Evening Standard

No pushover: Football League chairman Greg Clarke at his Gloucester Place headquarters. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

The business of football may be very tricky – at the Fifa level even corrupt – but chairman of the Football League, Greg Clarke, is confident his style of management can deliver the goods.

Clarke has just completed a year at the top of the world’s oldest football league when I tell him of comments from Barry Hearn. “These are difficult times,” said Leyton Orient’s owner, who fears his club are threatened by extinction if West Ham move to the Olympic Stadium. “The game needs strong leadership and Greg Clarke is not providing that.”

Clarke, the former chief executive of Cable and Wireless, smiles and says: “There are some people who would much rather I jumped up and down and made a big fuss in public. I haven’t run public companies turning over tens of billions by being a pushover.”

But surely the Football Association treated the League as a pushover, leaving it almost to injury time on the last day of the season before deciding that champions Queens Park Rangers would not be deducted points. Would it not have helped if Clarke had done a bit of jumping up and down outside the FA headquarters to speed up the decision over the alleged third-party ownership of midfielder Alejandro Faurlin?

Clarke headed for Loftus Road nine days ago not knowing whether he would present the trophy to QPR or act as a counsellor to the club. “I went to QPR extremely worried that the FA decision could throw my whole play-offs into chaos. Gianni Paladini, the chairman there, was absolutely frantic trying to figure out what was going to happen. We owe it to decent human beings to offer them swift justice. Did I like the process? No.”

But he refuses to blame David Bernstein for the nine months the inquiry took, given that he was only appointed FA chairman in February.

Clarke says: “It’s pretty hard to have a go at him when he is trying to make the place better. I’ve made my point to the FA privately. I prefer to work behind the scenes.”

Not surprising, then, that when we turn to allegations of corruption in FIFA which former FA and England 2018 bid chairman Lord Triesman made at a parliamentary inquiry last week, his first reaction is guarded.

“FIFA are not as transparent as they should be,” he says. “I’m not going to say whether they are corrupt or not because I don’t have the data to back up my assertion.”

His greater concern is that England’s bid for the 2018 World Cup was flawed, “It was shambolic and we mishandled it colossally. We made some fundamental mistakes.”

Clarke, who met FIFA president Sepp Blatter in Downing Street and travelled to Zurich for the decision, believes there are lessons to learn from the episode. “Most of England got over not having an Empire a long time ago, our football hasn’t quite got over that,” he says. “When I talk to people in international football they say, ‘You guys still think you own the game’. We’ve got to become more respectful.

“I regret we pushed our Prime Minister and our future King into that situation. Given our chances of winning, I’m not sure we should’ve exposed them. They’re too important for that.”

For Clarke, the style is the man. He has been a lifelong Leicester City fan and feels such a bond with the game he claims his chairmanship is “more of a labour of love than a job”.

He is well paid for his love, £150,000-a year for a three-day week, but says: “I came from the corporate world and used to earn a lot more.”

And the former chairman of Leicester City argues he has no problems identifying with the game’s grass roots.

“I’m a simple lad from the Midlands who grew up on the council estate. I know how tough life can be: not a lot of jobs and not a lot of opportunities. The high spot of life is the club game at the weekend, sometimes standing on a terrace in the rain, and drinking in the local pub. One of the reasons I took this job was I want to keep Football League clubs alive and in their communities.”

He believes the League Cup is in tune with the supporters while the FA Cup struggles.

“The problem with the FA Cup is conceptual,” the 54-year-old says. “We all had this Utopian vision when we were growing up in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies.

“The FA Cup Final was the only live game on television, the sun always shone, the streets were empty, everybody was in front of the TV. Nowadays, when there’s live football all the time, the FA Cup isn’t as special.

“The League Cup is measured against a more practical benchmark, interesting football, good teams playing, and it doesn’t have to live up to some old memories. The FA Cup is always being reinvented as being the best thing in football, which is what it was, and that’s very difficult.”

Yet, for all his talk, the League’s annual conference next month will be at the Coral Beach Hotel, near Paphos in Cyprus. Last year it was Malta. So why not, say, Brighton or Torquay?

“It’s too expensive in this country,” Clarke says. “You can’t get any sponsorship. We got sponsorship from the Cyprus Tourist Authority, deals on hotels, deals on flights, cash payments from accountants and lawyers who sponsor our conference.”

Money more than passion has also been the dominant theme of Clarke’s first year at the helm. “Our debt is approaching £500million for all the Football League clubs. It could easily reach £1 billion in the next three or four years. That is not sustainable.”

The situation will not be helped by the fact the new television deal, which Clarke negotiated last month and starts with the 2012-2013 season, will see clubs receive less money than now.

“The three-year deal with Sky, worth £195million, is a 26 per cent drop on the existing contract,” he concedes. “The BBC did not bid. They’re cutting back on sports’ rights.”

Things could get worse if the Premier League succeed in paying Football League clubs less for the future Gareth Bales and Theo Walcotts. Both were developed by Southampton before moving to Tottenham and Arsenal repsectively. In Hearn’s words, the proposed changes mean: “The Premier League is trying to nick our best young players and pay less money.”

“Yes,” agrees Clarke. “I’m sure they would if they could. They are proposing moving to the FIFA International Rules which are meant for players moving between clubs in the third world and developing nations. That is an inappropriate, unacceptable model for movements between clubs in the UK, in England specifically.”

West Ham’s relegation has given Clarke another headache, given Orient’s opposition to the Hammers’ move to Stratford. Clarke said: “He [Hearn] has marked our cards and is looking to us to act in an appropriate fashion.” In other words, stop the move.

This will certainly test Clarke’s resolve that clubs should never lose their links with the local community.


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