The Evening Standard

David Davies has never been averse to taking on a challenge, which is why he sees himself as something of a firefighter. He was twice asked to step in and run the Football Association when two chief executives of the game’s governing body, Graham Kelly then Adam Crozier, moved on, but he never got the top job permanently.

Nine months ago ministers asked him to report on whether we should continue to have a government list of sporting events available live on terrestrial television.

Davies took on the task despite being told that it would be a poisoned chalice. He said: “When people need firefighting they tend to come to me.”

But his report lit some fires of its own when he proposed that future Ashes series should be on free-to-air television – unlike this year’s series, which was shown only on Sky.

We were barely a few minutes into our conversation when I suddenly found one of my questions had lit yet another fire, this time under Davies.

So much so that I thought I may be forced to evacuate the elegant Ivy Club, which is Davies’s central London hang-out and where he wrote the majority of his report.

I was exploring the question much discussed in the media that the report, coming soon after the Sun newspaper had switched allegiance to the Conservatives, was Gordon Brown’s revenge on Rupert Murdoch.

Davies, 61, denied there was any government interference.

He said: “I can say categorically that in no circumstances at any time did anyone remotely connected to government suggest anything to me.”

But what about his friendship with New Labour, in particular Alastair Campbell, an old lobby friend?

Does he not play tennis with him, were listed events not mentioned during the change-overs?

As I questioned Davies about his friendship with Campbell, he reached for my tape recorder and said: “Turn it off if we are going to go on like that about my friends.”

After he agreed that we could carry on with the interview, he was keen to embellish his Middle England credentials: grandfather – Conservative Mayor of Camden and father – a Tory parliamentary candidate.

He said: “I am always assumed to be left of centre, I suspect because I was at Sheffield University in the late 1960s but I have never belonged to a political party in my life.”

And as for his report being an attack on Murdoch’s empire, Davies pointed to the praise for Sky and said: “The coverage of sport in this country owes a debt to Sky Sport.”

Then, with a laugh, Davies added: “My report has not penalised Sky whatsoever. I earned more from Sky last year than I did from the BBC.”

Indeed, later in our conversation we were again interrupted, this time with Davies taking a call from Sky, where there was much mention of his future work for the channel.

But what about cricket’s response to his report that, in proposing delisting for the Ashes, he had got the economics wrong and did not care that the game’s grassroots would suffer if the Sky money dried up?

The Davies answer was: “We were not asked to look at the cost of sport. We were asked what should be the criteria for listing. Costs are for the secretary of state to deal with.”

If this is buck passing then Davies’s defence is that he would have had to prolong the report endlessly if he had looked into costs. And no figures were mentioned by any of the sports bodies which gave evidence to Davies.

In any case, said Davies, cricket is split on listing. “The MCC gave evidence which was significantly different to that from the England and Wales Cricket Board. The MCC wanted some cricket listed, in particular the Ashes Test at Lord’s.”

The Davies view on the subject is that “the whole event is the story” and that you cannot isolate a single Test in an Ashes series, which saw England captain Andrew Strauss (below) emerge victorious over the summer.

Australia lists its entire home Ashes series and for Davies the clinching argument was: “We are talking about a small number of events that create national resonance.

“For our generation, we could not get away from the fact that England v Australia has national resonance.”

In any event, he argues the digital switchover in 2012 will draw much of the sting from this very British debate. “Then, with free channels, Sky will be able to show a small number of events free to air and reach 94 per cent of people – it might even be more than that,” he added. “That would transform the situation overnight and obviate the need for any listed events remaining at all.” His personal wish is to get away from a government-imposed list to a voluntary code agreed between sports governing bodies and broadcasters. But he knows there is no magic solution. Magic wands are in even shorter supply when it comes to the problems of English football. Davies claims that the game in this country continues to be dysfunctional.

He said: “There are no agreed objectives for English football at all. You cannot tell me what the priorities of English football are. The FA, the Premier League and the Football League have built-in conflicts.

“There have always been tensions between the Premier League and the FA since the Premier League began. At the moment the divisions of the past are still visible.”

Davies shook his head in disbelief over the club-versus-country debate that re-emerged last week. Although it was an international week, England did not play a midweek international.

“And that was welcomed by the top clubs. But Holland, France, Germany and Spain were all playing. All these countries have players at our clubs. I find it somewhat strange that all the foreign players were away and all the English ones were back and the club managers are happy with that.”

Davies accepts his own responsibility – in his 12 years at the FA he did not sort out the dysfunctional national game.

He added: “There has been a failure of the generation of which I was part to agree a way forward.”

And now he even admits that the much-touted period of reform which saw the move from Lancaster Gate to Soho Square (the FA have since moved to Wembley) was “superficial”, an image change that included an unsuccessful attempt to abolish blazers for FA councillors. He is acutely aware of the consequences of such divisions for England’s 2018 World Cup bid. In the last few weeks this has seen crisis meetings leading to the bid board being drastically reduced in an effort to refocus England’s campaign.

Davies is in a particularly good position to judge the 2018 bid. He was at the heart of the FA when England made the unsuccessful attempt for the 2006 World Cup. That bid saw deals made with Jack Warner, the FIFA vice-president from Trinidad. It was his criticisms about 2018, in particular the cackhanded way his wife was given a Mulberry bag by the bid team, which sparked the recent crisis.

During the 2006 bid, Warner agreed to cast the three votes he controls on the FIFA executive for England in the first round.

But his support was conditional: if England did not get six votes in that round, in the next round he would withdraw his support. England only got five, Warner decamped and we went out in the second round.

As we talked of the 2006 experience, Davies said: “I ran campaigns at UEFA. You have to work very hard, press the flesh all the time, some people there are in constant election mode. Personal relationships matter.

“This bid won’t be won unless our personal relationships are strong.”

Davies also insisted that “World Cup bids are different to Olympics. You are dealing with 24 people rather than 100”. And he says that that makes it more like a golf club election.

He also is well aware that one of England’s problems is that we don’t have anyone like Franz Beckenbauer or Michel Platini, great players who have effortlessly moved from tracksuits to lounge suits.

Davies would very much like his friend David Dein, the former Arsenal vice-chairman who has been out of football for three years since he was removed from the board of the north London club, to be part of the bid.

“David Dein is one of the best connected people in world football and he is willing to offer his expertise.”

Those associated with 2018 have been talking to Dein but no arrangements have been made as he would like a role that extends beyond December 2010, when the vote on the bid takes place.

Davies is all too aware of the glacial pace at which the FA move.

He cannot conceal his disillusionment that the organisation he left the BBC for with such high hopes only made a real effort to change their governance as a result of the backlash created by the affairs his secretary Faria Alam had.

“What does it say about a national body that the Faria Alam affair led to a report on governance,” he said with a rueful smile.

Alam had affairs with Sven-Goran Eriksson, the then England manager, and Mark Palios, the former chief executive.

At her employment tribunal, she alleged that Davies sexually harassed her but the allegations were dismissed. At the height of the affair there was much talk of Alam having a third FA lover.

“I still get asked about the third person. I know who it wasn’t. It certainly wasn’t me.”

The one consolation the FA have provided Davies is that it helped him improve even his very generous BBC pension.

“I got a lot of money from my BBC pension scheme and took independent advice to move it to the FA. It was the best advice I ever had.”

It is this that helps Davies to be, as he puts it “a freelance pensioner”, ready to fight any fires in sport.


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