Evening Standard

Image courtesy of Evening Standard

The two moments highlighting English football’s problems could not have been better scripted. On Tuesday at London Colney, as England prepare to meet Wales on Saturday, Fabio Capello restores John Terry as captain, reminding us of the country’s difficulties on the field.

And at the same time, in the Thatcher Room of Portcullis House, the Football Association’s former chief executive, Ian Watmore, is explaining the game’s problems in the Football Association’s boardroom.

He has told the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee that people with too many vested interests in the professional game are running the FA and that they need a complete overhaul.

Watmore left in March last year after just nine months because there was nothing “chief or executive” about his job.

On one side of the room listening impassively to all this is Rick Parry, who was there at the creation of the Premier League – their first chief executive – and who went on to run Liverpool.

Now, he is the football consultant to the Select Committee, whose report could lead to the Government regulating the national game, something which he has spoken out against in the past.

When I catch up with him in the Portcullis House cafe, he reveals the moment when the FA failed to make sure that the Premier League, a child of the FA, did not outgrow the father. It is the summer of 1991 and the old First Division are desperate to break away from the Football League. But they have a problem.

Parry recalls: “The Premier League was the idea of the then big five clubs [Arsenal, Tottenham, Manchester United, Liverpool and Everton]. But if the big five had launched the new League, none of the other clubs would have trusted them. It was agreed that the FA would take the lead.

“At that first meeting, the FA plan was unveiled: 18 clubs in the top division instead of 22, blank Saturdays before an international to help England.

“One of the club’s chairman said, ‘Okay, we can understand the rationale for 18 clubs but is there any scope for compromise?’ Sir Bert Millichip [then FA chairman] just said, ‘Oh, it’s your League. You decide’.

“If Sir Bert had said, ‘No, this is non-negotiable. It’s 18 or nothing and you have got to do this and that for the sake of the England team’, would the clubs have agreed? Probably.

“Without the FA’s approval, the Premier League could not have possibly been formed.”

So, if Sir Bert had not lived up to his nickname of “Bert the inert”, could the FA today have the power to make sure that there was a free Saturday before every England international?

The 56-year-old chartered accountant admits: “Yes, the FA have failed to give a lead. They have, arguably, hindered the development of the England team. If you measure success in terms of silverware, then we certainly aren’t any closer at the national team level. In other countries there is an apparent greater unity of purpose and people have cited Germany as a perfect example.”

While the formation of the Premier League may not have moved England forward, the pride Parry feels for the elite division is obvious.

He says: “It is a great English success story, one of the greatest English exports of all in terms of its popularity across the globe and this is reflected in its propensity to attract foreign investment. There’s a lot of debate about football governance and structures. The Premier League is very light on its feet and it works.”

But in the corridors of Portcullis House, MPs are buzzing with talk of reforming football. Parry, who came into sport through Manchester’s failed bids for the Olympics in the 1990s, cannot talk about their work.

But he reminds me that in the past, football has seen off Government threats to appoint a regulator. He says: “There was debate in 1997 [with Parry still at the Premier League] about the incoming Labour Government appointing a regulator. I wasn’t in favour and that was headed off.

“We had the Task Force instead and the Independent Football Commission which didn’t achieve a great deal, to be honest. The American-style Commissioner doesn’t work for our game.”

But if this American idea is anathema, then Parry reveals that, had ITV played ball, we might have had NFL-style television coverage: live football on BBC, Sky and ITV. “We looked at doing the television coverage like the NFL: Saturday night live on BBC, Sunday live on ITV, a Monday night game on Sky,” he says. “Sky would have gone for that. ITV wouldn’t countenance it at any price. Theirs was exclusivity or nothing.”

Eventually Sky beat ITV for the first Premier League deal in 1992, paying £191million over five years. However, Sky would never have succeeded, says Parry, but for the BBC getting into bed with Rupert Murdoch’s channel.

He adds: “Bringing back Match of the Day did it. Match of the Day was always an institution. I’d grown up with Kojak, Match of the Day and the late night movie. You could not have contemplated going over to satellite-only coverage without a comprehensive highlights’ package on terrestrial television.”

But if all this worked under Parry’s stewardship, surely the decision in 2007 to sell his beloved Liverpool to Messrs George Gillett and Tom Hicks rather than Dubai International Capital was a mistake? The former chairman, David Moores, thinks so. But Parry, by then chief executive at Anfield, does not.

He responds: “It wasn’t a case of us rejecting Dubai. They were the preferred bidder but they walked away.” So what went wrong with the Americans? “I think one of the fundamentals was that they actually didn’t get on terribly well with each other.”

Parry also feels that, for all their North American sports experience, nothing prepared them for the English game. He adds: “The intensity of English football is completely different, particularly when you’re taking on a club like Liverpool. You’ve got a particular passion and things have to be done the Liverpool way.

“You change that and underestimate the power of the supporters at your peril. It’s difficult to understand that from afar. Kenny [Dalglish] understands that and he has done a great job unifying the club.”

However, Parry, who is clearly keen to promote his own stewardship, says Gillett and Hicks were not all bad: “Don’t forget and certainly until I left – which was 2009 [February] – we were second in the League. The business plan was a net spend of £20million on players. And they’d over delivered on that. They took us pretty close to winning the Premier League in 2008-2009, within four points of Manchester United with a huge points total [86].

“So it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Then, in 2009, for whatever reason, there didn’t appear to be any net spend at all on the players. By which time they clearly realised that they probably needed to sell completely.”

Unacceptable as such a view will be to many on the Kop, Parry says: “The great privilege you have as a fan is you can see everything in black and white.

“In reality everything tends to be shades of grey. You have a desperate desire to find the simple solution. Sometimes there isn’t one.”

Parry, whose Liverpool pay-off was an estimated £4.3m – treble what Brian Barwick received from the FA – will not talk about Hicks wanting to get rid of him. “That was his prerogative, he owned the place. That’s not an area I want to go into,” he says.

But Parry does admit that Rafael Benitez, who Parry brought in to replace Gerard Houllier in 2004, had problems with Gillett and Hicks. “He had difficulties with each of them. I don’t think that top coaches are easy to manage.

“You don’t get into the business if you want people who are easy. You want people who are winners. He’s very demanding and he’s a perfectionist. But I’m still friendly with Rafael.”

It’ll be interesting to see if Parry is still friendly with everyone in football after the Select Committee have reported.


Share |


Follow me on twitter

Home | About | Books | History | BroadcastingJournalismPublic Speaking | Contact | Website development by Pedalo