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The Sunday Telegraph

At around 4.40pm last Sunday afternoon, just as the players of Oxford United and York City, were getting ready for their big day at Wembley in the Conference Promotion play-off, there was a very different drama involving three much older men taking place in an office overlooking the pitch.

The three were Lord Triesman, the chairman of the FA, and two vice chairmen representing the coalition of the amateur and professional games that is the FA: Barry Bright, from the national game, and Sir David Richards, the Premier League chairman.

Bright and Richards had come from a FA board meeting which had been debating Triesman’s fate following a Mail on Sunday story. The newspaper alleged that Triesman had feared that Spain and Russia, England’s rivals for the 2018 World Cup, were trying to bribe referees in the World Cup.

Triesman knew he could not carry on as chairman of England’s 2018 bid but was desperate to cling to the FA chairmanship. Earlier he had chaired that emergency FA board meeting and told the board that, while the story was embarrassing, he was only making a “jocular remark” about the Spanish and Russians. He also categorically denied having had any sexual relations with the woman who had taped their private conversations. Before leaving the boardroom to allow his colleagues to discuss his fate he said he saw no problems in carrying on as chairman.

Now Richards and Bright had come to tell Triesman the board was unanimous that he had to go. As they pronounced sentence Triesman held his head in his hands. There was nothing to say and, unlike the board meeting, this one lasted barely two minutes.

It marked the end of an extraordinary 48 hours for the FA, which finished with them deciding that Triesman, who had made history as their first ever independent chairman, should himself become history.

Ironically, had Triesman not been so shell shocked when first contacted by the Mail on Sunday the FA’s lawyers may well have got an injunction to stop the story. Triesman is believed to have been made aware of the story around 10am on Saturday morning but it was not until Chelsea and Portsmouth were due to kick off in the FA Cup Final that FA officials heard what was being alleged.

The formalities of the final meant that Triesman was not confronted by Simon Greenberg and Adrian Bevington, the two media supremos of the 2018 bid and FA, in the boardroom until half-time. The conversation made him late for the second half – which left Prince William with an empty seat next to him. Although Triesman’s answers to Greenberg and Bevington were vague, the FA’s lawyers were confident that a legal challenge on the grounds of breach of confidence could be mounted but this could not be done before 6.30pm.

However, the judge selected for the hearing had to declare a conflict of interest as he knew Triesman and his wife socially. This left little time to mount another attempt at gagging, something that might have been possible had the FA been able to start the process earlier.

Change of strategy

The FA’s task now was damage limitation and was organised by a hastily-formed council of war which, apart from Greenberg and Bevington, included Andy Anson, the 2018 bid chief executive, and Alex Horne, the FA’s acting chief executive.

The strategy was to resolve the problem in one news cycle and project the message that while there had been a dreadful own goal it could still lead to an England win when the final whistle blows on the 2018 bid in December.

To do that the FA had to turn to Lord Coe, the 2012 London Olympics chairman who is also on the 2018 board, and Sir Keith Mills, the 2012 vice-chairman who is on the advisory board. While Coe reassured Fifa, Mills tackled Triesman. By the end of the day the FA was comforted that it had salvaged much from the wreckage but it meant abandoning a key Triesman strategy.

From the beginning Triesman not only wanted to lead the FA but also the bid. Now the two would be distinct as the choice of Geoff Thompson to head the 2018 bid emphasises.

Thompson’s position in Triesman’s FA had been extraordinary. He had led the FA for nearly a decade and took over after another FA crisis which had seen then chairman Keith Wiseman leave following the “cash for votes” scandal in 1999, but felt bitterly hurt by the way Triesman had hustled him out of the organisation. Despite being the only Englishman on the Fifa executive which will decide the bid, he was not even on Triesman’s original 2018 team.

Triesman was forced to bring him in after much internal squabbling last autumn but even then it required Mills and Coe soothing Thompson over a long dinner to persuade him to work with Triesman. Nevertheless their relations remained frosty and even on the Sunday it required all of Mills’s persuasive powers to get Thompson to accept the bid leadership.

Interestingly, Anson had initially proposed David Dein, the former Arsenal vice-chairman, as bid leader, but this was vetoed by Richards.

Both Thompson and Richards are from Sheffield and they have often shared a train to London but the two men have rarely seen eye to eye. Richards is known within the FA as the “lollipop man” for his habit of promising everything to everyone. During his time as FA chairman, Thompson could only watch as Richards built the Premier League as a rival, potent power centre. To add to his frustration the Blair government knighted Richards and Thompson found himself well regarded abroad but mocked at home and dubbed by FA insiders as “Uncle Albert” after the character in Only Fools and Horses.

Thompson’s true colours

Richards’s strategy in putting his rival in charge of the bid is clear. As one insider told me, “it is time for Geoff to show his colours”, and prove that as a Fifa insider he can deliver for England.

Thompson will have to work with Dein who in the last few months has earned thousands of air miles courting the Fifa executive. He had to do some more of it on Sunday when the only Fifa executive member present at Wembley, the Guatemalan Rafael Salguero, was keen to know what had suddenly happened to Triesman.

Yesterday in Madrid, as Inter Milan faced Bayern Munich in the Champions League final, Thompson, Dein, Anson and Greenberg were working the corridors of the Uefa hotel, busy with more explanations.

With Fifa investigating the Triesman allegations, there is also an offensive to charm Sepp Blatter, the Fifa president. And David Cameron, the Prime Minister, may also play a part in this. For the last few days No 10 has debated whether he should go to South Africa to boost the bid. But with Princes William and Harry and David Beckham already there, there is the feeling that his presence would be an overkill.

It is more likely that Blatter may be invited to No 10 after the World Cup with Cameron trying to do for the 2018 bid what Blair did for London 2012.

Although Richards has written to Blatter apologising for Triesman’s remarks he is not expected to play a part in the bid. His brief will be to select the next FA chairman. Two months ago he was held responsible for the sudden departure of chief executive Ian Watmore, now he is calling the shots. On Sunday it was Richards who proposed that Roger Burden and David Sheepshanks share the burden of the acting chairmanship.

Richards is well aware that voices within the FA feel that the experiment of an independent chairman has failed. When the FA Council met last week and Noel White, of Liverpool, said the post should go to a man of football and not an outsider members shouted “hear, hear”.

However, independent only means someone who has not been in football for 12 months and this could bring in Rick Parry, the former chief executive of Liverpool and the Premier League.

Horne to be chief executive

The worry for the FA is how the government might react to this.

Hugh Robertson, the new sports minister, has given football until the summer to sort itself out. He has also said that he expects the appointment of a new independent chairman.

Richards also has to tread carefully because the Conservative side of the new coalition government has little love for him. They have not forgotten that under his leadership the Premier League sponsored tables at a Labour Party function.

Where Richards and the FA board have more room for manoeuvre is in appointing a new chief executive. Here the crisis has strengthened the hand of Horne. He rescued Wembley four years ago and in this crisis Horne is said to have had a “good innings”. He was the first to realise on Saturday afternoon that Triesman had to go. The FA board meet next Thursday and there is a chance the meeting may confirm him as chief executive.

The FA sees its task as making sure that the bid is back on track and then worrying about who takes over as chairman after the World Cup.

      

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