very capable teams. Teams we consider as small countries are very good, very difficult to beat. The Montenegro and Poland matches at Wembley coming up soon will be very interesting. They will be challenges. We have every chance of winning them but they will not be easy.
To make it worse, England face what Bernstein calls the ‘Manchester City problem’, something he experienced when he was chairman of the club during their season in the third tier in the late nineties.
“We were everybody’s target. We lost to York City, Lincoln City, to Wycombe twice in the League, they were desperate to beat us. It was their Cup final. When you go on tour with England, boy you know you are the big time. The interest is fantastic. The pressure is on the players. They wouldn’t be human if they did not feel that to some extent. I felt it as chairman.”
And in a warning for Dyke, Bernstein emphasises that: “Football attracts more criticism simply because of its profile. The other day we had cricketers spoiling the pitch [by urinating on the Oval wicket]. That was received fairly moderately by the media. Had that been English footballers, heavens knows what would have happened.”