Evening Standard

Brian Barwick may seem an unlikely Rugby Football League chairman. His life has been all about the round ball game; a former editor of Match of the Day and chief executive of the Football Association, he grew up in the 60s singing You’ll Never Walk Alone while Bill Shankly made Anfield a feared name in English football.

But as we meet in his office in Twickenham, he is keen to talk about his new dream of the climax of this November’s Rugby League World Cup Final at Old Trafford. Pointing to a huge picture on the wall of Jonny Wilkinson about to score the drop goal that won England the union equivalent in 2003, Barwick says: “Ten years ago I was in Sydney to see him land that kick. If Kevin Sinfield [the England captain] lands the same sort of kick at the same time, it will have the same impact.”

Were England to win the league World Cup for the first time, it would obviously be historic but Barwick’s focus is on the potential television impact of the tournament with all of the host’s matches plus key games in the latter stages, including the final, live on the BBC.

“These are big television moments. That day when Wilkinson scored was the highest daytime audience ITV ever got — a peak of 14 million. So if Sinfield can deliver the same, I’ll be happy.”

This matters to the 56-year-old who spent a quarter of a century in television heading both BBC and ITV Sport. He says, proudly: “I got ITV the highest ever peak-time sports audience of 27.8m for England versus Argentina [in the 1998 World Cup].”

A touch macho perhaps but then Barwick does not do modesty. Talking about himself in the third person, he ponders: “They [the Rugby League] have got somebody who has been a high achiever in other parts of his life and has now brought some of that experience and wisdom with a small ‘w’ to hopefully help the sport. Given the breadth of what I’ve done and some of the posts I’ve held, when I was interviewed I thought I’d be an extremely strong candidate. If you have somebody of my experience, the sport will be daft if it doesn’t use it. I’ll make sure it uses it.

“I’m not suggesting for one second I’m an expert on the rules or the players. But I’ll become an expert because I’ll throw myself into it.”

He points out that since his appointment in February on a three-year contract, he has seen 11 matches and 13 of the 14 Super League teams. And while he did not play the sport at school, he can claim: “Rugby league’s been part of my life for the best part of 50 years. If Liverpool were away, and aged 11 I was not allowed to go to the away matches, I’d go and see Liverpool City. They played at Knotty Ash Stadium just 50 yards away from where Ken Dodd lived.”

It was a neat contrast: Anfield for football glory, Knotty Ash to watch a struggling rugby league side. “They used to finish in the bottom three or four religiously. I have had an affinity with the sport and feel comfortable with it.”

But for all his insistence that he was the natural choice to head rugby league, intriguingly, he adds: “I felt there was one piece of the jigsaw missing [from my career] and that was some involvement at whatever level in a major sport.”

That seems strange. After all, Barwick managed the country’s national sport for four years. Did his sudden departure from the FA, when David Triesman took over as chairman in 2008, make him feel he had unfinished business as a sports administrator?

“That wasn’t the case,” he says, quickly. But when I press him about a general feeling that he was forced to step down, he admits: “I don’t think it was a feeling,” adding, with a laugh, “that’s what went on. The euphemism is ‘stepped down’ and so I stepped down. I probably wouldn’t have stepped down at that very moment. New chairman comes along, has his own view. But I never had any row with him.”

However, he reveals he signed “a compromise agreement and I don’t want to trip over my two sons’ inheritance”. So he cannot say more, particularly, about the three England managers during his tenure: Sven-Goran Eriksson, Steve McClaren and Fabio Capello. But he is frustrated that his time with Capello was cut short. “I was delighted to appoint him, a really interesting man. I enjoyed it and I am sure he did.”

So much so that the Italian, proud of his art collection, tried to get Barwick to visit museums. Barwick recalls: “We were playing Germany in Berlin. Those hours before the match are interminable and I was in the foyer wondering what to do. Capello asked, ‘How will you spend your day?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ Five minutes later he was back with a hotel paper which had the names of six museums and art galleries. Museums are not my cup of tea. I walked past one.

“When I returned he caught me and asked, ‘How did you enjoy it?’ I said, ‘I definitely went close to one but I’d not managed to go to the others.’ He went, ‘Harrumph’.” But while Barwick does not regret that the Italian failed to make him an art lover, there is one regret about his FA tenure that he is willing to talk about: goal-line technology.

“When I went to FIFA meetings, Sepp Blatter called me Mr Television Man because I always used to hit him with goal-line technology. I’d say, ‘You’ve got to bring it in. One day, in one of your competitions, you’ll be embarrassed because something will happen’. And it did with Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal [against Germany in the 2010 World Cup]. I tried to push through goal-line technology several times. We needed six out of ten votes and never got there.”

Football is getting there on that issue but there is another failure which cannot be corrected; BBC’s failure to set up a sports channel. “It was an opportunity lost. They should have looked at it more seriously. I was there when it was being discussed. The worry was how did it fit in with the licence fee? There was no history of a sports channel being a pay channel off the back of the BBC contract. The problem was never solved.”


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